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General Biology

Human Evolution

bipedalism, earliest humans, paleoanthropology, beginnings of agriculture, behavioral traits

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>  The Process of Evolution

>  Characteristics, Classification, and Evolution of the Primates

>  The First Humans: Australophithecines

>  The Genus Homo

>  The Evolution of Cultural Behavior

Human Evolution, lengthy process of change by which people originated from apelike ancestors. Scientific evidence shows that the physical and behavioral traits shared by all people evolved over a period of at least 6 million years.

One of the earliest defining human traits, bipedalism—walking on two legs as the primary form of locomotion—evolved more than 4 million years ago. Other important human characteristics—such as a large and complex brain, the ability to make and use tools, and the capacity for language—developed more recently. Many advanced traits—including complex symbolic expression, such as art, and elaborate cultural diversity—emerged mainly during the past 100,000 years.

Humans are primates. Physical and genetic similarities show that the modern human species, Homo sapiens, has a very close relationship to another group of primate species, the apes. Humans and the so-called great apes (large apes) of Africa—chimpanzees (including bonobos, or so-called pygmy chimpanzees) and gorillas—share a common ancestor that lived sometime between 8 million and 6 million years ago. The earliest humans evolved in Africa, and much of human evolution occurred on that continent. The fossils of early humans who lived between 6 million and 2 million years ago come entirely from Africa.

Most scientists distinguish among 12 to 19 different species of early humans. Scientists do not all agree, however, about how the species are related or which ones simply died out. Many early human species—probably the majority of them—left no descendants. Scientists also debate over how to identify and classify particular species of early humans, and about what factors influenced the evolution and extinction of each species.

Early humans first migrated out of Africa into Asia probably between 2 million and 1.7 million years ago. They entered Europe somewhat later, generally within the past 1 million years. Species of modern humans populated many parts of the world much later. For instance, people first came to Australia probably within the past 60,000 years, and to the Americas within the past 35,000 years. The beginnings of agriculture and the rise of the first civilizations occurred within the past 10,000 years.

The scientific study of human evolution is called paleoanthropology. Paleoanthropology is a subfield of anthropology, the study of human culture, society, and biology. Paleoanthropologists search for the roots of human physical traits and behavior. They seek to discover how evolution has shaped the potentials, tendencies, and limitations of all people. For many people, paleoanthropology is an exciting scientific field because it illuminates the origins of the defining traits of the human species, as well as the fundamental connections between humans and other living organisms on Earth. Scientists have abundant evidence of human evolution from fossils, artifacts, and genetic studies. However, some people find the concept of human evolution troubling because it can seem to conflict with religious and other traditional beliefs about how people, other living things, and the world came to be. Yet many people have come to reconcile such beliefs with the scientific evidence.


Potts, Richard B., B.A., Ph.D.

Curator, Human origins Program - Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Author of ''Humanity's Descent: The Consequences of Ecological Instability''.

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