Who Were Early Human Ancestors According to the Fossil Record?
Image Citation: 12019 (artist). (2013). Neanderthals Prehistoric Mountains [digital art]. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/photos/neanderthals-prehistoric-mountains-96507/
Piecing out the exact course of human evolution is kind of like trying to figure out the shape of a 1000 piece puzzle while only having 300 of the pieces. Every newly discovered fossil or piece of DNA evidence helps make the shape clearer, but it will likely be a long time before we have a full and detailed picture of exactly where we came from.
What we do know, is that the evolutionary lineage that would become modern humans diverged from the lineage of chimpanzees and bonobos about seven million years ago. It is a common misconception that humans evolved from chimpanzees; in reality we just shared a common ancestor with them.
According to the fossil record, our earliest human-like ancestors were apes that developed the ability to walk upright for extended periods of time. An example of this would be the famous “Lucy” or Australopithecus afarensis.
From these bipedal apes evolved our more recent ancestors: the members of the Homo genus. These species left behind artifacts that proved they created and utilized crude stone tools, setting them apart from earlier ancestors. Some famous examples of species in the Homo genus include Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo neanderthalensis (also known as Neanderthals).
Modern humans (also known as Homo sapiens) coexisted and even interbred with Homo neanderthalensis for a significant period of time. We know this because all modern human lineages, apart from those originating in Africa, contain evidence of Homo neanderthalensis DNA. There are even scientists that believe modern humans may have played a role in the eventual extinction of Homo neanderthalensis.
Understanding our own evolutionary lineage helps us to better conceptualize where we come from and who we are as a human species. This is why we continue to study fossil and DNA evidence to continue piecing together the puzzle of human evolution.