Discoveries + Evidence of the Past: The Fossil Record

The fossil evidence is the bedrock of human evolution and human origins science—the bones, stone tools, and artifacts that can be dated and placed at a point of discovery and places the artifact within a context of human development.

From skeletons to teeth, early human fossils have been found of more than 6,000 individuals. With the rapid pace of new discoveries every year, this impressive sample means that even though some early human species are only represented by one or a few fossils, others are represented by thousands of fossils.

Our African Origins

What lineages do scientists think may have evolved to today’s modern Homo sapiens? Where did these particular lineages evolve to the next step on their path to survival? What traits do these ancient ancestors have that made them successful survivors in a changeable world?

Adaptation to a Changeable Planet

A changing climate affected human evolution during the past seven million years. How did the climate change? What plants and animals were living during each period? What did our human ancestors and animas eat and how did their diets change? How did that affect the growth patterns of teeth, skulls, skeletal composition, and ultimately, the development of individuals of these ancestors?

In the section

The Human Diaspora

There are several different theories about how and when modern humans, Neandertals, and other species who lived at the same time, emerged and migrated throughout the ancient world. How did these early modern humans live and where? How did climate affect how and when migrations occurred? How did growing cognition and use of technology affect how people may have interacted? What happened when modern humans came into contact with Neandertal populations? How and when did people reach Asia? Australia? North and South America?

Studying Nonhuman Primates

Studying how chimpanzees, baboons, gorillas, and other primates interact with each other can inform our understanding of how our earliest ancestors may have cooperated, joined or competed with and against each other, or competed for territory or resources. Conservation of the places where these primates live is an important aspect of this research to preserve their habitat for the future.

Human Uniqueness

Cooperation, cumulative culture, and cognition are what make us unique in the animal world. Humans engage in far more cooperation with large numbers of nonkin than any other species on Earth. We sometimes cooperate with others that we don’t even know or have never met. Cumulative culture talks about how even the smartest individual is not smarter than a group cooperating together over time to solve problems. The area of cooperation, culture, and cognition—when did humans begin to think as modern humans—is a growing area of study about who we are as a species.

Our Genetic Past and Future

As the genetic library of human and primate genomes build, scientists can now build genetic migratory patterns, based on how genes have flowed throughout the ancient world. In addition, nonhuman primate genomes can be investigated to compare with climate and environmental conditions, disease, and evolutionary patterns of our earliest human ancestors.