NPR logo A Snapshot of Human Origins

A Snapshot of Human Origins

Homo habilis or "handy man." Stone tools found near H. habilis fossils have prompted scientists to put H. habilis in a genus that includes modern humans. The fossil shown here, found in Kenya, is about 1.9 million years old. Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History hide caption

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Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History

Homo erectus, or "upright man", had a far larger brain than earlier hominids, including H. habilis. The fossil shown here, found in China, is about 500,000 to 230,000 years old. NMNH, SI hide caption

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Homo heidelbergensis gets its name from a fossil found in Heidelberg, Germany. This species had a larger brain, and a face more modern in appearance than H. erectus. The fossil above, from Zambia, is between 300,000 and 125,000 years old. NMNH, SI hide caption

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The short limbs and bulky frames of Homo neanderthalensis, named after the Neander Valley in Germany, appear to be adaptations to the cold climate of Europe. The fossil shown here, found in France, is thought to be 70,000 years old. NMNH, SI hide caption

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Fossils found in Ethiopia share more characteristics with modern humans than any other fossils to date. The fossils, around 160,000 years old, have been placed in a new subspecies: H. sapiens idaltu. Idaltu means 'elder' in the Afar language. David L. Brill /Brill Atlanta hide caption

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David L. Brill /Brill Atlanta

Homo sapiens, or "wise man." This 30,000 year-old-fossil from France shows the modern traits of a high, rounded cranial cavity; lack of brow ridge; and forehead, eyes, nose and jaw on a nearly vertical plane. NMNH, SI hide caption

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Between 5 million and 7 million years ago in Africa, humans shared their last common ancestor with apes. On the path that leads to modern humans, the fossil record first shows hominids with protruding, ape-like faces and small brain cavities, but more human-like arms and legs. These early ancestors — the Australopithecines — spent a good part of their time walking upright — a crucial trait that separates them from their ape predecessors.

A major break happened around 2 million years ago, with the appearance of a hominid that warranted a new genus: "Homo." Earlier species in this genus still have ape-like, primitive faces with protruding jaws and brow ridges, but over hundreds of thousands of years, their brain sizes increase, teeth become smaller, and hand structure changes, allowing for a more precise grip — and thus toolmaking. A look at some of modern humans' most recent ancestors:

Homo habilis

2.4 million years ago to 1.5 million years ago

Homo habilis, which actually means "handy man," may have been the first species to make and use primitive stone tools. About five-feet-tall and weighing 100 pounds, H. habilis had a brain that was larger than the largest Australopithecus brain, but smaller than the Homo erectus brain.

Homo erectus

1.8 mya to 300,000 years ago

The first example of Homo erectus, known as "Java Man," was discovered in Indonesia in 1893. Fossil remains of H. erectus have since been found throughout Africa and Asia, making it the first known wide-ranging hominid. Despite the primitive appearance of its skull, the H. erectus skeleton is very similar to that of modern humans, although more robust (thicker and heavier). H. erectus was probably the first hominid to use fire.

Homo heidelbergensis

800,000 to 200,000 years ago

Sometimes classified as Homo sapiens archaic, this species contains a range of specimens that share features with both H. erectus and modern humans. In general, its brain was larger and more rounded than H. erectus, but smaller than that of a modern human. Fossil remains of H. heidelbergensis have been found in Africa and Europe.

Homo neanderthalensis

230,000 to 30,000 years ago

Neanderthals are classified by some as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis — a subspecies of H. sapiens. Averaging five-and-a-half feet in height and possessing short limbs, Neanderthals were well-adapted to living in a cold climate. Attached to their thick, heavy bones were powerful muscles. The Neanderthal brain cavity was larger than that of today's humans, but that may be related to the Neanderthals' greater bulk in general. Neanderthals were mostly found in Europe, and their skeletons show they lived brutal lives. Earlier theories suggested that modern humans are descended from Neanderthals, but most paleontologists have ruled out that idea. The fossil record suggests the two groups co-existed in some areas. Some speculate that Neanderthals interbred with modern humans, but genetic studies suggest the two groups didn't mate.

Homo sapiens idaltu


In the June 12, 2003 issue of Nature, a team led by Tim White reports finding fossils worthy of a new subspecies of Homo sapiens: Homo sapiens idaltu. The skull of an adult male found in Middle Awash, Ethiopia, is slightly larger than the upper limits seen in contemporary humans, but it shares more characteristics — in particular, less prominent brow ridges — with modern humans than any other fossils found to date.

Homo sapiens sapiens (modern)

120,000 years ago to present

Modern Homo sapiens, also known as Homo sapiens sapiens, have been around for at least the past 120,000 years. Homo sapiens living about 40,000 years ago made elaborate tools out of bone, antler, ivory, stone and wood, and produced artwork in the form of carvings and cave paintings. In the last 100,000 years, the fossil record shows that even among this species, there is a trend toward smaller tooth sizes and lighter body frames.

Sources: Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History, PBS