Today man is the ruling animal on our planet. Our ancestors were ape-like animals living in trees. Scientists have pieced together our history with great care from fossils bones preserved in rocks which have given an idea of what our ancestors looked like. Remains of their tools and weapons are clues to the way they lived. There are still many puzzles, but new discoveries are being made to add to the story.
Scientists think that a small ape-like creature called Ramapithecus could have been our ancestor. This animal lived in forests between 14 and 6 million years ago, and at night probably slept in the safety of the branches of trees and only climbed down to ground level during the day. Much of the time they scuttled about on all fours, but sometimes may have stood on their hind legs, perhaps when stretching to grasp food from young fruit trees. From this developed one of the main differences between us and other animals, the fact that we walk on two legs rather than four. Scientists believe Ramapithecus is our ancestor from the shape of it’s jaw and teeth which were more like a human than an ape.
Around 14 million years ago there also lived another ape-like creature named Dryopithecus which scientists think may have been the ancestor of today’s ape. Living in Africa about 3 million years ago were several kinds of man-apes called hominids, this name comes from the word homo, meaning man. One sort of hominid was Australopithecus and there were several kinds. The tallest grew no more than around 1.5 meters and their brain was only half the size of ours, but they could walk on their two feet. They ate plants and fruit and probably birds eggs when they had the chance to steal them.
Living at the same time was another hominid called Homo, it had a bigger brain than Australopithecus and scientists believe it was a direct ancestor of man. Homo was a meat eater where small groups hunted slow moving, sick or young animals. They may have used stones and thick branches to kill them. Very slowly over millions of years the hominids developed and changed, and remains have been dug up in East Africa that have found traces of tool making ancestors of ours. Scientists have named them Homo habilis, meaning handy man, which is thought to be an early member of the bigger group known as Homo erectus.
Homo habilis is the first of our ancestors that is known to make and use tools. They were simple stone choppers and sharp stone fragments, where making tools of this type led to the science and technology of today, and they also made the first shelters. These were made of twigs and branches, using stones and rocks to support them, which would have given greater protection from the weather and fierce animals when sleeping at night. And as a matter of interest because they didn’t know how to make fire, meat was ripped apart and eaten raw.
There are few remains to show how homo erectus gradually developed, but we know that by about 250,000 years ago, a new type of people lived, and these were Homo sapians, meaning wise man, and this is the group to which we also belong, and there were several types of Homo sapians.
The Neanderthal people were a heavy and stocky type with strong muscles and sloping foreheads, and lived mainly in Europe at the time of the last ice age. They must have been tough because during this time, much of Europe was covered in ice and snow all of the time.
The first fully modern people of Europe appeared about 40,000 years ago, and these early people are called Cro-Magnon, after the place in France where their remains were first found. Scientists are not sure what happened to the Neanderthals, it may have been because the Cro-Magnons had better tools and weapons and traveled in larger groups, being able to kill them off, or it could have been that they could not adopt to the warmer weather as the ice age ended.
As well as being good hunters and artists the Cro-Magnon people had many other skills. They made needles from splinters of reindeer antlers which they used to sew together animals skins for clothing, and they didn’t have cotton thread like we use today, but used strips of leather or gut. The Cro-Magnons loved jewelry, making beads, bracelets and pendants out of many things, like pebbles, shells and fish bones, we know this because often they were buried with them when they died.
It has taken much careful study to put together ideas about the development of early man, and new discoveries often mean changes in these ideas, so nothing can be taken for granted. And as a whole civilization living on this planet, mankind has progressed with the knowledge and technology that we know today and is rapidly increasing, and who knows what we may evolve into in the distant future, for look how far we have come already.