Origin of Man

Tracing the origins of man is a favorite activity among anthropologists and archaeologists. Although they have now found hundreds of fossils of our ancestors, they still argue over where the original home of the first hominids was actually located.

Originally, it was believed that the home of the first hominids was in Asia. Then in the 1960’s the Leakey family made a series of discoveries which seemed to indicate that humans originated in Africa. This led to the popular “Out of Africa” theory of human evolution, which is still widely accepted in modern biology and anthropology to this day. Lately, there has been a movement toward the “multi-regional” hypothesis of human evolution, though most experts dispute the validity of this hypothesis.

Most likely, there is a grain of truth to both. One thing that is clear is that the earliest hominid fossils have been discovered in East Africa. Here are some of the more famous fossils you may recognize:

1. Homo rudolfensis

This is perhaps the oldest known hominid, estimated at 1.9 million years old. Only one skull of this unique species has been found, in Kenya.

2. Homo egaster

There have been tons of Homo egaster fossils found around Eastern and Southern Africa. Most of them date from between 1.4-1.9 million years ago. Egaster is thought to have been the direct ancestor of Homo erectus.  

3. Homo habilis

Homo habilis means “handy man”. At the time of his discovery, he was the earliest known hominid to use tools. Homo habilis lived in Africa between 1.4 and 1.7 million years ago.

4. Homo erectus

Homo erectus was probably the most successful hominid species. Beginning from Africa, the species spread throughout Asia and Europe. It is thought that Homo erectus was a direct ancestor to both humans and Neanderthals. Homo erectus flourished for almost 2 million years.

5. Homo neanderthalensis

These were our cousins who lived on the European continent. Neanderthals had rugged bodies designed to withstand the cold winters of Northern Europe. Despite their reputation for stupidity, Neanderthals actually had the largest brain of any hominid species. The last Neanderthal died less than 30,000 years ago.

Scientists who support the multi-regional hypothesis generally propose that the Homo erectus species slowly evolved into Homo sapiens simultaneously in Europe, Asia, and Africa through a process known as gene-flow. Out of Africa theorists believe that humans evolved in a small pocket within Africa, and then spread into Europe and Asia – replacing/killing the Homo erectus inhabitants. At this point, it is tough to draw any definitive conclusions about the home of the first hominids. There are good arguments on both sides of the debate.