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The Origin of Our Species

When and where did our species, Homo sapiens, evolve? Scientists are confident that we emerged in Africa, but they can't pinpoint exactly when, or who our immediate ancestors were. Unfortunately, hominid fossils from the crucial period between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago are quite rare. Just as in earlier eras, Africa at this time was home to a diverse array of hominids, but we know relatively little about them. Researchers must rely on isolated fossils from across Africa to piece together the origin of our species until more evidence is found.


Image courtesy of Chris Henshilwood & Francesco d'Errico

Found in Blombos Cave in South Africa, this piece of ochre decorated with geometric patterns is around 75,000 years old.

Evidence of Our Modern Behavior

Hominid fossils allow scholars to trace the evolution of the modern human body. It's more difficult to trace the evolution of modern human behavior--the creative spirit behind art, language and other forms of symbolic expression.

Until recently, the earliest evidence of modern behavior could be seen in the cave art of Europe, which dates back some 35,000 years. Some scientists once thought that the modern human body evolved in Africa, but modern behavior developed later in Europe. New discoveries, however, suggest modern behavior has African origins as well.

The Herto Skulls

DNA studies suggest that Homo sapiens had appeared by about 150,000 years ago, but for decades paleoanthropologists knew of no fossils of our species from around this time.

In 2003, researchers working at the Herto site in Ethiopia announced the discovery of Homo sapiens remains from 160,000 years ago. At the time of their discovery, these skulls were the oldest fossils ever identified as modern humans.


© AMNH Exhibitions

Examine the Evidence: Omo 1 skull

The skull known as Omo 1 has many features in common with modern human skulls, and many scientists classify it as Homo sapiens. Compare Omo 1 with an older African species, Homo heidelbergensis, and with a modern human.

North to South

After about 200,000 years ago, nearly modern humans lived across Africa. Two partial skulls were found on opposite ends of the continent: one in Morocco, and the other in South Africa. Paleoanthropologists don't know exactly where in Africa Homo sapiens first evolved.

Getting a Date

A partial skull, which had certain modern features, was discovered in Sudan in 1924. For decades, scientists were uncertain how old it was, making it difficult to place on the human family tree. Then in 1996, researchers determined a likely age of about 133,000 years, suggesting this hominid lived soon after the time our species first evolved.

Fragments of a Feast?

A collection of fossils found at the Klasies River Mouth cave in South Africa are charred and quite fragmentary. According to one view, the condition of the remains may indicate that these almost-modern humans practiced cannibalism.

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