We have a lot of years to investigate and a lot of brain-bombs to drop about how humans developed, the reasons we have certain features, and how our ancestors made their lives easier. You don’t have to return to Monkey, but you can certainly learn a little bit more about early human history.
You Are Not a Fish
Hiccups really, really suck. Some people can have them for days, weeks, months, or even – in some hair-raising stories – YEARS. They hurt, they stop you from breathing, and they’re because we used to have gills, apparently. It seems that the contraction that causes hiccups from the diaphragm is the same thing that our long-ago fishy selves would use to process water through the gills.
It’s been thought that one way to get rid of them is to run to a mirror, stare yourself in the eye, and loudly declare “I AM NOT A FISH!” You have to mean it! But what about when you get hiccups because you’ve eaten too much? Is that due to the fish part of your brain that still remains?
From Small Beginnings
There are a little under eight billion people on Earth, and our rate of growth is slowly increasing. It took us about a hundred thousand years to reach a billion people, but only 133 years to reach two billion people. After that, it was a mere forty-four years to DOUBLE the world’s population. We’re an expansive species – we fill the space we have, and we’re always looking for more space. It’s predicted that we’ll hit the eight-billion-people line in 2025.
But we started with a very small number of people. It’s thought that an illness wiped out all but two thousand humans back in seventy thousand B.C., making us an endangered species. The theory about this disease is that it was something that can still knock us down even today: tuberculosis.
Symmetry Is Good
There’s been a lot of research into what makes people attractive to others, but one thing that has constantly been found to make people attractive – sexy, beautiful, handsome, whatever – is a symmetrical face. You might think that your face is symmetrical – an eye on either side, two ears, a nose that isn’t crooked – but we’re talking about PERFECTLY symmetrical. And when we get right down to it, nobody’s face is perfectly symmetrical.
In fact, if you saw someone with a perfectly symmetrical face, you’d probably be a little creeped out by it. Symmetry was a good indicator of proper genes for some reason, which is why we find those people attractive – those good genes will probably mean healthy children. Remember, it’s all about making good kids. Either that or finding food.
Early Attempts at Culture
Of course, humans have a culture, but it seems that the other humanoid species on the planet were working their way toward that goal as well. Despite Neanderthals having existed long, long ago, they still seemed to have a little bit of culture of their own. Researchers who have found Neanderthal burial sites have also discovered that the graves – which in and of themselves are evidence of a little bit of culture – were also filled up with flowers.
Not only is this practice something that tells us there was communication between the groups of Neanderthals, but it’s also evidence of a rudimentary religion or at least some respect for the dead of a kind. It’s hard for anybody to say that those things couldn’t possibly mean culture.
The Big Mount Toba Blast
Mount Toba is found on the island of Sumatra, in Indonesia, and when it blew its top around seventy-four thousand years ago, it was the most massive eruption the world had seen for approximately two million years. It blew an intense amount of rubble and ash into the air, which caused temperatures to drop quickly, creating a volcanic winter so bad that it almost drove humans to extinction.
However, some groups were able to flourish during this time. As far away as South Africa, evidence of Toba ash has been found, as well as evidence that the early humans who lived there not only survived but thrived. More than four hundred thousand artifacts have been recovered that showed they knew tools, how to make fire, and had generational homes.
How Were Neanderthals Different?
Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens weren’t the same creatures, but they were pretty close. They likely had a shared ancestor species, but their competition with Homo Sapiens didn’t really go their way – which should have been easy to tell, since we’re here on Earth and they aren’t. However, these creatures were actually stronger than Homo Sapiens.
On the other hand, they were shorter and had a smaller prefrontal cortex – which leads many to believe they could win the species war due to their inability to figure out problems like their Homo Sapien cousins could. Scientists aren’t actually sure why the Neanderthals died out. There’s a whole lot of history there, and a lot of things that could have happened. Their best bet is that Homo Sapiens were at least a big help.
Give Those Ears a Wiggle
You probably know some people who have more mobile ears than the rest of us – grandfathers in particular seem to be pretty good at it, though that might just start to occur when they first have grandchildren. However, about eighty-five percent of the population on Earth are unable to make their ears shake and shimmy in any meaningful way. How come some people can do this and not others?
The belief is that this control over the ears comes from when early primates, the distant ancestors of humans, could move their ears in the direction of sounds in order to better hear them. However, humans now have specific ridges and curls to help them tell which direction something is coming from, even if our hearing isn’t as strong as many other animals.
The Eight Missing Species
Three hundred thousand years ago, there were nine members of the human species. About ten thousand years ago, eight of them had disappeared. This widespread mass extinction has never been fully explained, but likely it’s due to a number of reasons. One of the bigger reasons was that Homo Sapiens were ferocious hunters and fighters, and they sent many prey animals to extinction, which likely affected plenty of other species, too.
It could also be that Homo Sapiens, territorial and expansive as we are, fought with other human species for resources, driving those other species to where they were too small to continue without being absorbed by Homo Sapiens. Neanderthals lasted the longest, and some of their skeletons show marks of warfare and battle, showing that they at least tried to fight back. But Homo Sapiens are number one, baby.
That Little Bump in Your Eye
If you’ve ever wondered about the tiny little bump in the inner corner of your eye, it’s a genetic leftover from a third eyelid (as opposed to the top and bottom eyelids). That third eyelid was slightly transparent or translucent, meaning that we could keep our eyes protected while still being able to see. A lot of water-dwelling reptiles and water birds have them since they need to dive down to snag some tasty fish.
Not only does this add a little bit of protection, but it maintains the proper kind of moisture on the eyes – no doubt you’re aware that too little or too much moisture can make your eyes start hurting quite a bit. We wish we could still use this one, but some things have to go the way of the dodo.
It’s Time to Spruce the Cave up a Little
If we imagine Neanderthals, we imagine grubby little creatures living in mud and barely able to find caves to stay out of the rain, but it seems we were missing a few things here or there. Not only were they known to have decorated the graves of their deceased with flowers, but they actually wore jewelry, which they formed out of things like scallops and cockle shells before painting them with rudimentary dyes.
Sure, they might not have been gussied up like the kings and queens of old, but they weren’t hairy beasts that wore only untreated animal hides and couldn't comb their hair to save their lives. We don’t really think they were piercing their ears – without the use of bandages that seems like a losing prospect – but they still had necklaces.
We Had Much Thicker Bones Back Then
These days people can break their bones doing all sorts of things, like walking, working out, or petting their dog. We’ve actually heard of someone doing that, it’s real. We have doctors and hospitals and things like that these days, so it’s not something that will lead us to an early grave, but back in the day...as in, like, fifty thousand years ago...our bones were much bigger and thicker.
Just think about it. There weren’t any doctors who could give you some painkillers and a cast – if you broke an arm or a leg, you might be able to make it, but you were pretty much dead. Once humans started to heal up better using science and medicine, our bones started to shrink – no need to use energy for bigger bones if there’s no advantage.
Always Finding New Ages
Historians used to separate ancient and pre-ancient history into a number of specific ages. They were the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age, and they coincided with the development of tools using those substances. While those names were certainly catchy, they ended up being quite vague and hard to define, which is why historians now have a number of other names.
The Stone Age, for example, was split into the Paleolithic era, the Mesolithic, and the Neolithic. It’s a little more confusing, and the names aren’t as fun, but it makes it a lot easier to narrow down when things actually happen when it comes to the development of the human species. The Paleolithic era is when humans as we know them finally appeared out of the muck and mire of the prehistoric world.
Getting Some Ink
The earliest natural human mummy ever found in Europe is Ötzi “the Iceman,” found in the Ötztal Alps, a mountain range in Italy. He lived at some point between thirty-four hundred and thirty-one hundred BC, but that isn’t the interesting part about him – he had over sixty different tattoos. He’s easily the oldest tattooed mummy ever found, and that means found anywhere.
His sixty-one tattoos are mostly for unknown reasons, but it’s thought that it was some form of pain relief. The ink was a mixture of ash or soot and dyes and was introduced the old-fashioned way when it comes to tattoos – a needle, jabbed into the skin. Why this guy had so many, and why he was mummified, remains a mystery. If you know, please tell us.
These Fists Were Made for Punching
One of the most long-lasting ideas regarding the development of our hands was that it was because we needed to hold tools. However, a new train of thought has developed, leading researchers to believe that our hands are the way they are not for making stuff, but for BREAKING stuff – to form into a fist and launch it into the face of a foe.
Around the same time we started walking upright, our hands became shorter and square and gained opposable thumbs – all things that make throwing a punch a lot more worth it. You have to admit, it can do a lot more damage than a slap. In response, it’s very likely our faces evolved to TAKE punches better, meaning boxing is the oldest sport in our history.
It Saves on Hair Care, Too
There’s plenty of variance among humans as to how much hair they have. Some are bald while others have long, Rapunzel-style hair. Some have really hairy arms and legs, while others look smooth. Some have hairy chests, while others have hairy backs. Even among siblings, this can be a big difference. And yet, we have nowhere near the amount of hair or fur that every other primate has from head to toe.
Why did humans, of all things, end up losing all that hair? Is it one of the reasons we are the way we are? A couple of possibilities include helping us forage for food in shallow water, keeping us from overheating, and reducing the number of parasites that like to hang out, which is always an icky thought.
A Slow Metabolism Is Good?
We’re all told that having a high metabolism is a good thing – it burns calories faster, which helps you lose weight. However, it turns out that a slow metabolism (at least compared to a lot of other animals) has allowed humans to live much longer on a person-by-person basis compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. If you have a faster metabolism, you go through energy faster.
This not only means that you need to eat more – meaning you could run out faster, and you need to spend more time eating – but also that your body wears out faster thanks to all that processing. Comparing human metabolism to that of other mammals tells us that our metabolic rate is way lower than many of them – sometimes just half as fast.
We’re Still Evolving – and Quickly
It’s easy to think that we as a species are where we’ll always be, but that simply isn’t the case. Just by dint of our nature, we’re still changing and evolving, and there are a couple of specific areas of our physiology that seem to be getting a lot of attention. They’re under rapid genome change, and they mean good things for us.
One of the areas is the development of our brains, possibly allowing future generations to be much smarter. Looking at TikTok, it hasn’t happened just yet, apparently. There are also lots of changes going on when it comes to tolerating foods like dairy, and being able to resist diseases. Dairy is good, and resisting disease is good, so we don’t have any notes.
Blushing Is Supposed to Be a Good Thing
If you’re embarrassed about something, it’s all too likely that you’ll end up blushing. A lot of people don’t like our bodies doing this sort of thing, but it was actually really important when it came to communication back before we had language – even when we do now.
It evolved as we tried to show others that we had sympathy for them, which is why we can blush while feeling embarrassed for someone else – we feel bad that they feel bad. In addition, you can blush if you’re scared, which will show others that you aren’t much of a threat. It turns out there are a lot of good reasons why we came up with a way to redden our faces, even if we aren’t huge fans of it most of the time.
We Were Built to Be Social
All but the most hermit of humans need a social structure around them to be at their best. We work with people, spend time with people, have families, have friends, and have plenty of social groups. While humans first built shelters as far back as eight hundred thousand years ago, social groups only began to be seen about a hundred and thirty thousand years ago.
At that point, cohesion and this kind of connection made the species much stronger, which solidified us as the dominant life form on the planet. It can sometimes be hard to be social, but living without any other people would be incredibly difficult for almost anybody. We are developed to need to spend time with other people. Even if you can’t stand it for long, being with others is a good thing.
Not a Very Diverse Gene Pool
Humans, as a species, have a very small genetic diversity. That means person to person, you’re not going to find a very big difference if you dig in and look at their genes. Apparently, we all come from a small group of humans who lived in East Africa, so the gene pool is fairly limited. Geneticists use something called “effective population” size to compare diversity in gene pools – humans need a mere fifteen thousand people to reproduce with full genetic diversity.
That sounds like a lot, but some species need more than seven hundred thousand individuals to have an effective population. That species is mice, and while not every animal gets that high, there is a whole lot that needs a lot more than humans.
What Does Prehistoric Mean, Exactly?
When we use terms such as prehistoric, we know that they can seem kind of vague. The thing is, the term itself is a vague one – and it can mean different eras in different places. Historians generally agree that “prehistoric” means before the advent of a written language, telling us that some areas were prehistoric for much longer than others.
For example, written language first appeared in Egypt around thirty-two hundred BC, but New Guinea didn’t have a written language until European explorers first arrived around sixteen hundred AD. That means that New Guinea was “prehistoric” for almost five thousand years longer than Egypt. While verbal tales might exist from New Guinea, just think about how much information they might have had that was lost during all that time.
Baring Your Teeth
When we as humans are angry, we bare our teeth – that’s just what happens. It might seem a little confusing at first – or even so natural that we don’t even think about it – but why is it the kind of thing that everybody does? We don’t think about it too much, but it’s actually rather simple: We do it to expose our big, sharp fangs.
Which...we don’t really have anymore, since we don’t really do a lot of fighting with our teeth. Nowadays it’s all with our fists or feet or words. There are a couple of things that we can’t help but do when hit with certain emotions, and wrinkling our lips to show off our teeth when faced with a foe is one of those things.
Feeling the Creepy-Crawlies
If you’ve ever been creeped out by something, or gotten scared while watching a movie, you’ve probably experienced the physical phenomenon known as goosebumps – tiny little dots that rise on your skin all over your body, but specific places like your arms, legs, and head. It’s an evolutionary dead-end – something that was once useful to us but doesn’t have a place in our modern lives.
There’s a certain theory that goosebumps were developed to make us look bigger while we still had fur – if you’ve ever seen a cat poof up in front of something it didn’t like, it’s the exact same thing. We lost all that extra hair, which means goosebumps are largely useless now.
A Big Brain Means Small Teeth
It’s confusing, but one of the things that seems to change at the same rate as our growing brain is our teeth getting smaller. This is even more confusing when researchers looked at other species and found the opposite trend: a growing brain meant growing teeth. The best idea people can come up with when it comes to this strange and unexpected trend is that as humans got smarter, they learned how to prepare food better, such as over a fire.
The softer, easier-to-eat food meant that we didn’t need those big sharp teeth to tear the raw meat or hard vegetables apart, and our bodies naturally adapted by ceasing the production of big teeth – which took energy and resources. Using less energy in a body is better.
The Disaster Eighty Thousand Years Ago
Nobody is entirely sure what it is (though there are lots of hypotheses and possibilities), but about eighty thousand years ago something big happened on planet Earth. It reduced humanity’s effective population size by a huge amount. It could have been a big disaster like the eruption of the Toba volcano, or it could have been something more man-made, like inbreeding in small populations of people.
It ended up shrinking our genetic diversity by a great deal, which is why it requires so few people to get back up to our effective population – a mere fifteen thousand. We actually wonder if that would be a good thing. Needing so few people means it’s easier to repopulate. Again, nobody is sure why this happened, but it’s hard to miss.
One Specific Gene
There are a lot of theories as to why humans continued to evolve to be smarter and smarter – it could have been the climate or environment, the food we ate, the way we competed for resources, and a dozen other things. One possibility is that it was a specific protein gene that researchers dubbed DUF 1220.
When we compare how much of this particular protein we have compared to our primate cousins, it turns out we have a lot more. In addition, this gene seems to increase as brain size and complexity increase, leading researchers to believe that the two things are linked in some way. The more of these genes, the slower our neural stem cells mature, which means they divide more, giving us more of them to use. More genes equals smarter.
Brain surgery is a risky proposition these days, but imagine going under the stone knife hundreds of thousands of years ago. Yes, it seems that prehistoric humans even conducted something like brain surgery, incredible as it might be. A very simple form of brain surgery, at least – trepanation, which is the act of drilling a hole in a person’s head.
It’s been going on for at the very least ten thousand years since it can release pressure on the brain in the case of an injury. Some of these attempts were even successful or may have been beneficial. There are skulls that contain evidence of primitive surgery marks as well as evidence of bone tissue regrowth that date back about ten thousand years. It probably wasn’t as helpful as what we have now, but they still tried.
More Developed Than You Think
Common thought believes that our distant ancestors were little more than apes that could use simple tools and didn’t have as much hair on their bodies, but it seems they were more developed than many at first believed. It was thought that they gathered whatever food they could find or animals that had died of natural causes. However, some evidence is being found that turns those theories on their heads.
The discovery of ancient hunting and eating tools tells us that it’s all too likely that humans were making sure they were getting the food they needed much earlier than we thought – come hell or high water. We can’t blame them. It makes too much sense to just leave food out there when you could go and get it.
Bringing the Average Down
You might have heard that prehistoric humans only lived on average about thirty-five years, but this number is a little misleading. We might be imagining people in their thirties dropping dead from something or other, but prehistoric humans who got to adulthood actually usually lived until they were in their seventies. So what gives?
Well, the simple solution is that the infant mortality rate was so high that this plummeted the average lifespan. Infants are hard to keep alive sometimes even now, and back when there were predators roaming just outside the home, it was even harder. Archaeological evidence has found plenty of examples of grown humans living to a ripe old age – something that would be considered a life well-lived even these days.
Lighter Skin Tone Is Fairly Recent
There is a wide variety of different skin shades all over the world – almost no two countries will look exactly the same. This is all thanks to the different latitudes that people lived at. People who moved higher toward the North Pole or lower toward the South Pole required far less melanin in their skin to protect themselves from dangerous UV radiation.
Because there was less radiation reaching the surface of the Earth, the people who lived there started showing lighter and lighter skin tones, since their bodies realized they could use energy to do things other than produce melanin during development. Researchers even believe this is a fairly recent development in human history – beginning something like six thousand years ago, which is when Europe as we know it started to take form.
No Need for a Certain Muscle
Less than a tenth of the entire population of humans on Earth has a muscle in their foot and leg that they simply do not need in the slightest. It’s called the plantaris muscle, and back when we were swinging from trees it had a really important use – we could use it to help our toes manipulate and grip things.
Now we have thumbs and hands to do that sort of thing, and they’re way better at it, which leaves the plantaris with literally nothing to do, even if it is present in your body. In fact, the much better thumb and hand construction has made the plantaris not only useless, but a prime option for when doctors need to reconstruct other parts of the body – there’s a muscle that isn’t doing a single thing.
Blue? No Such Thing
Here’s an incredibly strange piece of trivia: a word for blue didn’t exist until about four or five thousand years ago. However, early writing included red, yellow, green, black, white...everything except blue. How could this be? Both the sky and the seas are famously blue, so how could early civilizations such as the ancient Arabians and Chinese all miss the shade?
They might not have even recognized the shade, seeing as how it makes up so much of the stuff we look at. It wasn’t until the Egyptians discovered a way to dye stuff blue (such as their clothing) that the word blue started to appear in writing. This is how we get phrases like “the wine-dark sea” from Homer since he didn’t actually have a color to describe the water he was looking at.
We’re the Ones That Choke
Did you know that humans are one of the few animals that commonly have to worry about choking? Even if you’ve never really gotten something stuck in your throat, you’ve probably had a couple of scares while eating hot dogs or something like that. This is because of our handy dandy voicebox, which allows us to do things like talk. Only talk, we guess, unless you count singing as something different.
Which is fair, now that we think about it. Our voice box is much lower, allowing us to make many more sounds, but it comes at a cost – it’s much easier for stuff to get stuck there. Natural selection decided, at some point, to prioritize being able to speak over not choking for who knows what reason.
Grandparents Helped Us Evolve
We all have grandparents, whether or not we get to see them much. Just like we all have parents, it’s impossible to be born without two sets of grandparents. You might like getting to enjoy Grandma’s cooking or hear Grandpa’s stories about life back in the day, but it turns out that these elder members of the family were super important for the evolution of the species – or at least its growth.
You see, grandparents eventually stop having kids, but often they will maintain a desire to be around children and keep their tribe safe. Thus, grandparents stepped in to take care of the kids while the parents went about having more of them. So if you enjoy the fact that humans were able to spread so wide, thank the grandparents.
If You Can Throw, You’re Human
There are a lot of things that separate us from the lesser apes, like making and eating pizza. However, Doctor Neil Roach and a team of biologists at Harvard University have found out that one certain thing that we’ve developed sets us apart from our genetically similar cousins in the primate family – being able to throw with incredible speed and accuracy. Not a single other species can throw even close to as good as we can.
This specific evolutionary trait allowed us to hunt down larger animals from a distance, which kept us much safer. We could hurl spears and rocks to take down wooly mammoths (or other big creatures) which gave us plenty of tasty, brain-growing meat to enjoy, and thus we reached the point we are at today.
We All Have the Same Mother
The study of human genes and development has led researchers to posit the idea of a shared ancestor to every human alive today, known as “Mitochondrial Eve.” She likely existed something like a hundred and fifty thousand years ago if she did exist, and every human had her as a common ancestor. Just THINK of the number of cards she gets on Mother’s Day.
Literally every single person has her to thank if this theory is correct. Of course, this theory is contested, but there is plenty of evidence that seems to point toward it being the truth. A matrilineal ancestor – or, at least, the most common one – would tell us a lot about how the species developed.
It turns out that being able to heat something up is really handy – who knew? We think microwaves would have been easier for ancient humans, but where are they supposed to plug them in? There’s no good answer. However, it’s clear that taming fire was a huge change for humans in every way. They could heat up food to make it more palatable, as well as safer, which is the much more important reason once we start thinking about it.
Not only that, they could provide light in the darkness, allowing them to ward off predators or competing tribes. Add in rudimentary tools like hammers, and you have a couple of things that were critical to getting humanity off the ground. Not physically, though. That took way longer.
Time to Get to Work
When it comes to the development of early humans, there are few things more important than the widespread creation and use of tools. Right now, the estimated time when our distant ancestors started using stone tools was something like 2.6 million years ago – a time so distant it’s hard to fathom. This was just stone tools, however. Was there any other kind? It’s very possible.
In a place known as Dikika, Ethiopia, researchers have found fossilized animal bones with unexpected marks. They seem to be leading toward the idea of butchery, and it may have been possible that humans even earlier than 2.6 million years ago were using natural sharp rocks to cut their meat into portions or kill animals. How much earlier? Try 3.4 million years ago!
Hitting the Water in Ancient Boats
Boats have been around for a really, really long time, and we’ve gotten pretty good at making them by now, but they might have been used as long as fifty thousand years ago, and it’s to do something incredible – for the time, at least. Early humans might have been able to get all the way from Australia to India or the Indonesian islands in simple boats that were reeds lashed together.
Why early humans would think to do this is beyond us – but, then again, humans have always been explorers at heart. In a technological sense, this is like building a spaceship out of aluminum foil and using a squirt gun as an engine, and somehow not only reaching the moon, but also settling there and building communities.
The Big Food Exchange
There is something known as the Columbian Exchange of food that is known to have fundamentally changed the way we eat, making foods like tomatoes and chocolate widespread. It spread new world staples to the old world, and vice versa, but there’s another food exchange that happened much earlier.
This exchange, known as the trans-Eurasian Exchange, circulated a number of grains and other foods such as millet, wheat, and barley, allowing different areas to grow a much higher number of foods and find foods that would grow better or last longer in different kinds of environments. It’s thought that this exchange began in earnest many thousands of years ago, and was continuing up to about five thousand years ago. Before that, each area had its own little kind of grain, and that was that.
Having a Good Time Has Been Around for a Long Time
Most of us are known to imbibe an alcoholic beverage once in a while, and it’s clear that alcohol in some form or another has been around for some time...but did you know there is evidence that it’s been a common thing for the last eleven thousand years? A site dating back to that time has been uncovered in Cyprus that was clearly used as both a brewery and a ceremonial site.
Beer (or whatever exactly it was they drank) was both a way to make sure that the water was safe to drink, and it was also used as a social lubricant. In addition, there is evidence that prehistoric humans would inhale hallucinogenic fumes through bowls and tubes in order to enter “spiritual trances.” Yeah, spiritual trances, sure.
Jaws Mean Kids
How important are our jaws? We use them to chew and talk and smile, but that’s about it, right? Wrong. It turns out that the shape and size of your jaw can tell other people a lot about you – at least, a lot about how much testosterone or estrogen you have in your body. A bigger jaw means that you have more testosterone in your body, while a smaller jaw means more estrogen.
These two things are super important when it comes to a lot of things in your body – guys with more testosterone are often bigger, grow muscles quicker, and are more likely to win a fight, which means more resources and safety. Women with more estrogen have an easier time birthing children, which means an easier time passing down genes. Both of these effects are just natural by-products of us making it to this point.
Did We Graze Like Cows?
Imagining a scene of early humans creeping up on a herd of gazelle is such a good one that it’s hard to get it out of our heads, but there might have been a time when humans roamed the grasslands and ate the leaves and grasses that covered them. Then again, scientists are unsure if this kind of human ever actually existed.
The A. bahrelghazali, discovered in Chad in 1993, is a creature that existed about three and a half million years ago, and it has a jaw that resembles the human A. afarensis.
However, the pieces of the two species were discovered quite far from each other, so the link is a controversial one. Still, one way or another it was a primitive human that ate mostly vegetation, going by the jaws and teeth.
Our Ancient Ancestor
One of the most famous fossils in the world is that of “Lucy,” a female member of the group A. afarensis from the Australopithecus group, an ancestor to the Homo species. Other than a few scattered remains that are spread around the world, few fossils have been found to link these groups to us, but in Afar, Ethiopia in 2019 a full cranium was found. A small skull was able to be pieced together, which allowed researchers to do facial reconstruction.
The face that resulted was more ape-like than human. It was the oldest of the Australopithecus group to be discovered, at three-point-eight million years, and it provided an important link to the humans that lived as far back as six million years. It was a frustrating gap that was finally filled.
Why Are Those Teeth So Wise?
If you’re like many people, you might have gotten your wisdom teeth removed before you became too old. They’re way, way back on either side of your mouth, and there are lots of people who can’t even use them because they’re stuck under the gums or coming in sideways. Our early ancestors used these thick teeth to grind up plant materials, and they needed them far more than we do now.
We still do our fair share of grinding, but nowhere near the extent that our ancestors did. While some people can still utilize these teeth, for most people they’re something to ignore until a dentist eventually takes them out. Then you turn them into a little necklace or whatever you want to do with them.
Diving in the Yucatan
The oldest evidence of people living in the Americas was found in the Yucatan Peninsula, in Mexico, where for many years researchers found skeletons, though their existence was a bit of a mystery. However, in 2020, divers were exploring the nearby caves, which had been underwater for thousands of years, and found additional human remains. It was assumed the researchers were miners from ancient civilizations.
This was during an ice age, so water levels were much lower, something like twelve thousand years ago. At the end of the ice age, the caves flooded, and they’ve been underwater for the last eight thousand years (approximately). Somehow, this preserved the caves well enough for researchers to study the tactics of these early miners, who were likely after a pigment known as ocher.
The Reason We Get Morning Sickness
Having terrible nausea while you’re in your first trimester of pre-parenthood doesn’t sound like something that is great for the survival of the species, but it turns out this little evolutionary foible might have come in handy before the advent of fire. As pregnancy hormones surge, pregnant women couldn’t possibly stand eating something like eggs or meat, which might have been the point.
Before we could safely cook off dangerous bacteria, that sort of food was loaded with dangerous toxins that could have been bad for the baby. It also might have been a way for the mother to avoid getting sick while carrying a child, which wouldn’t have been good for the child, either. Unfortunately, now there isn’t much need for it, despite the fact that it’s still all too common.
Not Much of a Tail Remaining
Before humans had developed to where we stand today, literally, we had tails. It’s unsure to what extent we were able to utilize these tails, and how long ago it was that we had them, but we still have traces of them today. It’s called the coccyx, also known as the tailbone, and it...doesn’t really do anything.
They aren’t long enough to be of any use, not even sticking out of our bodies, and it’s really just where the spine ends. We have longer tails relative to our bodies while in the womb, but they disappear as we grow. However, let us tell you from personal experience that it is no fun breaking your tailbone. Let’s just say sitting wasn’t an option for quite a while.
Ugg No Eat Parsley – Just for Garnish
Just as humans today eat a wide variety of foods like meat, seafood, fruits, vegetables, and grains (yes, they’re a vegetable, we know), early humans did the exact same thing. They didn’t exactly have splurge days when they went to the store and got a box of donuts, though. Their omnivore diet consisted of anything they could find, and as much of it as they could keep away from the other members of the tribe.
It turns out that, as time went on, they even developed specific tools for cutting meat or chopping up plants, much like we have. Yes, that means that trying to figure out which fork to use while at a fancy dinner is a much older phenomenon than you might think.
South African Paradise
Early humans were able to survive the decidedly dangerous Toba volcanic eruption by settling in a place called Pinnacle Point in South Africa. Long before that volcanic winter arrived, some one hundred and seventy thousand years ago, humans were already living in the area. Research into the environment has found something interesting about the area at the time. Plenty of animals are hard-wired to migrate, but this place was so nice that it overruled that migratory instinct – antelope had constant good weather and abundant food, for instance.
There was no need to keep moving. The early humans that lived in the cave systems enjoyed it too since there was plenty of wonderful antelope to eat. This sort of amazing place and protection helped those same humans (much later, obviously) survive the horrific Toba eruption.
Prehistoric Dentists Were Always Out of Work
Going to a dentist a few times a year is so ingrained in our society that it seems strange to think about a time when it wasn’t an option. While modern dentistry might be a thing that has only been around for a hundred years or so, it seems that prehistoric dentists didn’t have much to do.
Due to far fewer sugars (and even then, usually only natural sugars like fructose from fruits) and fewer carbohydrates except from far less destructive forms like fibrous plants, prehistoric humans actually didn’t have much of a problem when it came to their teeth. It seems that they actually had much healthier teeth than we do, on average. Sure, we can’t speak to the straightness or whiteness of their chompers, but they probably had a lot fewer cavities at the very least.
We’ve Always Loved Dogs
Odds are you have a dog in your life. Even if you don't, you probably want a dog. If that for some strange reason isn’t true, then you know somebody who has and loves dogs. Our furry friends have been part of our lives for so long, it’s hard to think of a time when we didn’t have a friendly hound waiting to go hunting, watch over the flock, or just hang out at home.
The first domestication of wild dogs began something like fifteen thousand years ago, beginning with the Eurasian gray wolf and moving on from there. A mutually beneficial relationship began between the species, providing protection, resources, and companionship to each other. Who got the better end of the deal? Hard to say.
Climbing Keeps Us Safe
If you were to see a mouse running across the floor, your first instinct would probably be to lift your feet up, jump onto a chair, or even – in extreme cases – jump up to something and hang from it. This makes sense at first, because we don’t want to be near the little pest – we want to make sure that it can’t climb up our leg, which is really icky. However, it seems that this is more than just that.
It’s a leftover element of our time spent in trees. When we see something that we don’t like, one of our first responses is to climb away from it, because the little bit of monkey brain that we keep around tells us that it’s safer in the trees than it is on the ground.
A Treasure Trove of Protein
Eating meat – meaning huge sources of strengthening and brain-growing protein – was an extremely important part of human development. One particular source of protein might have been the kick to get us over the hump and start developing faster than the other species, and that’s the amount of protein that is in the marrow.
Marrow is the stuff in the middle of bones, which does a lot of stuff – they release blood into the bloodstream, produce white blood cells, and create platelets. They’re incredibly important to our bodies, and they also come chock-full of protein for the hunter that discovers it. It became a vital source of protein, which led to us being able to use way more energy for things like bigger bodies and more complicated brains.
Early Evidence of Cancer
Due to its overwhelming prevalence in our modern culture, a lot of people tend to think of cancer as something that hasn’t been around for a long time. The thing is, cancer is eventually going to appear in some form in almost everybody if it’s given enough time – we’ve heard the saying that, if every way to die except cancer was eliminated, everybody would still eventually fall to cancer. Sad.
However, it seems that even millions of years ago early hominids were getting this disease. Remains of the early human species Homo Kanamensis have been found in Kenya which has a lump left by a tumor on the jaw, providing clear evidence of bone cancer. Without a doubt, this means that other forms of cancer were also present, even if most didn’t live long enough to contract it.
Culture Is Younger Than You Think
How old is the oldest civilization? Well, experts believe that “culture” only began for humans about fifty thousand years ago. That’s not a very long time when it comes to human history. That means we had many tens of thousands of years to just wander around without ever coming up with a civilization or culture. While pre-culture humans might have been able to build tools and make fire, we can’t exactly call that a culture, can we?
There was little evidence of art and communication (like writing). There are some researchers who believe language as a concept didn’t even come about until after that fifty thousand-year mark. Nobody knows why there was such a big cultural explosion at that time – maybe our brains finally just grew big enough.
A Neanderthal in the Woodpile
It turns out that there’s a good chance you have a little bit of Neanderthal in you. Despite this subset of humans having long died out, there were likely plenty of Homo Sapiens that reproduced with Neanderthals before Sapiens became the only real brand of humanity that remained. Recent genetic analysis of Neanderthal bones shows us that there are some gene traits that have made it into modern non-African populations.
Without a doubt, this tells us that the different cro-magnon populations were a little more willing to cuddle up than might have been previously thought. However, this information was widely supposed even before genetic testing was a thing, so it was more of confirming a hypothesis. So if you have big, strong bones, you might be part Neanderthal.
We Were All Brown-Eyed Girls Once
Most of the world, today, has brown eyes. It’s estimated that about seventy-five percent of people in the entire world have brown eyes, making it by far the most common eye color. In contrast, only about eight percent of people have blue eyes, and that’s thought to be the second-most common. Yet a mere ten thousand years ago, pretty much everybody in the world had brown eyes.
What could have created this change? The most likely scenario is that a genetic mutation created some people with blue eyes (or hazel eyes, or green eyes). Those early humans, just like plenty of people today, likely found those bright eyes fetching, and thus there are plenty of descendants of those people with blue eyes.
It’s Time to Get Artsy
Cave painting began hundreds of thousands of years ago, but what about other kinds of art? Well, it’s been known to researchers that seventeen thousand years ago humans had the tools and skills necessary to make ceramic jars and pots, sculpt things out of clay, and even paint.
As far as those researchers can tell, this was also something of a turning point in civilization – if you can find shards of pottery, you know that humans were building a home there.
Pots could be used to store food, sculpture could be used for all sorts of things, and decorating using paints tells us that these early humans wanted to do more than just survive – they actually wanted the place where they lived to look nice.
We Hunted Hobbits
No, not really. However, there is evidence of a race of pygmy humans that lived eighteen thousand years ago, found in Australian and Indonesian areas. While it’s likely that these pygmies weren’t a totally different race, they were short enough to be headed in that direction – they were likely no taller than an average three-year-old now. Pretty darn short.
Also, it’s possible that humans hunted them to extinction since early man had been setting up animal ambushes for as long as 1.6 million years. The little hobbit creatures might not have needed our help dying out, however – they lived around elephants and ten-foot lizards, and neither one sounds super safe for such small creatures.
A Million Years Ago
The most widely-accepted story about Homo Sapiens, our genetic ancestors, is that they came out of Africa about eighty thousand years ago, moving into parts of Asia and Europe. However, the earlier form of humanity, the Homo Erectus (upright humans) was probably taking the same routes in and out of the continents for over a million years.
In fact, when Homo Sapiens left Africa, they likely encountered similar humans that looked a whole heck of a lot like them, since they all had a common ancestor. They were all different forms of early humans, and they’d been wandering around the world for hundreds of thousands of years. For the most part, these two tribes didn’t really get along all that well, but that’s literally ancient history now.
When Did We Start Wearing Clothes?
Clothes are such a regular part of our lives that it’s difficult to think of a time when we DIDN’T wear clothes. Could you imagine just going around without anything to wear? Even during the cold, or while getting into a fight with a beast, or something like that? Well, it was that way for a long time. Humans began wearing the skins and furs of animals to try and keep warm something like a million years ago.
Yes, that’s right, humans have been wearing clothes for approximately a million years – no wonder it feels like second nature. It’s thought that this change came from when humans started to transition away from being hairy, furry creatures, toward those with a lot more skin showing.
It’s All Thanks to Fire
Before humans were able to cook their meat, a bunch of things were different about them. For one, they were smaller, shorter, and had smaller brains. In addition, they had much longer digestive tracts. This is because they needed more time to properly process the raw meat that could contain dangerous bacteria.
Once we started using fire to kill off that bacteria – about eight hundred thousand years ago – our digestive tracts began to shrink (this is thought to be why we had appendixes) because we were able to take more energy from food and use less of it on digestion, we started growing bigger and developing bigger brains. If you like being smart enough to tie your shoes, then you have fire to thank. Plus, it helps us make s’mores.
Are Bananas Our Cousins?
You may have heard from some sources that we share about fifty or sixty percent of our DNA with the wonderful fruit, the banana. Humans are naturally turned off of the idea of eating something that is similar to them, but do we need to worry about it with bananas? Not exactly.
Most of those genes are known as “housekeeping” genes, necessary for basic cellular functions like replicating DNA, controlling the cell cycle, and helping cells divide – basically, all plants and animals have that kind of data. Sure, we seem similar to bananas in that regard, but we’re even closer to chickens – about sixty percent. And let’s not even talk about cows, with whom we share approximately eighty percent of our DNA! And there’s no way we’re going to stop eating burgers.
The Biggest Change in History
What sets us apart from monkeys? Is it our clothing? Language? Video games? The most fundamental difference that we have from our primate cousins – and one of the things that helped us develop so fast as the many different species along the way to now – is the fact that we can touch our ring and index fingers to the thumb.
Yes, that simple change made all the difference when it came to doing things like carrying and using tools. That kind of dexterity let us develop better and better tools, which helped us make things like fire, agriculture, and, yes, video games. Truly, it has all led to here. Monkeys and other primates do have a small amount of dexterity, but not even close to the kinds of things we’re able to achieve.
Using Clay to Keep Our Bodies Fresh
Clay is still used today to rejuvenate our skin and keep us feeling good, but it turns out that certain kinds of clay were used to treat wounds by some of the first humans. It was some of the first medicine that humans are thought to have used, and while it probably didn’t bring anybody back to full strength after getting gored, it was thought to have been a good way to protect minor wounds and scratches, which still could have been very deadly at the time.
Other animals used clay to cover wounds (for any number of reasons), and thus early humans started doing the same thing. We have a lot of better options nowadays, but some people still go for clay, such as the aboriginal people of Australia.
We, humans, are the smartest beings to walk the planet. Or are we? We are. But were we always? Well...maybe. In 1913, scientists discovered a collection of skull fragments, all of them strange-looking and not in the same configuration as us. It was determined that the fragments would have had “childlike faces” in front of them, and here’s another thing: the skull fragments led researchers to believe that the skulls were much longer than ours.
We all know that big skulls mean bigger brains, so we ask you: were these creatures the smart ones on Earth during the time they walked among us? The consensus is mixed, but then again they couldn’t have been the smartest, since they aren’t around anymore. Even if you think you’re the smartest, it doesn’t mean you’ll win every fight.
Let’s Hit the Fields
Agriculture – that is, working the fields to develop food – began something like twenty-three thousand years ago. It’s commonly thought that this was when humanity as we know it truly came to be, though there was a long way to go before we got stuff like cars and baseball and Oreos.
Agriculture was the foundation of Western culture, seeing as how people no longer needed to constantly move around to find the food they needed. They were able to build cities, create kingdoms, and start building toward the kind of world that we have today. Sure, early humans weren’t as smart as we were, but you’d think it would be a little more obvious to cultivate plants that they like to eat. Maybe it seemed too hard.
We’ve Been Building for a Long Time
Early humans didn’t get up to any big construction projects, but it seems they were more willing to try and erect something than researchers previously believed. Sure, they were nothing crazy or awe-inspiring other than their age, but they still showed evidence of very simple construction techniques. These early construction projects sometimes date back to over a hundred and seventy-five thousand years ago.
They were found inside caves, but they aren’t structures or even new rooms – no, these early constructions were simple mounds or rings made out of stone. Think of small versions of Stone Henge. The experts believe that they were likely used for religious purposes, or at the very least they had some kind of greater cultural purpose. Couldn’t they have used them for entertainment? We’re not really sure how, but it’s fun to imagine.
Big Brain Means Big Survival
No doubt you’re aware that a big brain often means a smarter creature, and being smart will help you survive as a species. In fact, when it comes to humans, that’s about the only thing that we have going for us – we don’t have thick hides, claws, horns, or anything like that. It’s all thanks to thinking skills like memory, reasoning, and computational ability that allowed us as a species to survive and thrive across the entire world.
Nothing will stop us from making it. However, scientists really aren’t that sure why we have such titanic thinkers. Many believe that it was merely the climate that helped us become such big brainiacs. There are likely dozens of reasons that worked together to get us to where we are today – brains triple the size of early humans.
Let’s Speak to Each Other Like Humans
Right now, as you read this, there are over five thousand different languages or dialects in the world today. That’s not even counting the thousands of languages that have died out, and the potentially MILLIONS of dialects that we will never even know about. Could all of those different languages come from one specific place? That’s the prevalent theory as far as we can tell.
It’s believed that all of our many, many languages came from one specific dialect that began to be developed about a hundred thousand years ago, in Africa. This dialect was likely made up of sounds like grunts and howls – nothing close to the words and syllables that we use today. Instead of sounds with specific meanings, they would just be to communicate specific things. A howl to mean danger, a grunt to mean all was clear.
The Appendix Is Actually Useful?
Everybody knows that the appendix is nothing more than a little nob in your large intestines that doesn’t do anything except get infected and swell up, leading to a potentially dangerous situation and a trip to the emergency room. However, it’s possible that scientists have finally figured out what it is or was there for.
Back when we had to have a lot of bacteria in our guts to break down raw foods before we started making fire, the appendix was a literal safe haven for beneficial bacteria as the colon was being flushed out, whether that be from a normal voiding of the bowels of through some other kind of process. The good bacteria would hide in the appendix, and once the flushing was done, it would scuttle out and get back to work.
We Were Scavengers Once
While hunting became an incredibly important way to gather food as Homo Sapiens developed, it didn’t start out that way. Instead of risking their frail and easily-trampled bodies by going after creatures that were much bigger and stronger than they were, early Homo Sapiens decided it would be smarter to wait until someone else had done the killing, and then go in to scavenge the remains.
Of course, that didn’t leave a whole lot of food for the growing tribes, so they eventually decided to switch to a much more active participation when it came to hunting down animals. Once they made this switch, they were able to collect a far greater amount of resources, which led to more protein to give us more energy and more powerful developments.
Sewing up the Skin
Stitches aren’t the most complicated piece of medical technology that we have – a needle and a little bit of thread to help wounds close, but prehistoric humans didn’t have that sort of thing, right? Where did they get needles? For that matter, where would they have gotten thread before cultivation?
Well, they didn’t do it the exact same way we did, but they still did something to help wounds close faster. They used ants. Yes, as in the bug. In the Americas, these tiny insects would be held above the closed wound until the ant bit with its pincers, and then the head would be removed from the body of the ant to lock it in place as a stitch. It’s...not the best tactic anymore, but if you don’t have any options it can be used in a...pinch.
Lavawalk With Me
Here’s a handy piece of advice that we hope nobody really needs now: don’t walk on lava. It simply isn’t going to work out very well for you. It could work out quite poorly, in fact! Volcanoes cover mountains with flows of ash, debris, and incredible heat during and after eruptions, and they’re some of the deadliest things that you can find on the entire planet.
They’re so hot that nobody can even be near them, and they set stuff on fire just by flowing past it – stuff like plants, homes, or even PEOPLE. However, it turns out that some hominids managed to walk across a flow that was days or possibly even hours old. They walked at a relaxed pace, uncaring that the mountain was probably still grumbling.
Meeting the Neighbors
We’re told that different species of early humanoids didn’t get along very well, and for the most part that fact is true. However, a spot in South Africa, near the Dimolean Paleaocave System contains remains of multiple species that were all thought to exist at the same time. The first group, A. africanus, was nearing the end of its time as a species.
There was also Paranthropus robustus, a human species that wasn’t one of our ancestors. Finally, there was H. erectus, a group that was in existence for about two million years. There seems to be little sign of violence between the groups. It’s a little more of a mystery since the H. erectus skull is one of the oldest ever found, and nowhere near where the rest of them are.
A Varied Diet
One of the big reasons that humans were able to survive through so much, and reach how we are today, is probably through the varied kinds of foods that we can eat. Even compared to the Neanderthal, Homo Sapiens are able to chow down on a whole lot of stuff that provides nutrients and lets them develop powerful brains. We can eat nuts, seeds, fish, insects, and small animals – all stuff that provides lots of goodies to our brains to help us do things like make fire.
Because we can eat so much, we’re able to survive almost anywhere, whereas lots of other animals wouldn’t be able to find the food they need if they had to move to a new continent. Neanderthals ate mostly meat, so they were left with fewer food sources when things got scarce.
We Might Have Burnt Our Beds
It’s hard not to love our beds. They let us take naps and slip through the boring night hours, and we can make them oh-so comfortable any way we choose. However, it turns out that early humans didn’t have the same kind of affinity we have for our beds – because they would burn them. Border Cave in South Africa is believed to have been home to an early community that existed something like two hundred thousand years ago.
When explorers investigated the cave in 2020, they discovered the burnt remains of beds. It’s believed that this was an attempt to repel bugs from their bedding since they would burn beds and lay the ashen remains together with new beds, made of insect-repelling plants. Ash stops bugs from breathing, so bed bugs be gone.
The First Piece of Culture
Estimated to be more than thirty thousand years old, the Venus of Willendorf is one of the first cultural items found that dates to the Paleolithic period. This “Venus” statue portrays a female body and is one of many figurines of such a kind that have been found. It’s thought that they were used as fertility totems or of a figure who would help them be better mothers.
There are also some who suggest that the figurines were supposed to represent erotic art (which probably would have still helped the cultures to have more children) or even as self-depictions by early female artists as they looked down at their own bodies. This sort of artistry was an important step in human development since it meant that culture was more than just survival at all times – people were making things like art.
It Was Probably a Two-Year-Old Neanderthal
It doesn’t matter if you’re very good or not – everybody likes to make some art in one form or another. From drawing with crayons to painting to doing digital art, the act of creation is deeply ingrained in humanity. In fact, evidence of painting – in one form or another – has been discovered as far back as two hundred and fifty thousand years ago.
These ancient artists used rudimentary crayons to make cave paintings that were discovered in Zambia, telling us that doodling is more than just a pastime – it might be something that we got from evolution. Was it to give information to others? Entertain and form connections? Display something interesting in order to attract mates? It’s hard to tell, but it’s something that we as a species have been doing for quite a long time.