An idiots’ guide to the origins of humankind: part 1

Human ancestory: fraught with complexity

Africa and South Africa in particular, have been the site and source of many ground-breaking finds of our human ancestory.  The world of paleontology is fiercely competitive with specialists arguing about classifications – where are humankind’s roots? Hominin or hominid? the transition from ape to man; dating; new species, etc.  Even for experts it’s a minefield fraught with differing views and detailed academic arguments based on mandibles, pelvis structure, brain size, etc. So for a real layperson like me it is very difficult to make sense of. 

I’m a slow learner: in one ear and out the other 

I haven’t managed to  internalize how things fit in terms of the origins of humankind, even at its most simplistic, despite ongoing exposure to expert and in-the-field research findings.  Living in Johannesburg Liz at Lancaster is on the doorstep of the Cradle of Humankind. And Wits University where I taught for 23 years, has been academic home to world-renowned experts in the field: Raymond Dart, Philip Tobias, Ron Clarke, Lee Berger and others.  Wits is a global leader in the Paleosciences with the new Evolutionary Studies Institute.  So given all this I have

  • attended lectures by Tobias, Clarke and Berger 
  • Visited Origins Museum several times
  • Been on tours of dig sites out in the Cradle
Tour of Swartkrans, Cradle of Humankind 2009 Source:

Australopithecus Sediba found in 2008 by Prof Lee Berger Source: 2015
The unveiling of Little Foot at Wits in 2017. Found in 1994 by Ron Clarke and worked on for 20 years.

Not only is the Taung skull housed here but also those hominid remains which have been in the world news recently eg Little Foot (thought to be Australopithecus Prometheus) as well as Australopithecus Sediba. 

  • I’ve even seen Lucy in the National Museum in Addis Ababa.  
Lucy in National Museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Source:
  • I’ve read books (see some recommendations below) but ……. it all seems to have gone in one year and out the other!!  

And still I remain confused. So I decided to really put my mind to making sense of it in basic terms. Here’s my guide, in layperson’s terms, of this complex minefield. My crass oversimplification follows the same principle of a very wise lecturer whom I co-taught with on several occasions when at Wits:  ‘With First Years you have to lie’.  

Idiot’s guide to making sense of our human origins

Classification: Hominid or Hominin

Hominids (apes and human ancestors) to Hominins (humans with their ancestors only) Source:Encylopedia Brittanica 2013
Maropeng exhibit: Paranthropus Robusta and Homo Habilis; both regarded as human ancestors Source:

There is still it seems, some disagreement about these distinctions but it appears that there is now wide acceptance that the term hominid refers to all modern and extinct apes (Gibbons, gorillas, chimps, orangs) and humans. The only way I remember this is Hominid has a d and this group is humans and apes. I warned you this was the idiot’s guide to paleontology!! It seems that our lineage split from apes 7-6 odd MYA years ago (maybe even longer).  

The classification Hominin excludes the apes but refers to any species of early human that is more closely related to humans than chimpanzees, including modern humans themselves. At this point, this includes the genuses homo, australopithecus, ardipithecus and paranthropus.   

Transition between ape and man: the Taung Child 

The Taung Child, part of Wits Fossil Hominin Collection. Identified in 1924 by Raymond Dart as Australopithecus Africanus Source:


In 1924 Raymond Dart, Professor of Anatomy at Wits, received some fossils (mostly of baboons) from workers in a limestone quarry in Taung, near Kimberley in the Free State. Dart however, identified the skull and face of a hominin, which he described as the first specimen of Australopithecus Africanus, a human ancestor. The Taung Child was the first hint that humans originated from Africa.  Sadly Dart’s findings were not believed by the international community for decades. 

Why were Dart’s finding not taken seriously?

  • The hoax of the Piltdown Man:  In 1912 a British amateur archeologist claimed to have found the remains of an ape-man near Piltdown in Sussex. It was only in 1953 that this was confirmed as a composite hoax (with bones from an orang-u-tan and a modern human).  The lengths to which academics will go to claim to be ‘the first to ….’.
  • From the initial find until Dart completed his paper was just over a month and many felt he had come to a rash conclusion too quickly.
  • Until the 1940s, most anthropologists believed that humans had evolved in Asia, not in Africa
  • Many anthropologists were uncomfortable with accepting that humans had a small-brained, ape-like ancestor, like Australopithecus africanus, only +/-two million years ago. Many thought the genus Homo had split some 30 MYA.
  • Some opposed evolution on religious grounds.

Origins of human ancestory: The Australopithecenes (ape-man) to the genus Homo (of which there were many) 

From probably as long ago as 3 million years, there were several human (homo) species existing in the world. See dating for LD 350-1 below (found in 2013 in Ethiopia). 

LD 350-1 is the oldest Homo example found to date (see table below) indicating that the genus Homo co-existed with Australopithecenes.

Below is a summary of some of the most significant finds in human ancestory. It’s important to look at the date of the find as well as how many MYA [Million Years Ago] the fossil has been placed, in order to understand its significance in terms of worldwide paleontology.  

Summary of some of the most ground-breaking hominin fossil discoveries. Source: Liz Delmont


Huge strides have been made in more accurate dating of MYA old fossils.  So, for example, prior to 2014,  Little Foot was dated at between 3.03 and 2.04 MYA. By 2015 this got pushed back to 3.67 MYA with new radioisotopic techniques.  This  indicates that Little Foot (Australopithecus Prometheus) lived at roughly the same time as ape-people like Lucy (Australopithecus Afarensis), previously thought to be the oldest Australopithecene.  

Some Easy Reading:  

Harari, Yuval Noah 2014 Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind 

Blundell, Geoffrey (ed)  2006 Origins The Story of the Emergence of Humans and Humanity in Africa 

Hilton-Barber, Brett and Berger, Lee  2002 The Official Field Guide to the Cradle of Humankind 

Esterhuysen, Amanda 2001 Sterkfontein Early Hominid Site in the “Cradle of Humankind” 

Forthcoming Blog: the spread of humans (the genus Homo) from Africa 

Recent Posts Categories