Identify sites in Africa where archaeologists have found evidence of the origins of modern human beings.

Topics on the Page:

Human Evolution
Africa and Human Origins
    • The Lucy Skelton
    • Mary Leakey
Out of Africa Hypothesis
  • Multi-Regional Continuity Hypothesis
First People in the Americas
Teaching Resources

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Focus Questions

  • Where in Africa have archaeologists found evidence of the origins of modern human beings?

  • How do these findings alter previous knowledge of the origin of modern humans?

World-map-2004-cia-factbook-large-2m.jpgLink also to AP World History Key Concept 1.1

Evolution of Humans

rotating gif.gifFor more information, see wiki page Evolution of Humans.

podcast icon.pngJaw Fossil in Ethiopia Likely Oldest Ever Found in Human Line, NPR, March 5, 2015

game_icon.svg.pngSee African Fossils, a virtual lab featuring fossils and artifacts from the Lake Turkana region in East Africa along with models for 3D Printing
Cartoon Depicting Human Evolution, 1881
Cartoon Depicting Human Evolution, 1881

First Human Discovered, Ethiopia (2.8 million years ago)

World's Oldest Building Discovered, Chichiu, Japan (500,000 years ago)

As with all other life on Earth, humans are ultimately the product of the initial origin of life. How did life form from non-living matter? This event is still subject to much speculation among scientists.
  • Click here for seven possibilities on how this astoundingly transformative event could have occurred.

Click here for an article on the possibility of a new human species discovered in 2012.

See Human Evolution Overview from Kahn Academy from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

timeline2_rus.svg.pngClick here for an interactive timeline on Human Evolution from the Museum of Natural History

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Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution

rotating gif.gifGo here for an Historical Biography Page on Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution

Biography icon for wiki.pngA brief history of Charles Darwin, his theory, and his influences.

game_icon.svg.pngFor videos, games, and lesson plans regarding natural selection (grades 6-12), visit Neo K-12.

Multimedia.pngMultimedia Resources

  • Click here to watch a video "What is the theory of evolution?"
    • Click here for an article by Laurence Moran clearing up some common misconceptions about the theory of evolution and advancing scientific literacy.


Africa and Human Ancestors

Africa has proven to be the home of many of the human species’ early ancestors.
  • In 1924, the first evidence of this was found by Raymond Dart near Taung, South Africa. There, Dart found fossils belonging to an Australopithecus africanus.
  • This was a significant find; Dart noticed that a skull somewhat resembled that of modern humans, although the size of the brain actually resembled that of apes. Australopithecus africanus lived about 3 million years ago.
  • To date, over 38 fossil sites of ancient human ancestors have been discovered in Africa alone, all of which are 1-3 million years old.

game_icon.svg.pngSee The Human Journey: Migration Routes from National Geographic that traces the evolution of humans out of Africa beginning 60,000 years ago.

Multimedia.pngFirst Peoples-Out of Africa A clip from a PBS documentary presenting the evidence and information about the origins of the earliest humans in Africa

Nutcracker Man

"People frequently ask me why I devote so much time to seeking out facts about man’s past…the past shows clearly that we all have a common origin and that our differences in race, colour and creed are only superficial." – Louis Leakey

The Lucy Skeleton
The next big find happened in 1959 in Tanzania where Louis and Mary Leakeyalong with others, unearthed the skull of Australopithecus boisei. The skull was the first of its kind found and was given the nickname “Nutcracker Man.”
  • The most well-established and most famous australopithecine fossil is the “Lucy” skeleton. Found and identified in Hadar, Ethiopia in 1974, it is a full skeleton that stands upright and has some characteristics similar to the current human body. It is clearly bipedal with upright posture and human-like body proportions.
  • However, the cranium is more similar to modern chimpanzees than humans, suggesting "Lucy" lacked the brain development of modern humans. This was strong evidence for the hypothesis that bipedalism preceded cranial development in human evolution.
  • Today "Lucy" is classified within Australopithecus afarensis, an australopithecine very closely related to the later genus Homo. Australopithecus africanus was a later australopithecine which displayed a larger, more human-like cranium.
The Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University gives a clear overview of the Lucy story and how Scientists developed their conclusions based on the skeleton.

Multimedia.pngFilm: "Finding Lucy" from PBS website Evolution which depicts the landmark hominid fossil find by Don Johanson and his team in Ethiopia.

Multimedia.pngNPR interview: Move Over, Lucy; Ardi May Be Oldest Human Ancestor

Mary Leakey, 1977
Mary Leakey, 1977

Female_Rose.pngMary Leakey
In 1978 Mary Leakey again added to the understanding of human evolution by finding footprints of early human ancestors in Tanzania dating back almost 3.6 million years.

Quill_and_ink.pngMary Leakey: Unearthing History from Scientific American magazine

  • Other important fossils found in Africa include a 4.5-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus found in Ethiopia. This discovery was significant, since it showed humans walking upright at the earliest point yet. "Lucy's Baby," Selam (which means “peace” in Amharic, the language spoken in Ethiopia) was a recent, and famous find, again, in Ethiopia.
  • The remains of Selam were dated as being about 120,000 years older than Lucy’s but, because of the similarities and closeness in discovery, the nickname of “Baby” has stuck, even though the “baby” turned out to be older than the mother.

Multimedia.pngRotating_globe-small.gifDikika fossil found by Zeresenay Alemseged Youtube video from BBC World News

Out of Africa Hypothesis
The "Out of Africa Hypothesis" is the theory that all human beings have come from a small group in Africa and subsequently moved to other regions of the world. This theory originated in the 1990s through "mitochondrial DNA studies." The Aborigines and Melanesians have been found to share genetic features that were found in Africans 50,000 years ago. This theory indicates that Australia and New Guinea were linked by a land bridge, which early humans used to travel.
Click here for more material on the Out of Africa theory

Geographical Distribution of the Evolution of Humans
Geographical Distribution of the Evolution of Humans

Multimedia.pngNew Tools Suggest Humans Left Africa Earlier Via Arabia from NPR, January 28, 2011.

A jaw fossil of a 177,000 year old modern human found in Israel in 2018 supports pushes back the time humans left Africa and suggests emigration was much more continuous than previously thought. -New York Times

On February 8, 2014 British archeologists announced they discovered footprints off the coast of England that could be up to 800,000 years old. This indicates that humans left Africa sooner than previously thought. Click here for a full article on the discovery.

For an overview of the latest findings on human origins, go to the Early History section of website, The Story of Africa from the British Broadcasting Company.

Screen Shot 2017-02-21 at 10.27.35 AM.pngFor and interactive lab with 3D models of the skulls of human ancestors, check out this Mystery Skull Interactive game from the Smithsonian.

Multi-regional Continuity Hypothesis

While the "Out of Africa Hypothesis" is the predominate theory of early human migration, there exists another theory that following ' exodus from Africa by Homo erectus "regional populations slowly evolved into modern humans."
  • The "Multi-regional Continuity Hypothesis" suggests that rather than developing independently in Africa, modern human evolution is the result of inter-regional gene flow.
  • While this is an interesting theory, current evidence lends support to the "Out of Africa Hypothesis." Maybe in years to come new advances in science and future archaeological findings will shed further light on the topic.

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 3.55.03 PM.pngOrigins of Modern Humans: Multiregional or Out of Africa?

Screen Shot 2016-10-28 at 12.13.15 PM.pngLesson Plan on both theories

Peopling of the Americas

It has been long held that ancestors of Native Americas migrated across the Bering Strait during the last ice age, becoming separated from the rest of the human population, and allowing them to adapt away from "Old World" lineages [link 4].

Discoveries in Africa have sparked interest in when people first lived in the Americas.
  • In 2004, Russian scientists located a 30,000 year-old site in Arctic Siberia, not far from the land bridge that is believed to have connected Asia and North America.
    • These peoples may have been the ancestors to the first peoples in the Americas since the site is twice as old as Monte Verde in Chile where scientists have found the oldest signs of human settlement in the Americas Augusta Chronicle- Evidence Found of Arctic Hunters Living in Siberia 30,000 years ago.

Discoveries Challenge Beliefs on Humans' Arrival in the Americas, New York Times, March 27, 2014.

rotating gif.gifSee Special Topic Page on Peopling of the Americas

Range map of the Cro-Magnon man (Homo sapiens) up to 37,500 years before the present
Range map of the Cro-Magnon man (Homo sapiens) up to 37,500 years before the present

Teaching Resources on Human Origins

Rotating_globe-small.gifWhat Does It Mean To Be Human?is an informative website from the Smithsonian's Human Origins Initiative.
Multimedia.png Evidence: How Do We Know What We Know ? is an interactive website about human origins from the Exploratorium museum.

lessonplan.jpgWorld History For Us All lesson on "Human Ancestors in Africa and Beyond: 7,000,000 to 200,000 Years Ago"
  • Also from World History For Us All, the Big Era 2 page, "Humans Beings Almost Everywhere: 200,000 to 10,000 Years Ago" contains an overview of the time period and has two lessons on humans spreading around the world and adapting language, as well as a downloadable powerpoint on the era.

A silhouette of human evolution created in Adobe Illustrator
A silhouette of human evolution created in Adobe Illustrator


Brian, C.K. Raymond Dart and our African Origins. Retrieved February 8, 2007, from The University of Chicago Press Web site: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/284158_brain.html
Lucy's Story. Retrieved February 8, 2007, from Arizona State University Web site: http://www.asu.edu/clas/iho/lucy.html
Reaney , Patricia (January 20, 2005). Remains of 4.5 Million Year-Old Human Ancestors Found. Retrieved February 8, 2007, from Planet Ark Web site: http://www.planetark.com/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/29104/story.htm
Hirst, Kris. "Out of Africa Hypothesis" About Archaeology - The Study of Human History. 01 Feb. 2009 http://archaeology.about.com/od/oterms/g/outofafrica.htm