Student Corner World History

Human Origins in Africa

SETTING THE STAGE What were the earliest humans like? Many people have
asked this question. Because there are no written records of prehistoric peoples,
scientists have to piece together information about the past. Teams of scientists
use a variety of research methods to learn more about how, where, and when
early humans developed. Interestingly, recent discoveries provide the most
knowledge about human origins and the way prehistoric people lived. Yet, the
picture of prehistory is still far from complete.
Scientists Search for Human Origins
Written documents provide a window to the distant past. For several thousand
years, people have recorded information about their beliefs, activities, and

important events. Prehistory, however, dates back to the time before the inven-
tion of writing—roughly 5,000 years ago. Without access to written records, sci-
entists investigating the lives of prehistoric peoples face special challenges.

Scientific Clues Archaeologists are specially trained scientists who work like

detectives to uncover the story of prehistoric peoples. They learn about early peo-
ple by excavating and studying the traces of early settlements. An excavated site,

called an archaeological dig, provides one of the richest sources of clues to the
prehistoric way of life. Archaeologists sift through the dirt in a small plot of land.
They analyze all existing evidence, such as bones and artifacts. Bones might
reveal what the people looked like, how tall they were, the types of food they ate,
diseases they may have had, and how long they lived. Artifacts are human-made
objects, such as tools and jewelry. These items might hint at how people dressed,
what work they did, or how they worshiped.
Scientists called anthropologists study culture, or a people’s unique way of
life. Anthropologists examine the artifacts at archaeological digs. From these,
they re-create a picture of early people’s cultural behavior. (See Analyzing Key
Concepts on culture on the following page.)

Other scientists, called paleontologists, study fossils—evidence of early life pre-
served in rocks. Human fossils often consist of small fragments of teeth, skulls, or

other bones. Paleontologists use complex techniques to date ancient fossil remains
and rocks. Archaeologists, anthropologists, paleontologists, and other scientists
work as a team to make new discoveries about how prehistoric people lived.


In prehistoric times, bands of humans that lived near one another began to
develop shared ways of doing things: common ways of dressing, similar
hunting practices, favorite animals to eat. These shared traits were the first
beginnings of what anthropologists and historians call culture.
Culture is the way of life of a group of people. Culture includes common
practices of a society, its shared understandings, and its social organization.
By overcoming individual differences, culture helps to unify the group.

How Culture Is Learned

People are not born knowing about culture. Instead, they must learn
culture. Generally, individuals learn culture in two ways. First, they observe
and imitate the behavior of people in their society. Second, people in
their society directly teach the culture to them, usually through spoken
or written language.

Early Footprints Found In the 1970s, archaeologist Mary
Leakey led a scientific expedition to the region of Laetoli in
Tanzania in East Africa. (See map on page 10.) There, she
and her team looked for clues about human origins. In 1978,
they found prehistoric footprints that resembled those of
modern humans preserved in volcanic ash. These footprints

were made by humanlike beings now called australo-
pithecines (aw•stray•loh•PIHTH•ih•synz). Humans and other

creatures that walk upright, such as australopithecines, are
called hominids. The Laetoli footprints provided striking
evidence about human origins:

The Discovery of “Lucy” While Mary Leakey was working
in East Africa, U.S. anthropologist Donald Johanson and his
team were also searching for fossils. They were exploring
sites in Ethiopia, about 1,000 miles to the north. In 1974,

Johanson’s team made a remarkable find—an unusually com-
plete skeleton of an adult female hominid. They nicknamed

her “Lucy” after the song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
She had lived around 3.5 million years ago—the oldest
hominid found to that date.
Hominids Walk Upright Lucy and the hominids who left
their footprints in East Africa were species of australopithecines. Walking upright
helped them travel distances more easily. They were also able to spot threatening
animals and carry food and children.
These early hominids had already developed the opposable thumb. This means
that the tip of the thumb can cross the palm of the hand. The opposable thumb was
crucial for tasks such as picking up small objects and making tools. (To see its
importance, try picking up a coin with just the index and middle fingers. Imagine
all the other things that cannot be done without the opposable thumb.)

The Old Stone Age Begins

The invention of tools, mastery over fire, and the development of language are
some of the most impressive achievements in human history. Scientists believe
these occurred during the prehistoric period known as the Stone Age. It spanned a
vast length of time. The earlier and longer part of the Stone Age, called the Old

Stone Age or Paleolithic Age, lasted from about 2.5 million to 8000 B.C. The old-
est stone chopping tools date back to this era. The New Stone Age, or Neolithic

Age, began about 8000 B.C. and ended as early as 3000 B.C. in some areas. People
who lived during this second phase of the Stone Age learned to polish stone tools,
make pottery, grow crops, and raise animals.

Much of the Paleolithic Age occurred during the period in the earth’s history
known as the Ice Age. During this time, glaciers alternately advanced and retreated
as many as 18 times. The last of these ice ages ended about 10,000 years ago. By
the beginning of the Neolithic Age, glaciers had retreated to roughly the same area
they now occupy.
Homo habilis May Have Used Tools Before the australopithecines eventually
vanished, new hominids appeared in East Africa around 2.5 million years ago. In
1960, archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey discovered a hominid fossil at
Olduvai (OHL•duh•vy) Gorge in northern Tanzania. The Leakeys named the fossil
Homo habilis, which means “man of skill.” The Leakeys and other researchers
found tools made of lava rock. They believed Homo habilis used these tools to cut
meat and crack open bones. Tools made the task of survival easier.
Homo erectus Develops Technology About 1.6 million years ago, before Homo
habilis left the scene, another species of hominids appeared in East Africa. This
species is now known as Homo erectus, or “upright man.” Some anthropologists
believe Homo erectus was a more intelligent and adaptable species than Homo
habilis. Homo erectus people used intelligence to develop technology—ways of
applying knowledge, tools, and inventions to meet their needs. These hominids

gradually became skillful hunters and invented more sophisticated tools for dig-
ging, scraping, and cutting. They also eventually became the first hominids to

migrate, or move, from Africa. Fossils and stone tools show that bands of Homo
erectus hunters settled in India, China, Southeast Asia, and Europe.

According to anthropologists, Homo erectus was the first to use fire. Fire pro-
vided warmth in cold climates, cooked food, and frightened away attacking ani-
mals. The control of fire also probably helped Homo erectus settle new lands.

Homo erectus may have developed the beginnings of spoken language.
Language, like technology, probably gave Homo erectus greater control over the
environment and boosted chances for survival. The teamwork needed to plan hunts
and cooperate in other tasks probably relied on language. Homo erectus might have
named objects, places, animals, and plants and exchanged ideas.

The Dawn of Modern Humans

Many scientists believe Homo erectus eventually developed into Homo sapiens—
the species name for modern humans. Homo sapiens means “wise men.” While
they physically resembled Homo erectus, Homo sapiens had much larger brains.

Scientists have traditionally classified Neanderthals and
Cro-Magnons as early groups of Homo sapiens. However,
in 1997, DNA tests on a Neanderthal skeleton indicated that
Neanderthals were not ancestors of modern humans. They
were, however, affected by the arrival of Cro-Magnons, who
may have competed with Neanderthals for land and food.
Neanderthals’ Way of Life In 1856, as quarry workers
were digging for limestone in the Neander Valley in
Germany, they spotted fossilized bone fragments. These

were the remains of Neanderthals, whose bones were dis-
covered elsewhere in Europe and Southwest Asia. These

people were powerfully built. They had heavy slanted brows,
well-developed muscles, and thick bones. To many people,
the name “Neanderthal” calls up the comic-strip image of a
club-carrying caveman. However, archaeological discoveries
reveal a more realistic picture of these early hominids, who
lived between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago.
Evidence suggests that Neanderthals tried to explain and
control their world. They developed religious beliefs and
performed rituals. About 60,000 years ago, Neanderthals

held a funeral for a man in Shanidar Cave, located in north-
eastern Iraq. Some archaeologists theorize that during the

funeral, the Neanderthal’s family covered his body with
flowers. This funeral points to a belief in a world beyond
the grave. Fossil hunter Richard Leakey, the son of Louis
and Mary Leakey, wrote about the meaning

of this
Neanderthal burial:
The Shanidar events . . . speak clearly of a deep feeling for
the spiritual quality of life. A concern for the fate of the
human soul is universal in human societies today, and it was
evidently a theme of Neanderthal society too.

RICHARD E. LEAKEY, The Making of Mankind
Neanderthals were also resourceful. They survived harsh
Ice Age winters by living in caves or temporary shelters made

of wood and animal skins. Animal bones found with Neanderthal fossils indicate the
ability of Neanderthals to hunt in subarctic regions of Europe. To cut up and skin their
prey, they fashioned stone blades, scrapers, and other tools. The Neanderthals survived
for some 170,000 years and then mysteriously vanished about 30,000 years ago.
Cro-Magnons Emerge About 40,000 years ago, a group of prehistoric humans
called Cro-Magnons appeared. Their skeletal remains show that they are identical
to modern humans. The remains also indicate that they were probably strong and
generally about five-and-one-half feet tall. Cro-Magnons migrated from North
Africa to Europe and Asia.
Cro-Magnons made many new tools with specialized uses. Unlike
Neanderthals, they planned their hunts. They studied animals’ habits and stalked
their prey. Evidently, Cro-Magnons’ superior hunting strategies allowed them to
survive more easily. This may have caused Cro-Magnon populations to grow at a
slightly faster rate and eventually replace the Neanderthals. Cro-Magnons’

advanced skill in spoken language may also have helped them to plan more diffi-
cult projects. This cooperation perhaps gave them an edge over the Neanderthals.

New Findings Add to Knowledge

Scientists are continuing to work at numerous sites in Africa.

Their discoveries change our views of the still sketchy pic-
ture of human origins in Africa and of the migration of early

humans out of Africa.

Fossils, Tools, and Cave Paintings Newly discovered fos-
sils in Chad and Kenya, dating between 6 and 7 million years

old, have some ape-like features but also some that resemble

hominids. Study of these fossils continues, but evidence sug-
gests that they may be the earliest hominids. A 2.33-million-
year-old jaw from Ethiopia is the oldest fossil belonging to

the line leading to humans. Stone tools found at the same site

suggest that toolmaking may have begun earlier than previ-
ously thought.

New discoveries also add to what we already know about
prehistoric peoples. For example, in 1996, a team of
researchers from Canada and the United States, including a
high school student from New York, discovered a

Neanderthal bone flute 43,000 to 82,000 years old. This dis-
covery hints at a previously unknown talent of the

Neanderthals—the gift of musical expression. The finding
on cave walls of drawings of animals and people dating back

as early as 35,000 years gives information on the daily activ-
ities and perhaps even religious practices of these peoples.

Early humans’skills and tools for surviving and adapting to
the environment became more sophisticated as time passed.
As you will read in Section 2, these technological advances
would help launch a revolution in the way people lived.


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