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How Did Humans Evolve?

March 5, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

The story of human origins is complicated since our ancestors swapped genes (and probably skills).

The first humans emerged in Africa around two million years ago, long before the modern humans known as Homo sapiens appeared on the same continent.

There’s a lot anthropologists still don’t know about how different groups of humans interacted and mated with each other over this long stretch of prehistory. Thanks to new archaeological and genealogical research, they’re starting to fill in some of the blanks.

The First Humans

Homo habilis individuals chip away at rocks, sharpening them for cutting up game or scraping hides while a woman, with her child, gathers wild berries to eat and branches to make shelters.

First things first: A “human” is anyone who belongs to the genus Homo (Latin for “man”). Scientists still don’t know exactly when or how the first humans evolved, but they’ve identified a few of the oldest ones.

One of the earliest known humans is Homo habilis, or “handy man,” who lived about 2.4 million to 1.4 million years ago in Eastern and Southern Africa. Others include Homo rudolfensis, who lived in Eastern Africa about 1.9 million to 1.8 million years ago (its name comes from its discovery in East Rudolph, Kenya); and Homo erectus, the “upright man” who ranged from Southern Africa all the way to modern-day China and Indonesia from about 1.89 million to 110,000 years ago.

In addition to these early humans, researchers have found evidence of an unknown “superarchaic” group that separated from other humans in Africa around two million years ago. These superarchaic humans mated with the ancestors of Neanderthals and Denisovans, according to a paper published in Science Advances in February 2020. This marks the earliest known instance of human groups mating with each other—something we know happened a lot more later on.

Early Humans, Neanderthals, Denisovans Mixed It Up

After the superarchaic humans came the archaic ones: Neanderthals, Denisovans and other human groups that no longer exist.

Archaeologists have known about Neanderthals, or Homo neanderthalensis, since the 19th century, but only discovered Denisovans in 2008 (the group is so new it doesn’t have a scientific name yet). Since then, researchers have discovered Neanderthals and Denisovans not only mated with each other, they also mated with modern humans.

“When the Max Plank Institute [for Evolutionary Anthropology] began getting nuclear DNA sequenced data from Neanderthals, then it became very clear very quickly …read more

Source: HISTORY