Timelines, Images, and Descriptions of Human Ancestry
Hopefully you’ve read our article on the Evolutionary Process. Also by now you hopefully know we’re all about the Future of Human Evolution regardless of whether your particular belief system allows you to consider the science around our past and evolutionary history, or not.
In this abbreviated count-down article we’ll relay some of science’s best conclusions based on fossil records and in a few cases, some DNA to bolster the conclusions. Our goal in this article is not to convince anyone of anything, rather lay it out there for your perusal and I dare say, enjoyment.
Sometime science is just plain fun!
10. Sahelanthropus tchadensis
- Lived: About 7 million to 6 million years ago in West-Central Africa
- Male/Female sizes unknown
Not discovered until 2001, our earliest known human relative Sahelanthropus tchadensis, displayed both ape and human features. Only cranial fossils have been found so far in modern-day Chad. This species had small canine teeth and walked upright on two legs instead of four—two characteristics that separate us from apes and allow scientists to count them among our ancestors.
09. Ardipithecus ramidus
- Lived 4.4 million years ago in Eastern Africa
- Average male: size unknown
- Average female: 3-11, 110 pounds
Was Ardipithecus ramidus really an eight-year-old modern boy? Scientists suspect this early human ancestor both ran around chasing animals (bipedal) and climbed trees. Ar. ramidus fossils show a divergent larger toe and a rigid foot—evidence of walking on two legs. But pelvis reconstructions suggest it had adaptations for both tree-climbing and bipedalism. Ar. ramidus had teeth suitable for a diet of plants, meat, and fruit but probably not sturdy enough to crack nuts.
08. Australopithecus afarensis
- Lived between 3.85 million and 2.95 million years ago in Eastern Africa
- Average male: 4’11”, 92 pounds
- Average female: 3’5”, 62 pounds
Lucy, the world-famous Australopithecus and her cohorts lived across East Africa for nearly 900,000 years—neary five times as long as modern humans have been on the planet. They walked on two legs, had flat noses, and prominent jaw bones. Similar to chimpanzees today, they had childhoods and adolescent periods that were brief compared with those of modern humans.
07. Australopithecus africanus
- Lived: Between 3.3 million and 2.1 million years ago in Southern Africa
- Average male: 4’6”, 90 pounds
- Average female: 3’9”, 66 pounds
Living amid numerous predators, Australopithecus africanus weren’t always at the top of the food chain, and they likely lived in groups for protection against predators. With a combination of human and ape features, they were anatomically similar to their cousins Au. afarensis. The first Au. africanus fossil to be discovered, in 1924, was known as the Taung child. Paleontologists have since realized that damage to the fossil’s skull indicates that the child was captured and eaten by a giant eagle. The fossil established that the earliest human ancestors lived in Africa.
06. Paranthropus boisei
- Lived Roughly 2.3 million to 1.2 million years ago in Eastern Africa
- Average male: 4’6”, 108 pounds
- Average female: 4’1”, 75 pounds
Paranthropus boisei are best known for their large cheek bones that housed powerful chewing muscles and big teeth. Fossils suggest they munched on both tough foods like nuts and roots and soft foods like fruit. They had the thickest tooth enamel of the early human ancestors.
05. Australopithecus sediba
- Lived: About 1.95 million and 1.78 million years ago in Southern Africa
Our most recently discovered relative is Australopithecus sediba. Its fossils have characteristics that start to resemble those of our Homo genus, as our ancestors inched further away from our ape cousins. Au. sediba likely walked in an increasingly human-like way and had facial features that more closely resembled you more than a chimpanzee, but they still had the small brains and long upper limbs found in our earlier tree-dwelling relatives.
04. Homo erectus
- Lived: 1.89 million to 143,000 years ago in Northern, Eastern, and Southern Africa; parts of East and West Asia; possibly Europe
- Average male and female: 4’9” to 6’1”, 88-150 pounds
As possibly the longest-existing member of human family tree, Homo erectus lasted about nine times as long as modern humans have so far. Its fossils—spread out over at least two continents—are highly varied. Early fossils found in Africa show Homo erectus may be the first of our ancestors to have modern-day proportions: elongated legs and shorter arms relative by today’s standards to torso size. Thanks to better hip support that allowed them to walk long distances, they settled into new habitats spanning Africa and Asia. They made tools, including stone tools and those to butcher large animals, and cared for their old and weak members.
03. Homo heidelbergensis
- Lived: 700,000 to 200,000 years ago in Northern, Eastern, and Southern Africa; Europe
- Average male: 5’9”, 136 pounds
- Average female: 5’2”, 112 pounds
Homo heidelbergensis can boast of several firsts among human ancestors. They were the first to build simple shelters out of wood and rock and the first to regularly hunt large animals. They were among the first to inhabit cold European climates. The jury’s still out on other possible firsts, such as earliest control of fire and first use of wooden spears.
02. Homo neanderthalensis
- Lived: About 200,000 to 28,000 years in Europe and Asia
- Average male: 5’5”, 143 pounds
- Average female: 5’1”, 119 pounds
Our closest extinct relative, Neanderthals were possibly the first human ancestors to speak and bury their dead. They hunted large animals, ate plant foods, lived in shelters, wore clothing, and created symbolic or ornamental objects. Their broad bodies, short legs, and large noses, which could humidify and warm cold, dry air, allowed them to survive in cold climates. Some anthropologists have speculated that Neanderthals and modern humans likely got a little frisky with one another, but recent DNA test show no substantive proof of this.
01. Homo floresiensis
- Lived: 95,000 to 17,000 years ago in Flores, Indonesia
- Average male: unknown
- Average female: 3’6”, 66 pounds
Homo floresiensis, appears to be the last of our hominin cousins to go extinct, even though they appeared after we Homo sapiens. Their fossils have been located on only a single Indonesian island indicating that in addition to their stature they may have shared a common pattern of genetic isolation as has the much more recent 2800 year old African Pigmy populous (the two are not genetically related any more than other Homo sapiens). They had large teeth, recessed chins, large feet relative to short legs, and brains roughly one-third the size of ours. Despite their small bodies and brains, they hunted and may have used fire. Their small stature likely helped them survive on an island with limited resources, and they may have been vulnerable to large predators such as Komodo dragons.
00. Homo sapiens
- First appeared: About 200,000 years ago
- Wide variety of heights, weights, and skin tones across the globe
Modern humans evolved in Africa during a period of climate change roughly 200,000 years ago and shared the planet with a few other human species. We bounced back from a period of near-extinction about 74,000 years ago—at our lowest point, our team amounted to about 10,000 reproducing adults—to introduce Earth to agriculture, animal domestication, neighboring planets, and a fascination with our extinct predecessors as well as the future of human evolution.
Here is a combined timeline so that you can see the relative lengths and positions of the various species across the 7 million year span.
Click for full-sized image.