The Hall of Human Origins offers a welcoming place to explore one of the most exciting areas of science, the study of human evolution. Despite strong public interest in the science, however, many people find this topic troubling when viewed from a religious perspective. Representatives of diverse religious communities encourage a larger, more respectful understanding of both the scientific evidence and religious belief.
Paleoanthropology is the scientific study of human evolution. Paleoanthropology is a subfield of anthropology, the study of human culture, society, and biology. The field involves an understanding of the similarities and differences between humans and other species in their genes, body form, physiology, and behavior. Paleoanthropologists search for the roots of human physical traits and behavior.Human evolution is the lengthy process of change by which people originated from apelike ancestors. Scientific evidence shows that the physical and behavioral traits shared by all people originated from apelike ancestors and evolved over a period of approximately six million years.
Early humans first migrated out of Africa into Asia probably between 2 million and 1.8 million years ago. They entered Europe somewhat later, between 1.5 million and 1 million years. Species of modern humans populated many parts of the world much later. For instance, people first came to Australia probably within the past 60,000 years and to the Americas within the past 30,000 years or so. The beginnings of agriculture and the rise of the first civilizations occurred within the past 12,000 years.
Humans today represent the one species that has survived from the diversity of hominin species. Despite their very close relationship with our species, and despite the fact that all of them possessed some combination of features that characterize humans today, these earlier species and their ways of life are now extinct.
The question ahead is how well our sources of resilience as a species will succeed as our alterations of the landscape, atmosphere, and water interact with the tendency of Earth’s environment to shift all on its own. This is an ‘experiment’ just now unfolding, one that has never occurred before. The intensity of environmental change seems likely to create entirely new survival challenges for the lone hominin species on the planet, and many other organisms as well.The first known stone tools date to around 2.6 million years ago. Making and using stone tools also conferred versatility in how hominin toolmakers interacted with and adjusted to their surroundings.
Simple toolmaking by stone-on-stone fracturing of rock conferred a selective advantage in that these hominin toolmakers possessed sharp flakes for cutting and hammerstones that were useful in pounding and crushing foods. Basic stone tools thus greatly enhanced the functions of teeth in a way that allowed access to an enormous variety of foods. These foods included meat from large animals, which was sliced from carcasses using sharp edges of flakes. Bones were broken open using stones to access the marrow inside. Other tools could be used to grind plants or to sharpen sticks to dig for tubers. Tool use would have made it easier for hominins to obtain food from a variety of different sources. Tool use would have widened the diet of hominins. Meat, in particular, is a food that was obtainable in equivalent ways, with similar nutritional value, in virtually any type of habitat that early humans encountered.
After 400,000 years ago, hominins found new ways of coping with the environment by creating a variety of different tools. In some parts of Africa, a shift occurred in which a technology dominated by large cutting tools was replaced by smaller, more diverse toolkits. Technological innovations began to appear in the Middle Stone Age in Africa, with some early examples dating prior to 280,000 years ago. Some of the new tools provided ways for hominins to access food in new ways. Points were hafted, or attached to handles such as spear or arrow shafts, and were later used as part of projectile weapons, which allowed hominins to hunt fast and dangerous prey without approaching as closely. Barbed points were used to spear fish. Barbed points made from bone were found at the site of Katanda, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, along with the remains of huge catfish. Grindstones were used to process plant foods. Other tools were used to make clothing which would have been important for hominins in cold environments.