Glimpses of History #1: Early Humans

Australopithecus - Fossils of Early Humans The term australopithecine refers to any member of the extinct genus of human-like hominids Australopithecus, supposed to have existed between 4 million and 1 million years ago in southern and eastern Africa.

The most compete fossil material is known from the Ethiopian archaeological spot of Hadar, about 50 km (30 mi) north of Aramis, where deposits returned fossils dating between 3.4 and 2.9 Ma. In 1974, an incomplete skeleton was found and recognized as a female by its pelvic bones (and small size compared to other fossils) and nicknamed Lucy. This person would have stood only 3.5 ft (106 cm) tall and weighed possibly 65 lb (30 kg). In Ethiopia, the assembly is also known as Dinkinesh, which suggests “you are marvelous” in the Amharic language.

The history of human evolution expands both onwards and backwards from this point. Hominidae, the taxonomic ancestors that humans share with their closest living relatives, the great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos, the latter controversially proposed to be closer to Lucy than modern humans) shared a mutual ancestry up until rather recently in evolutionary terms, possibly distinguishing 6 million years or so ago. The first beings to walk erect easily seem to have been the Australopithecus genus, developing around 4 million years ago; they had smaller brains than even modern apes, and became destroyed perhaps 2 million years ago. However, they were capable of developing tools, and genus Homo (which involves contemporary humans) evolved from them.

Members of the family Hominidae, including our own species Homo sapiens, our supposed ancestors Homo erectus and Homo habilis, and forms believed to be intimately related called collectively the australopithecines. Many scientists now also incorporate the African great apes—the two chimpanzees and gorilla—in the human family, instead of grouping them with the more vaguely related Asian apes. The outmoded way of grouping the large apes (chimpanzees, gorilla, and orang-utan) is in their own family, Pongidae. Approximations of the date of divergence of the ape and human lineages vary.

The Asian apes undoubtedly branched off 8–12 million years ago and the African apes 10–5 million years ago. The stages of progress in which humans departed from ape-like ancestors and took on their current form required no less than five million years.

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