Early Hominids of the Paleolithic Era
Hominids are the family that includes humans and our extinct ancestors. Archaeologists study fossils and artifacts that they find to learn about these ancient ancestors. Carbon dating is used to give the approximate ages of these fossils. When a fossil is found, scientists measure the amount of carbon-14 present in the sample and compare it against a reference standard.
So far, the oldest first human-like hominid to walk upright is the Australopithecus. The first Australopithecus fossils were discovered in 1924 in a quarry in South Africa. Following this, archaeologists working in Southern and Eastern Africa have found additional fossils. Australopithecus lived between 4 million and 2 million years ago. Australopithecines had 32 teeth, like modern humans but a much smaller brain than later hominids.
The most famous Australopithecus to be discovered was Lucy, a skeleton discovered by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson in 1974. Johanson and his team discovered that Lucy was bipedal (meaning she walked on 2 feet), had a human-like knee joint, and other human and ape-like characteristics.
The next fossils to be found belong to a hominid named “Homo habilis” and have also been found in Eastern Africa. Homo habilis lived from about 2.3 million to 1.6 million years ago. Their slightly larger brain size likely means that they were more intelligent .It is believed they were the first human-like creature to make stone tools. These early tools were very basic and included stone hammers, spears, and knives for hunting. This is why Homo habilis is called the “handy man”.
Homo erectus lived between 2 million and 1.6 million years ago. Homo erectus fossils have been found in Africa, Asia, and Europe, showing that these hominids migrated much further than earlier hominids like Homo Habilis. Homo erectus had a very human-like walk and body proportions. They were also the first human species to have a flat face, prominent nose, and sparse body hair. While smaller than modern humans, their brains were much larger than their hominid ancestors. They are thought to be the first human ancestor to use fire. They hunted in large groups, created art, and took to the sea in basic watercraft.
The next hominid we study is known as the Neanderthals. These emerged around 1 million years ago and lived in Eurasia until about 40,000 years ago. The first Neanderthal fossils were discovered in 1856 in Germany. For many years after, they were depicted as primitive and dumb, with a popular image of the caveman stereotype.
Modern science has found that Neanderthal technology was actually quite sophisticated. They created stone tools, used fire in stone ovens, and crafted simple clothes, blankets, and ponchos. They engaged in seafaring through the Mediterranean, made use of medicinal plants, and found ways to treat severe injuries. Neanderthals were likely capable of speech, possibly articulate, though it is unclear how complex their language would have been. They probably went extinct due to competition with modern humans or due to great climatic change, disease, or a combination of these factors.
The first modern humans found in Europe are known as the Cro-magnon man. They were anatomically alike to modern humans and lived about 48,000 t0 15,000 years ago They lived in Europe while the Neatherthals were still there and interbed. In fact modern scientists concluded that most Europeans and Asians have approximately 2% Neanderthal DNA. Indigenous sub-Saharan Africans have none, or very little Neanderthal DNA because their ancestors did not migrate through Eurasia.
Cro-magnon man lived in caves or small huts in the forest. Long houses made of stone or wood were also used for larger communities of 30-100 people. The paintings they created on cave walls have helped archaeologists learn about their lives and communities.