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Human Evolution

—By Karen Barss

The story of human evolution began in Africa about six million years ago and it describes the very long process that our ancestors went through to ultimately become modern humans. This process has been uncovered by studying fossils and understanding the underlying theory of evolution, and while new fossils are uncovered every decade revealing new chapters, scientists agree about the basic story.

What Is Evolution?
Evolution means the changes that occur in a population over time. In this definition, a “population” means a group of the samespecies that share a specific location and habitat. Evolutionary changes always occur on the genetic level. In other words, evolution is a process that results in changes that are passed on or inherited from generation to generation. It does not, for example, describe how people can change their muscle mass by lifting weights. When successful, these genetic changes or adaptations, which happen when genes mutate and/or combine in different ways during reproduction, help organisms survive, reproduce, and raise offspring. Some individuals inherit characteristics that make them more successful at surviving and having babies. These advantageous characteristics tend to appear more frequently in the population (because those individuals with less advantageous characteristics are more likely to die without reproducing), and over time these changes become common throughout that population, ultimately leading to new species.

This finding means chimps are the closest living biological relatives to humans. Other scientific theories include cell theory. The Relationship between Apes and Humans Since scientists developed the ability to decode the genome and compare the genetic makeup of species. What it does indicate is that humans share a common ancestor with modern African apes (i. all life is interconnected..” Evolution is in fact a theory. We are therefore related to these other living primates. In science.e. In everyday use. but we did not descend from them. making us very. which says that all living things are made up of cells. a scientific theory.” But among scientists. and can speak. Human brains are larger and more complex. but any two species may be separated by millions or even billions of years of evolution. the word has an entirely different meaning.The Tree of Life Biological evolution explains the way all living things evolved over billions of years from a single common ancestor. people have elaborate forms of communication and culture. gorillas and chimpanzees). So ultimately. the word theory often means a guess or a rough idea: “My theory is…” “I have a theory about that. This concept is often illustrated by the so-called tree of life. and heliocentric theory.5% of the genes in people and chimpanzees are identical. can manipulate very small objects. The fork separating one species from another represents the common ancestor that each pair of species shared. but it does not mean that humans evolved from chimps. Modern humans differ from apes in many significant ways. and people habitually walk upright. very distant cousins. Our Common Ancestor . which says the earth revolves around the sun instead of the other way around. Only a Theory? Some people dismiss evolution as “just a theory. some people have been stunned to learn that about 98. a theory is an overarching explanation used to describe some aspect of the natural world that is supported by overwhelming evidence. Every branch on the tree represents a species.

the fossil record does not represent a straight line of ancestry at all. when in fact the sequence of evolution is much more complicated. Then two species broke off into separate lineages. deciding which fossil represents that actual species is challenging if not impossible. In the millions of years that followed. entering Europe some time within the past 1 million years. all come from that continent. All living organisms have not been preserved in the fossil record. Even so. which is where much of human evolution occurred. In the popular imagination.7 million years ago. the other evolving into early humans called hominids. given that the fossil record will never be 100% complete. in fact. the word implies that evolution is a straight chain of events. but it is not actually a scientific term. What follows are some highlights of the early human species that have been identified by scientists to date. While scientists still do not know the total number of hominid species that existed. the fossil record provides a fairly good outline of human evolutionary history. the story of human evolution becomes clearer all the time. What about the Missing Link? The idea of a missing link has persisted. one ultimately evolving into gorillas and chimps.Most scientists believe our common ancestor existed 5 to 8 million years ago. Also. The fossils of these early hominids. Still others are most likely direct ancestors of modern humans or Homo sapiens. While scientists agree on the concept of a common ancestor. which lived 2 to 6 million years ago. because new fossils are discovered every decade. most have not because very specific conditions must exist in order to create fossils. The Fossil Record Fossils are the remains or impressions of living things hardened in rock. many of these early hominids left no descendents and simply died out. The earliest humans were found in Africa. although many of these species are close relatives but not actual ancestors of modern humans. at least a dozen different species of humanlike creatures have existed. this missing link would be the fossil of our common ancestor. Most scientists believe early humans migrated out of Africa into Asia between 2 million and 1. reflected in the fossil discoveries ofpaleoanthropologists. In fact. .

fibrous plants. Australopithicus afarensis.” in reference to South Africa where the first known fossils were found.2 million years ago. primarily tough. afarensis.Australopithecines An African apelike species evolved probably around 6 million years ago with two skeletal characteristics that set it apart from apes: small canine teeth (the teeth on either side of the four front teeth) compared to the long canines found in almost all other primates. Probably the best-known australopith specimen is “Lucy. is poorly documented in the fossil record. a species of the genus Kenyanthropus. The very early years of the transition from ape to human.7 million years ago. Lucy belongs to a species. and Aripithecus. Orrorin. and Chad. Ethiopia. By about 2. Fossils from different early australopith species that lived between 4 million and 2 million years ago show a variety of adaptations that mark this transition much more clearly. Several robust .” the partial skeleton of a female discovered in 1974 in Hadar. The name australopithecine means “southern ape. and. with wide molars and premolars and a facial structure that indicate that these robust australopiths chewed their food. In addition to fossilized bones of A. in countries including Ethiopia.9 million and 3 million years ago. so-called robust australopiths (in contrast to the earlier. The footprints provided irrefutable evidence that australopiths regularly walked upright. most importantly. Another very exciting A. Among the genera that are included in early australopith species areSahelanthropus. and four species of the genusAustralopithecus. gracile forms) had evolved. powerfully and for long periods. afarensis site was discovered in northern Tanzania at Laetoli. researchers in 1978 discovered trails of bipedal human footprints preserved in hardened volcanic ash over 3 million years ago. Tanzania. which thrived in eastern Africa between 3. Scientists have found several hundred A. Lucy lived 3. Many more australopith fossils have been found in the Great Rift Valley in eastern Africa. Kenya. bipedalism or walking on two legs as the primary mode of locomotion. afarensis fossils in Hadar. but those fossils that have been discovered document the most primitive combinations of ape and human features. from 6 million to 4 million years ago.

and the species may have survived for more than 1. evolved large and complex brains.000 years ago or a little earlier. Homo sapiens Scientists have dated the oldest known fossils with skeletal features typical of modern humans from 195. The final transition.5 million years ago. was their significantly larger brains (about 30 percent larger. They probably lived from between 2.000 years ago that .000 years ago. and much of Asia. although whether. from the middle to late periods. among them Homo habilis. and Israel. They probably overlapped with earlier Homo species. And it was not until about 40. middle.8 million years ago.species have been identified. how. Homo erectus was a very successful species of the middle period. happened about 200.3 million to 2.5 million years. The middle Homo species. why. and when this happened is still in dispute. South Africa. but they had smaller teeth and jaws. includingNeanderthals and Homo sapiens.5 or 2.6 million years ago. including Homo erectus.3 million and 1.000 years ago. evolved anatomically to be more similar to modern humans but their brains were relatively small (though bigger than australopiths). and hands capable of making tools. and developed culture as an increasingly important aspect of human life. more modern-looking feet. The most significant difference between members of this genus and australopiths. Europe. resembled australopiths in many distinct ways. Ethiopia. The Genus Homo The genus Homo first evolved at least 2. Species of earlyHomo. with which they overlapped. Late Homo species. Scientists divide the evolution of the modern human genus into three rough periods: early. fossils have been found throughout Africa. and late. Many scientists have therefore concluded that modern Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and began spreading to other parts of the world 90. and the last robust australopiths died out about 1. Early anatomically modern Homo sapiens fossils have come from sites in Sudan.4 million years ago. though still small compared to modern humans). as they developed perhaps between 2 million and 1. leading eventually to language.

although some scientists have discovered evidence that life may have begun nearly 4 billion years ago. Homo sapiens sapiens. which could not possibly have been formed by numerous. And yet." These beneficial mutations are passed on to the next generation. beneficial mutations accumulate and the result is an entirely different organism (not just a variation of the original. Natural selection is the preservation of a functional advantage that enables a species to compete better in the wild. is only about 40. as random genetic mutations occur within an organism's genetic code. scientists estimate that the earliest hominid species diverged from the ape lineage between 5 and 8 million years ago. Charles Darwin simply brought something new to the old philosophy -.a process known as "natural selection. leaving only the superior (advantaged) members of the species.4 million years old. The oldest known humanlike fossil has been dated at 4. Since that time. Similarly. human evolution has been primarily cultural as opposed to biological.. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Anaximander postulated the development of life from non-life and the evolutionary descent of man from animal. Darwin's Theory of Evolution .a plausible mechanism called "natural selection. Its offspring would inherit that advantage and pass it on to their offspring. Scientists believe Earth itself is approximately 4. human breeders have produced dramatic changes in domestic animal populations by selecting individuals to breed. natural selection eliminates inferior species gradually over time. not yet confirmed as a hominid. she can never take a great and sudden leap. successive.The Premise Darwin's Theory of Evolution is the widely held notion that all life is related and has descended from a common ancestor: the birds and the bananas." Natural selection acts to preserve and accumulate minor advantageous genetic mutations. That is. The oldest known fossils are about 3. the evolutionary worldview itself is as old as antiquity.Slowly But Surely. emerged.anatomically modern humans. but an entirely different creature). Putting Human Evolution in Perspective Humans have existed for only a tiny fraction of Earth’s history.55 billion years old. Darwin's Theory of Evolution ." [2] Such a complex organ . Breeders eliminate undesirable traits gradually over time. Darwin's general theory presumes the development of life from non-life and stresses a purely naturalistic (undirected) "descent with modification". complex creatures evolve from more simplistic ancestors naturally over time. Natural selection is the naturalistic equivalent to domestic breeding. Darwin's Theory of Evolution . "…Natural selection acts only by taking advantage of slight successive variations.Natural Selection While Darwin's Theory of Evolution is a relatively young archetype. the beneficial mutations are preserved because they aid survival -. slight modifications. Darwin's Theory of Evolution is a slow gradual process. the fishes and the flowers -. the species to which we belong. Homo sapiens sapiens.000 years old. In a nutshell. my theory would absolutely break down. "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed. The inferior (disadvantaged) members of the same species would gradually die out. but must advance by short and sure. Suppose a member of a species developed a functional advantage (it grew wings and learned to fly). has been dated at about 6 million years old." [1] Thus. Over the centuries.all related. As mentioned earlier.5 billion years old. Darwin conceded that. although another species. Darwin wrote. though slow steps.. Over time. Dinosaurs walked Earth between 230 and 65 million years ago.

and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration. weighing less than 10 grams. "To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances. and elaborate cultural diversity -." [6] Introduction to Human Evolution Human evolution Human evolution is the lengthy process of change by which people originated from apelike ancestors. art. One of the earliest defining human traits.such as a large and complex brain. "Although the tiniest bacterial -12 cells are incredibly small.would be known as an "irreducibly complex system". It is composed of five basic parts: a catch (to hold the bait). [3] Thus. a thin rod called "the hammer. and the capacity for language -developed more recently. Each individual part is integral. Molecular biologist Michael Denton wrote.000 years. Darwin confessed. the ear and the heart are all examples of irreducible complexity. could have been formed by natural selection. Scientific evidence shows that the physical and behavioral traits shared by all people originated from apelike ancestors and evolved over a period of approximately six million years. each is in effect a veritable micro-miniaturized factory containing thousands of exquisitely designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery. the mechanism will not work. far more complicated than any machinery built by man and absolutely without parallel in the non-living world. for admitting different amounts of light. all of which are necessary for the system to function. though they were not recognized as such in Darwin's day. We now know that there are in fact tens of thousands of irreducibly complex systems on the cellular level. If even one part is missing. The eye. ." [5] And we don't need a microscope to observe irreducible complexity. seems. An irreducibly complex system is one composed of multiple parts. piece by piece. made up altogether of one hundred thousand million atoms. Specified complexity pervades the microscopic biological world. Every individual part is integral.including complex symbolic expression. I freely confess.A Theory In Crisis Darwin's Theory of Evolution is a theory in crisis in light of the tremendous advances we've made in molecular biology. absurd in the highest degree. The mousetrap is irreducibly complex. If any one of these parts is missing. Many advanced traits -. bipedalism -. the entire system will fail to function.emerged mainly during the past 100. such a system could not have evolved slowly. [4] Darwin's Theory of Evolution . Nevertheless.the ability to walk on two legs -evolved over 4 million years ago. The common mousetrap is an everyday non-biological example of irreducible complexity. a powerful spring." a holding bar to secure the hammer in place. and a platform to mount the trap. the ability to make and use tools. Other important human characteristics -. biochemistry and genetics over the past fifty years.

Humans first evolved in Africa. Scientists do not all agree. about how these species are related or which ones simply died out. society. the apes. Early humans first migrated out of Africa into Asia probably between 2 million and 1. and limitations of all people. Humans and the great apes (large apes) of Africa -. body form. Most scientists currently recognize some 15 to 20 different species of early humans. and biology.chimpanzees (including bonobos.Homo sapiens. The fossils of early humans who lived between 6 and 2 million years ago come entirely from Africa. physiology. Scientists also debate over how to identify and classify particular species of early humans. For many people. Species of modern humans populated many parts of the world much later. For instance.certainly the majority of them – left no living descendants. The beginnings of agriculture and the rise of the first civilizations occurred within the past 12.5 million and 1 million years. Paleoanthropology is a subfield of anthropology. Paleoanthropologists search for the roots of human physical traits and behavior. and about what factors influenced the evolution and extinction of each species.8 million years ago. has a very close relationship to another group of primate species.000 years. people first came to Australia probably within the past 60. They entered Europe somewhat later. and behavior.000 years and to the Americas within the past 30. Paleoanthropology Paleoanthropology is the scientific study of human evolution.Humans are primates.000 years or so. tendencies. or so-called “pygmy chimpanzees”) and gorillas -. Physical and genetic similarities show that the modern human species. between 1. the study of human culture. The field involves an understanding of the similarities and differences between humans and other species in their genes. however. They seek to discover how evolution has shaped the potentials. .share a common ancestor that lived between 8 and 6 million years ago. and much of human evolution occurred on that continent. Many early human species -.

some people find the concept of human evolution troubling because it can seem not to fit with religious and other traditional beliefs about how people. rivers. or butchery marks on animal bones) left by earlier people. In animals that reproduce sexually. Scientists classify each species with a unique. and wind erosion) or by digging in the ground. including humans. archeologists can understand how early humans made and used tools and lived in their environments. evidence of hearths. and become extinct. These remains include bones. shape. two-part scientific name. held tools. They are then found either on the surface (exposed by rain. The process of evolution The process of evolution involves a series of natural changes that cause species (populations of different organisms) to arise. Early human fossils and archeological remains offer the most important clues about this ancient past. tools and any other evidence (such as footprints. All species or organisms have originated through the process of biological evolution. adapt to the environment. In this system. Nevertheless. many people have come to reconcile their beliefs with the scientific evidence. scientists learn about the physical appearance of earlier humans and how it changed.paleoanthropology is an exciting scientific field because it investigates the origin. By studying fossilized bones. and how the size of their brains changed over a long time. and the world came to be. the term species refers to a group whose adult members regularly interbreed. Archeological evidence refers to the things earlier people made and the places where scientists find them. offspring themselves capable of reproducing. and markings left by muscles tell us how those predecessors moved around.that is. By studying this type of evidence. Usually. over millions of years. of the universal and defining traits of our species. modern humans are classified as Homo sapiens. . resulting in fertile offspring -. the remains were buried and preserved naturally. other living things. However. Bone size.

the chemical molecule. Information contained in the DNA can change by a process known asmutation. The way particular genes are expressed – that is. and ultimately these changes become common throughout a population. Instead. and especially in the proportions of different genes in a population. As a result. Human evolution took place as new genetic variations in early ancestor populations favored new abilities to adapt to environmental change and so altered the human way of life . and this is why genetically inherited characteristics can influence the likelihood of an organism’s survival and reproduction.can also change.which is inherited from the parents. Over time. DNA -. how it grows. Genes represent the segments of DNA that provide the chemical code for producing proteins. the offspring inherit those genetic characteristics that enhance their chances of survival and ability to give birth. such as what it eats. how they influence the body or behavior of an organism -. and where it can live. which may work well until the environment changes. genetic change can alter a species' overall way of life. Parents pass adaptive genetic changes to their offspring.Evolution occurs when there is change in the genetic material -. Evolution does not change any single individual. Genes affect how the body and behavior of an organism develop during its life. it changes the inherited means of growth and development that typify a population (a group of individuals of the same species living in a particular habitat).