Only in the last 570 million years have life forms that we are familiar with started to evolve. Much of what we know about evolution comes from the fossil record.
The first mammals started appearing about 220 million years ago, and only in the last 200,000 years did we, Homo sapiens, appear.
A mass extinction during the late Cretaceous period (65 million years ago) destroyed three quarters of all plant and animal life; including dinosaurs. During this time, there were mammals around but all species we know today, including ourselves, were small rodent like animals.
For those organisms that survived, the newly emptied ecological niches brought about an abundant emergence of new species through a process called adaptive radiation. Mammalian evolution hugely benefited. The first primates appeared.
Fossils show us that proto-primates had grasping hands and feet, but their eyes were still on the sides of their heads. 55-34 million years ago the first monkey-like primates evolved with forward facing eyes. During this time, an important evolutionary change happened inside primates’ heads - the hole which allows the spinal cord to connect with the brain began to shift from the back of the base of the skull towards the centre implying that some of these early primates were shifting towards a more upright walking position.
Higher primates appeared 34-23 million years ago during a period of global cooling. Grasslands began to expand and forests shrank. Animals evolved to fit the new open landscapes.
The human lineage diverged from apes at least 7 million years ago but it may be as long as 13 million years ago.
The australopithecines are the earliest, undisputed, members of our lineage to walk upright. We have bone fossils to support this. Most famously is Lucy, for which we have 40% of a female hominin skeleton. She dates back to 3.2 million years ago.
Australopithecus evolved into the more familiar Homo genus, to which humans or Homo sapiens belong. The oldest fossil we have in the Homo genus is from 2.8 million years.
Early Homo species including Homo erectus and Homo habilis, walked on 2 legs - as did Lucy. The genus Homo first arose in Africa.
3.3 million years ago we were using stone tools. And we started using fire somewhere between 1.8 million years ago and 800,000 years ago. Accurate dates are hard to settle on.
Homo ergaster left Africa, and colonised Asia in small populations, spreading from Turkey to China. Here in new environments evolved Homo erectus. Despite being bigger and more powerful than Homo sapiens, Homo erectus died out about 30,000 years ago whereas Homo sapiens survived.
Even though other species of Homo had already left Africa, it was only around 60,000 years ago that modern humans migrated out of Africa and began colonising the world. We know this through genetic and fossil evidence.
Our ancestors did continue to interbreed with Neanderthals and other species in the Homo genus.
Scientists currently recognise 15 to 20 different species of modern human.
Neanderthals died out about 30,000 years ago due to the Ice Age limiting food supplies.
Homo floresiensis only died out about 12,000 years ago - they were also known as Hobbits.
In the last 100,000 years complex language, art and agriculture emerged. It was these complex developments which helped Homo sapiens survive where other Homo species did not. Our ancestors were more complex and so could overcome environmental difficulties such as the ice age.
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