Teaching Students About the Timeline of Human Evolution

What is human evolution?

Evolution is the scientific study of changes in the characteristics of a group of organisms throughout successive generations. For example, in studying human evolution, scientists have theorized that modern human beings evolved from human-like species and other non-human primates that came before us but have now become extinct.

The theory of human evolution is centered around natural selection, accredited to the famous naturalist Charles Darwin. Natural selection is the process by which an organism’s genetic makeup changes over time to allow it to become better suited to survive in its environment. Darwin was a pioneer in the field of human evolution. One of the key takeaways from Darwin’s theories is that all living organisms on Earth share a common ancestor. Moreover, Darwin suggested that apes are the last common relatives of human beings today.

The genetic evidence was collected surrounding Darwin’s claims about the links between apes and the timeline of human evolution. This, in time, has allowed scientists to work out the exact level of similarity between the genetics of apes and humans, which sits around 94%.

Introduction to human evolution

The transition from apes to humans began with the ability to walk on two legs. This is called bipedalism. One of the earliest ancestors of human beings, whom we will explore more deeply later on in this wiki, was the Sahelanthropus tchadensis. The Sahelanthropus tchadensis began to transition into two-legged walking around 6 million years ago. Homo sapiens, the species that all humans currently belong to, did not come about for approximately 5 million years after this transition occurred. During this significant gap in the timeline of human evolution, many different species lived, evolved, and died. These species gradually changed over time, becoming more developed, more intelligent, and, overall, better suited to live in the world.

From what scientists have gathered, Homo sapiens is believed to have originated on the continent of Africa. Studies suggest that different groups of our human ancestors were scattered across Africa, all living separately from one another until the changing climate forced them to intermingle.

The timeline of human evolution

So, now we know what human evolution is, we can get into the details of the timeline of human development. It all began a long time ago, 55 million years ago, to be exact…

55 million years ago

The first-ever primitive primates begin to evolve.

8 to 6 million years ago

The first-ever gorillas evolve. After this, the different chimp and human lineages begin to separate.

5.8 million years ago

Bipedalism is introduced, as the oldest-known human ancestor is believed to have begun walking on two legs. This ancestor is the species, Orrorin tugenensis.

5.5 million years ago

The primate, Ardipithecus, has common traits with chimpanzees and gorillas. This species lives in forest areas.

4 million years ago

A species of primates known as Australopithecines pop up. These primates have similar-sized brains to chimpanzees but walk bipedally on two hind legs. The Australopithecines are the first human ancestors to have lived in Savannah.

3.2 million years ago

A group of skeleton fossils discovered in East Africa in 1974 shows a specimen of Australopithecus afarensis living in Hadar, Ethiopia. This specimen has since been given the nickname Lucy.

2.7 million years ago

The primate species Paranthropus lived in woods and grasslands at this time. These primates had massive jaws that they would use for eating roots and tough vegetation. Around 1.2 million years ago, this species became extinct.

2.5 million years ago

The species, Homo habilis, appears. This species shares many features with apes but has a less protruding face. During this time, hominids also began to use stone tools frequently, which they would make by splitting pebbles. Certain hominids also began to develop very meat-heavy diets at this point in the timeline of human evolution. This increase in meat consumption, and the consequent boost in energy that followed, allowed hominids to develop larger brains.

2 million years ago

Evidence of the primate Homo ergaster has been found in Africa dating back to this time. This primate had an increased brain volume than earlier species.

1.8 to 1.5million years ago

The species, Homo erectus, is found in Asia. These primates are the first examples we have of hunter-gatherers. They were also the first to migrate in large numbers outside of Africa. This species’s brain size is still bigger, at a volume of around 1000 cm3.

1.6 million years ago

This stage in history is believed to have marked the first use of fire, based on evidence found in Kenya. Also, more complex stone tools were being created and used then. These tools remained the most popular technology for early humans until around 100,000 years ago.

600,000 years ago

At this time, the species, Homo Heidelbergensis, lives in Africa and Europe. This primate species had a similar brain capacity to what we have today.

500,000 years ago

The earliest evidence of purpose-built shelters can be traced back to this time. The shelters were wooden huts that were found near Chichibu in Japan.

400,000 years ago

Early humans start using spears in their hunting.

325,000 years ago

The earliest evidence of human footprints can be traced back to 325,000 years ago. These footprints are believed to have been left by three people clambering down the slopes of a volcano in Italy.

280,000 years ago

The first complex stone blades and grinding stones are created.

230,000 years ago

It is at this point that Neanderthals begin to appear. They are found across Europe, all the way from Britain to Iran. They eventually became extinct when modern humans took over around 28,000 years ago.

195,000 years ago

This is the first time modern human beings as we know them, i.e., Homo sapiens, appear. Homo sapiens migrate across Asia and Europe. The earliest evidence of the remains of Homo sapiens date back to this period. The remains were two human skulls that were found in Ethiopia. At this time, the average brain capacity for Homo sapiens was 1350 cm3.

170,000 years ago

The direct ancestor of all modern human beings alive today is believed to have been living in Africa at this time. Scientists have called this ancestor Mitochondrial Eve.

150,000 years ago

Human beings develop the ability to speak. Evidence has shown that Homo sapiens developed a complex system of speech and symbolism at this time.

140,000 years ago

The first evidence of long-distance trade can be traced to 140,000 years ago.

50,000 years ago

It is at this point in the timeline of human evolution that human culture starts to develop at a much faster rate. Some cultural changes involved introducing ritually burying the dead, making clothes from animal skin, and creating more strategic, effective hunting techniques.

33,000 years ago

The earliest evidence of cave art can be traced to 33,000 years ago. Homo erectus became utterly extinct in Asia and was replaced by modern humans.

18,000 years ago

A species of tiny, archaic humans known as Homo Floresiensis live on the Indonesian island of Flores. These early humans are just over a meter tall and have similarly sized brains to chimpanzees. These humans, unlike chimpanzees, however, did have advanced stone tools.

12,000 years ago

Modern humans make it to the Americas.

10,000 years ago

Agriculture began to develop and quickly became a widespread practice. The rise in agriculture also links to the establishment of the first villages. It is also possible that dogs were first domesticated and kept as pets during this period.

5,500 years ago

The Stone Age comes to an end, and the Bronze Age begins. With the beginning of a new age, humans started to work in copper and tin instead of the stone tools they had used in previous years.

5,000 years ago

This period brings the earliest known example of writing.

4,000 to 3,500 years ago

The Ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia develop the world’s first-ever civilization.

Critical stages in the timeline of human evolution

There are seven essential stages of the history of human development. They are as follows:

  1. Dryopithecus: Thought to be the ancestors of both humans and apes.
  2. Ramapithecus: Lived primarily in open grasslands. They are officially classed as hominids.
  3. Australopithecus: Lived on the ground, using stones as weapons, and walked bipedally.
  4. Homo Erectus: Viewed as the species that linked humans and apes.
  5. Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis: As the Homo Erectus developed into Homo sapiens, two subspecies of Homo sapiens came into existence. One of these species was Homo sapien, Neanderthal.
  6. Homo Sapiens Sapiens: The other subspecies of Homo sapiens was Homo sapiens sapiens.
  7. Homo sapiens: This is the species of all human beings living today.
Choose your Reaction!