By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
About 6 million years ago, give or take a million, either way, came a moment when chimpanzees and hominins first began to separate off from one another. ‘Hominin’ means any species that is on the way to becoming human, including those that became extinct later. So, who were the early humans?
The moment when chimpanzees and hominins began to separate, was also the moment when our ancestors came down from the trees and began to move about on the ground. We don’t exactly know why they did this, but it may have been in response to the onset of an ice age, and they needed to be on the move. Or it may have been competition for diminishing resources or even that very human desire for change.
Learn more about being a paleolithic.
Australopithecus Afarensis: Earliest Known Hominin
The earliest incontrovertible fossil evidence for a hominian is 3 to 4 million years old and comes from East Africa. It’s called Australopithecus afarensis. Australopithecus means ‘southern (from the Latin) ape (from the Greek)’, which isn’t very logical. Afarensis derives from the fact that the most extensive remains of this species were discovered in the Afar region of Ethiopia, from a place called Hadar. So in a very real sense, we all come out of Africa.
The most famous example of Australopithecus afarensis is a fossil skeleton called Lucy. Lucy is an adult, who was found at Hadar in Ethiopia. It’s assumed she’s a female solely on the basis of her short stature—she’s only three feet seven inches (1.1 meters) tall.
She acquired the name Lucy because Donald Johanson and his colleagues, who dug her up, sung the Beatles’ song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds over and over again to celebrate their discovery. Johansen claimed that Lucy is the so-called missing link between ape and human, but we don’t know that for certain. In fact, the missing link is still missing.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.
The oldest traces of hominin footprints are slightly older than Lucy and were found at a place called Laetoli in Tanzania. They indicate that Australopithecus afarensis was capable of walking upright. A diorama in the American Museum of Natural History of New York depicts the two hominins who left the footprints, the male with his arm placed protectively over the shoulder of the female. It’s very affecting, and it may be our earliest evidence of what anthropologists call pair bonding, but to be fair, to be historically accurate, it’s only an artist’s impression.
Learn more about the daily life in the ancient world.
Homo Erectus: The Standing Man
Lucy and her australopithecine family were on the earth for about 3 million years. Around 1.8 million years ago a new type of hominin emerged in Africa, Indonesia, and China called Homo erectus (standing man)—the first ancestor in the Homo lineage that leads incontrovertibly to Homo sapiens (thinking man) or to us, in other words.
It was Homo erectus, who, as Bill Bryson notes, ‘was the first to hunt, the first to use fire, the first to fashion complex tools, the first to leave evidence of campsites, the first to look after the weak and the frail’.
We also know they looked after the weak and the frail because a skeleton has been found of a female with a crippling disease who had lived with the disease for weeks, possibly even months. Someone had cared for her all that time, 1 million years ago. Our ancestors already showed the virtue of compassion.
Homo Floresiensis of Indonesia
From Indonesia, too, comes evidence of a species of miniature humans—real-life hobbits, in other words, as they are affectionately called. The hobbits go by the name of Homo floresiensis—a reference to a small island called Flores, where a skull with a partial skeleton was discovered in a cave in 2004.
They came into existence about 80,000 to 100,000 years ago. They were approximately three feet tall and had small brains (about the size of an orange), but they made relatively sophisticated tools. Species that are confined to small islands often tend to be small as a result of having had to adapt to the limited resources available to them, so it’s quite likely that their diminutive size is due to natural selection.
Learn more about ancient hominids.
Tools of Early Humans
Firstly, we need to be aware that using and making tools are not exclusive to human beings. We share those characteristics with chimpanzees, as the British researcher Jane Goodall discovered 50 years ago, and with members of the crow family, who use sticks as tools and even break them to size. Even so, the manufacture of tools marks a huge advance in human evolution: It signals the origins of technological thought.
The very first stone tools we have found so far come from Tanzania and Ethiopia. One of the very earliest manufactured tools is a stone chopping tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania—part of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa. It’s estimated to be about 2 million years old. It can be dated that far back because it was taken from a layer of rock that had been formed that long ago.
If you’d been an early hominin, however, you wouldn’t have hunted. You would have fed on flesh that other animals had killed. You’d have used the stone chopper to strip away the flesh from the carcass, especially to obtain the bone marrow, which provides the most nutrition.
The time that elapsed between the separation from chimpanzees and the appearance of the earliest known hominins, followed by the time it took the early humans to develop technological thought, shows that evolution is a gradual process.
Early humans lived between 4 million and 80,000 years ago. They were already standing and walking upright, they showed signs of compassion and care for one another, and they had begun making rudimentary tools and using them. The Homo erectus was in many ways similar to us, but there were still certain crucial evolutionary leaps remaining, before the appearance of modern humans.
Common Questions about Early Humans in the Paleolithic Period
Hominin footprints were found at a place called Laetoli in Tanzania, which is slightly older than the Australopithecus afarensis fossil skeleton called Lucy found at Hadar in Ethiopia. These footprints indicate that Australopithecus afarensis was capable of walking upright. There’s a diorama in the American Museum of Natural History of New York, which depicts the two hominins who left the footprints.
Australopithecus afarensis is the earliest known hominin, for which we have incontrovertible fossil evidence. This fossil evidence is about 3 to 4 million years old. The most famous example of Australopithecus afarensis is a fossil skeleton called Lucy, who was found at Hadar in Ethiopia. Paleoanthropologists believe that chimpanzees and hominins first began to separate off from one another around 5 to 6 million years ago. So, if there were other hominin species between the separation and the appearance of Australopithecus afarensis, then we haven’t found evidence of it yet.
Early humans first appeared around 4 to 5 million years ago, with the appearance of Australopithecus afarensis. They lived for about 3 million years, and then around 1.8 million years ago a new type of hominian emerged in Africa, Indonesia, and China called Homo erectus. Homo erectus was the first ancestor in the Homo lineage that leads incontrovertibly to Homo sapiens, or to us.
Early humans knew how to make and use tools. These were primarily stone tools. The very first stone tools we have found so far comes from Tanzania and Ethiopia. It’s a stone chopping tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania—part of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa. It’s estimated to be about 2 million years old. Early humans didn’t hunt with these tools, they used them to strip away the flesh from carcasses, especially to obtain bone marrow. They also used the tools to pound and crush.