The Stone Age and Before - Archaeology and Paleontology

Top Ten Things to Know about Evolving Into a Human Being

During the Stone Age, or Paleolithic Period (300,000-10,000 years ago), our ancestors evolved into people who could make tools, communicate with one another, live and hunt in groups, and build houses. But of course, we had to make it through the previous 6 million years! 

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Toumaï - Ancient Ancestor Sahelanthropus tchadensis

Discovery of the Skull of the Earliest Member of the Human Family
Researchers Ahounta Djimdoumalbaye, Michel Brunet, and Mackaye Hassane Taisso (R-L), examining the skull of the 6-7 million year old fossil of Toumai. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

One of the earliest of our ancestors to be tied (however tenuously) to the Homo species is Toumaï,  a 6-7 million-year-old ape from the Miocene era. While its status as an ancient hominid ancestor is somewhat in debate, Toumaï's significance as the oldest and best preserved of any ape form known from the ancient Miocene period is undeniable.

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Ardipithecus ramidus - An Ancient Human Ancestor Surprises Us

Probable Life Appearance of Ardipithecus ramidus
Probable Life Appearance of Ardipithecus ramidus. Illustrations © 2009, J.H. Matternes

Ardipithecus ramidus is a 4.4 million-year-old ancestor of ours first discovered in 1994. The creature was a tall fellow with a predominantly plant-based diet.

Ardi (as the scientists affectionately call him) lived in a woodland environment, and he both walked on the ground in an erect, bipedal manner and climbed trees. This slideshow gives you a detailed look at the surprisingly advanced features of this ancient ancestor of ours, particularly Ardi's hands and feet. 

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Lucy (AL 288) - Australopithecus Skeleton from Ethiopia

Replica of 'Lucy' (Australopithecus afarensis).
Replica of 'Lucy' (Australopithecus afarensis). Ariadne Van Zandbergen / Getty Images

The discovery of the 3 million-year-old fossil Australopithecene known as Lucy nearly single-handedly created a huge spike in public interest in human evolution, beginning with her discovery in the 1970s.

Since then, over 400 other A. afarensis fossils have been found in the region, and they and many other hominin species owe our keen interest in them, if not their discovery, to the scholars who reported Lucy.  

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Paleolithic - Study Guide, Chronology of the Stone Age

Chauvet Cave Lions
Photograph of a reproduction of a group of lions, painted on the walls of Chauvet Cave in France, at least 27,000 years ago. HTO

The Paleolithic period (or Stone Age) is the broad name for the period during which hominins—our direct ancestors—first started making tools. Oh, the things we've learned since then!

This period (roughly 3 million to 10,000 years ago) is further split into Lower Paleolithic (or Early Stone Age, 3 million-300,000 years ago), the Middle Paleolithic (Middle Stone Age, about 300,000-45,000 years ago) and the Upper Paleolithic (or late Stone Age, 45,000-10,000 years ago).

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What Is a Hominin? - A Reassessment of Our Ancient Family Tree

A Comparison of Gracile and Robust Hominin Skulls
Where will H. Naledi fit in with this collection of gracile and robust australopiths with early homo skulls?. NOVA / PBS

The word "hominin" is a term used by paleoanthropologists to refer to the ancient species who are currently thought to be related to us: the Homo species, Neanderthals, Denisovans, Flores, Australopithecus, Ardipithecus, and Paranthropus.

Some—but not all—scholars stopped using "hominid" to refer to our species ancestors because new sources of information made them recognize that our understanding of human evolution has evolved itself.

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Laetoli - 3.5 Million Year Old Hominin Footprints

Palaeoanthropologist Mary Leakey is seen here at the end of the trail of hominid footprints fossilized in volcanic ash.
Palaeoanthropologist Mary Leakey is seen here at the end of the trail of hominid footprints fossilized in volcanic ash. JOHN READER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

The Laetoli footprints were pressed into the muddy volcanic ash fall by our hominin ancestors Australopithecus afarensis nearly 4 million years ago.

They represent the oldest preserved human footprints yet discovered and have provided us modern types with a wealth of information about the three individuals who walked there such a long time ago. 

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Who Were the Denisovans? A Newly Identified Hominid Species

Entrance to the Denisova cave in southern Siberia, Russia.
Entrance to the Denisova cave in southern Siberia, Russia. Image courtesy of Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

We don't know very much about what our Denisovan ancestors looked like because the physical evidence scholars have found to date is limited to fragments of bone and teeth.

But those fragments discovered in Denisova Cave were found to have contained ancient DNA, which clearly indicates that these people were a different species from Neanderthals or Early Modern Humans. Recent research has shown that some of us living today share some DNA with them. 

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Neanderthals: Overview and Study Guide

Neanderthal Reconstruction, Neanderthal Museum, Erkrath Germany
Neanderthal Reconstruction, Neanderthal Museum, Erkrath Germany. Jakob Enos

Although we have a very ancient ancestor in common, early modern humans and Neanderthals evolved separately, humans in Africa, Neanderthals probably in Europe or western Asia, a division not truly seen until the advent of research into ancient DNA.

What that DNA has shown us is that even though the Neanderthals died out some 30,000 years ago, some of us have a bit of Neanderthal DNA in our genetic makeup. 

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Why Don't We Call Them Cro-Magnon Any More?

Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon 1 skulls
Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon skulls. The Neanderthal skull (left) was found at La Ferrassie, France, in 1909, and is thought to be around 70, 000 years old. The other skull is Cro-Magnon 1, found as Les Eyzies, France, in 1868, and dated to 30, 000 years ago. JOHN READER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

What scientists now call Early Modern Human or Anatomically Modern Human is what they used to call Cro-Magnon man: a somewhat archaic version of ourselves, who evolved in Africa and then spread out to colonize the world.

Our EMH/AMH ancestors had some characteristics which made us more successful than the Neanderthals and Denisovans: but what those characteristics were is hotly debated.  

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Shell Beads and Behavioral Modernity

Bone and Tusk Artifacts from Border Cave
Bone and Tusk Artifacts from Border Cave. Image courtesy of Francesco d’Errico and Lucinda Backwell

Sometime during the Paleolithic period, there was clearly a fire—or several fires—lit that led down to the variety, intelligence, and adaptability seen in the modern human species.

The things that led to those traits are called more generally "modern human behaviors" and we can trace their starting point back at least 130,000 years in South Africa. One key artifact of modern behavior is the use of personal decoration—which probably explains why so many of us still love our bling.