Modern reconstruction of world’s first modern human resemblance. It is estimated to be 160,000 years old and emanated from the continent, Africa. Displayed in Moesgaard Museum, Denmark.
Beginning with the common ancestor which humans share with anthropoids, the branch of human primates started also in Africa, probably 6 to 8 million years ago and reach up to modern man (who arose probably around 150,000 to 200,000 years ago and then spread to the rest of the world).
They were called Hominids, and are included in the superfamily of all apes, the Hominoidea, the members of which are called hominoids.
Man’s evolutionary tree is not a single, continuous line along time, as many people think. Scientists have evidence which indicated that, there were many “dead end” branches, with hominid species who died out without leaving descendants.
However, It’s very difficult to determine our direct evolutionary line, and there are still several missing links, not to mention that sometimes there is discordance among scientists about what constitutes the best guess.
Meanwhile, we know that our evolutionary line has had two main moments: the first and most ancient one was that of African hominids, which encompasses the Australopithecus genre. The second and most recent one is the Homo genre, including the extinct species which were almost surely our direct ancestors: Homo habilis and Homo erectus. They inhabited Africa earlier than 2 to 2.5 million years ago and their remains have been discovered in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and in Lake Turkana, in Kenya. Homo habilis, in accordance to its name, was the first species to manufacture tools and use fire.
Homo erectus was the first human to spread out of Africa to the world, including Europe, Middle East and Asia. This species became extinct in all locations except Africa, where it developed into the so-called archaic Homo sapiens (there is still a clear a missing link from H. erectus to H. sapiens). Therefore, Southern Africa seems to be the “cradle of humanity”.
Ancient Homo sapiens’ evolution was bolstered by the genetic isolation caused by deserts and mountains in that part of the continent. This species later spread out again to Africa, Europe, Asia, 200,000 and 100,000 years ago), where it evolved into Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (the Neanderthal man, an adaptation to cold environments, and which is not considered a direct ascendant to modern man, but rather a closely related species ), and modern Homo sapiens sapiens, an adaptation to the warm environment of Africa.
Scientists have recently announced the probable discovery of a common ancestor of both Neanderthals and modern man, named as Homo antecessor. It lived 800,000 years ago, in what is now Spain. Ultimately, Neanderthals succumbed 30,000 years ago, probably due to competition with Homo sapiens sapiens, or by interbreeding with it, or both.
The so-called “Out of Africa” model has also been supported by evidence from molecular biology. Studies of the mitochondrial DNA suggest that all modern humans originated from a small population living in Southern Africa. Since mitochondrial DNA only pass along feminine lines, this ancestor of ours has been nicknamed the “African Eve”.