The Mystery Of Human Evolution
The mystery of human evolution has been the topic of much debate among scientists around the world. An entire branch of science, paleoanthropology, is dedicated to discovering how and from where humans have evolved. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the scientific community did not agree on the answer.
In 1871, Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man in which he hypothesized that humans had probably evolved in Africa. His hypothesis was based on the fact that chimpanzees and gorillas, humans’ closest relatives, lived there. By the beginning of the 20th-century, however, Neanderthals had been discovered in Europe and Homo erectus in Asia. These discoveries led most scientists to agree that humans had evolved somewhere in Europe or Asia.
The “Southern Ape Of Africa”
A human-like, 2.3 million-year-old fossil discovery in South Africa in 1924 changed everything about the theory of human evolution. The discovery was named Australopithecus africanus (which translates to the Southern Ape of Africa) and resulted in a new theory about the birthplace of modern humanity. This theory was not readily accepted by the scientific community until the 1930s and 1940s when more of the same fossils were discovered in South Africa. To further support this new theory, a previously discovered European fossil known as the Piltdown Man was determined to be a hoax.
The Cradle Of Humankind
With this new information, the vast majority of scientists have come to agree that Africa is the Cradle of Humankind. In fact, the 180 square-mile area of limestone caves where Australopithecus africanus was discovered is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, named the Cradle of Humankind. These caves have provided decades of research that point to Africa as the longest inhabited continent in the world. Here, scientists have discovered the second largest hominid fossil collection in the world and evidence of the oldest controlled fire (over 1 million years old). Additionally, the Cradle of Humankind is home to the longest ongoing fossil excavation in the world. Recently, a crew of speleological scientists uncovered around 1,200 unidentified hominid fossils and in 2015, a new species was discovered, Homo naledi. The discovery of this human ancestor came with another insight: modern-day humans are not the only hominid species to bury their dead. It was previously thought that burial rituals were only conducted by today’s Homo sapiens.
South Africa Or East Africa?
That Africa is the longest inhabited continent in the world seems to no longer be in question. Now, scientists are trying to determine exactly where on the African continent humans have inhabited the longest. In other words, where exactly in Africa is the birthplace of humankind?
Not long after the discovery of Australopithecus africanus in South Africa, scientists unearthed the new species Homo habilis in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Homo habilis dated back to nearly the same age as the fossils found in South Africa. It is believed to be the ancestor of the Homo erectus species. In 1974, Australopithecus afarensis was discovered in Ethiopia. These fossil remains date back to 3.2 million years ago and are the ancestors of Homo habilis. This discovery is significant because it suggests that modern-day humans evolved from a species in East Africa. The fossils discovered in South Africa are believed to belong to an extinct line of human species.
While this seems to solve the mystery of both the longest inhabited continent and human evolution, it is important to point out that 97% of the African continent remains unexplored by paleoanthropologists and other fossil-seeking scientists.