History Files


Prehistoric World

Hominid Chronology

by Peter Kessler, 26 July 2005. Updated 9 June 2016



Timeline (in millions of years)
20 million   3.9 million   2.3 million   1.9 million   600,000   350,000   150,000
Homo sapiens

Out of Africa II


Fully modern Homo sapiens ('wise man') became established in Africa after descending from Homo heidelbergensis and going through a transitional phase with Homo sapiens idaltu. Homo sapiens had a characteristic look: their faces were (and of course still are) small and tucked under a high, domed braincase. They had small eyebrow ridges and their lower jaw ended in a prominent chin. On average, their bodies were less muscular than those of earlier hominids. The appearance of modern humans coincided with the appearance of highly crafted tools, efficient food-gathering strategies and a complex social organisation.



In search of new food supplies, Homo sapiens began to cross from Africa into the Middle East. By this Late Pleistocene period, its numbers appear to have been dramatically reduced by a lack of food stocks, perhaps to as low as 2,000 individuals (according to recent genetic research) in the main groups, which meant that for a while Homo sapiens was perilously close to extinction. Other, smaller groups seem to have remained in Africa.

By a strange twist of fate, the harsh conditions that caused this near extinction may also have allowed the cultural explosion that gave rise to human behaviour as we know it today. Professor David Goldstein, a molecular biologist at UCL in London, has uncovered evidence to back up the idea of a very ancient population bottleneck. A bottleneck is an event that reduces the genetic difference, or diversity, in a population of animals. One way this can occur is through a catastrophe that wipes out a large proportion of a population.

If we compare the genes of modern people from all over the world, they are remarkably similar, suggesting that the ancestors of all living people expanded from a small population that survived a bottleneck. The ancient bottleneck proposed by Professor Goldstein must have occurred in Africa, where modern humans evolved. "Our data suggests there was a bottleneck that was not that recent," says Goldstein. The genetic data puts the likely date for this event at just before 100,000 years ago.

It's not known what caused this bottleneck. But a plausible candidate is emerging. By measuring the ratios of different oxygen isotopes in ice cores, scientists can reconstruct climatic changes over time. Oxygen isotope data suggests that between 190,000 and 130,000 years ago – a period known as 'oxygen isotope stage 06' – Africa was drained of moisture and became a parched wasteland, with little to sustain populations of modern humans. "I'm not in a position to say what caused the bottleneck, but it certainly could be a something like that (drought). That scale of climatic change could be responsible for what we see in the genetic data," says Goldstein.



A tiny species of human existed in Indonesia at the same time as Homo sapiens was first migrating out of Africa.

Homo floresiensis was a one-metre-tall (three feet) species which lived on Flores Island (near Java). It had long arms and a skull the size of a large grapefruit and it shared its habitat with a golden retriever-sized rat, giant tortoises, and huge lizards - including Komodo dragons - and a pony-sized dwarf elephant called Stegodon which floresiensis probably hunted.

Floresiensis evolved from Homo erectus, whose remains have been discovered on the Indonesian island of Java and may also have existed to the north of Flores Island, although no finds have so far been discovered. Homo erectus may have arrived on Flores about one million years ago, evolving its tiny physique in the isolation provided by the island in response to the local scarcity of resources (later influxes of Homo sapiens appear to have evolved in the same way to produce pygmies).

Homo sapiens reached the area by 50,000 years ago, by which time this earlier hominid may already have died out. The finds at Liang Bua were initially dated to a point just before 12,000 years ago, when a volcanic eruption snuffed out much of Flores' unique wildlife, but subsequent analysis has pushed them back to between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago.

The initial finds also suggested an arrival date on the island for floresiensis of around 95,000 years ago. But with more information now available this date has also been pushed back, to around 700,000 years ago. The latest discovery, from Mata Menge in 2015, was of fossils that date to this period. They indicated that the normal-sized erectus individuals who first set foot on Flores shrank 'rapidly' to become Hobbit-sized. The remains are of at least one adult and two children, who are all just as small as their descendents.

Stone tools at the same site are even older, at around one million years. It seems likely that a small erectus population found itself trapped on the island and made the best of the situation. Homo erectus was too primitive to be able to craft boats, so they may either have been carried there accidentally by storm weather or they found a temporary land bridge. Once stuck on the island, they adapted remarkably quickly to the lessened resources. In just 300,000 years they were fully Hobbit-sized, a remarkable quick transformation in evolutionary terms.



Successful Hunters



Some groups of Homo sapiens followed the coastline east from northeastern Africa, heading into Persia and South East Asia.

Other Homo sapiens groups settled along the Fertile Crescent and in the south eastern corner of Anatolia. They lived alongside tribes of Homo neanderthalis, and there was a considerable overlap in their competition for resources which lasted for at least 30,000 years (as proved by the discovery of Kebara, a Neanderthal fossil found in Israel and dated to 60,000 years ago) - this was nearly five times longer than when sapiens later reached Europe. The considerably smaller numbers of sapiens at this time, as they moved into a land dominated by neanderthalis probably goes a long way to explaining this.

However, one significant drawback for Neanderthals was the fact that their physique forced them to maintain a high calorific intake. They were forced to hunt for food containing twice as much energy as Homo sapiens. Once they found themselves in direct competition with increasing numbers of Homo sapiens, their hunt successes would have been harmed, perhaps significantly. This would certainly have had a detrimental effect on their existence.






There may have been other bottlenecks that contributed to the small amount of genetic diversity we see in modern humans. Professor Stanley Ambrose of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign believes that the eruption of the volcano Toba in Sumatra at this time was responsible for a volcanic winter that caused an instant ice age.

The large amount of sulphur thrown up into the atmosphere by the eruption reflected sunlight away causing temperatures around the world to plummet. Temperatures in Africa may have fallen by as much as 9°C, creating a freeze that lasted 1,400 years.

"It was a long time, it was unrelentingly cold," says Ambrose. But it didn't just get cold, a temperature change of this magnitude would almost certainly have caused another terrible drought. "Lakes dried up, the earth turned to sand. Every year of drought was geometrically worse than the year before," adds Ambrose.

Ambrose believes it is no coincidence that around this time, modern humans in Africa were undergoing drastic changes in the ways they organised their societies. The harsh climatic conditions that accompanied the volcanic winter may have placed pressure on humans to cooperate with each other. Small foraging groups became larger societies. Ambrose calls this the 'troop-to-tribe transition'.

In India, groups of Homo sapiens had been in direct competition with Homo erectus since the former had arrived there. Homo erectus was a fast, agile hunter that used stone knives to kill and butcher its prey, and was not averse to eating the odd Homo sapiens they came across. However, sapiens was able to out-think its rival, and was armed with stone-tipped spears that erectus never developed. After the Toba freeze, only Homo sapiens leaves any traces of existence in India. There are none from erectus, suggesting that they failed to survive there, and were never to return.

But was there a cause behind such a massive volcanic eruption? Probably not, other than the usual tectonic activity seen along the Pacific Ocean's eastern rim. However, it's a remarkable coincidence that a 2015 discovery, published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, showed that an 'alien star' passed through the outer reaches of the solar system at around this time.

Red Dwarf
The fly-by of this red dwarf and its brown dwarf companion had a fairly small effect on the Oort Cloud due to a combination of low mass and high speed

The star was a red dwarf known as Scholz's star, and it cruised through the outer reaches of the system, carving a path through the Outer Oort Cloud out beyond Pluto. It was accompanied on its travels by a brown dwarf (essentially a failed star that lacked the necessary mass to trigger fusion at its core). It came five times closer to our own sun that our normally nearest stellar neighbour, Proxima Centauri.

The effect of a passing star on the Oort Cloud is a function of the star's mass, speed and proximity. The worst case scenario for stirring up comets would be a slow-moving, massive star that came close to our sun like this. If the star itself didn't have any effect on Earth's volcanic activity, could a particularly large comet?



In 2011 a DNA sample from a lock of hair demonstrated that indigenous Aboriginal Australians were the first to separate from other modern humans, around 70,000 years ago. They entered Australia by 50,000 years ago, giving them a longer claim to the land in which they now live than any other population known.

They were probably part of the wave of humans who entered into India from the Middle East, mostly following the coastline as they headed into South-East Asia, but some groups probably followed the Ganges to cut across the sub-continent. Given their relatively early arrival in Australia, it seems likely the the Aborigines were amongst the first humans to leave India.



Homo sapiens first reached Australia after spreading slowly through South Asia and Sunda-land. Lowered sea levels had created a landbridge which meant that the South Asian islands were joined together above sea level as far south as Java.

But the peopling of Australia was a long-term process involving numerous subsequent movements of people out from Asia. Two routes were possible: one from Southern China through the Philippines and into New Guinea, the second from South East Asia through the islands of Indonesia and into Northern Australia.

Although the frequent lowering of sea levels during Ice Ages caused the Sunda shelf to become fully exposed, and the same thing happened to the Sahul shelf - comprising Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania -  the two were never linked. Both of the colonisation routes therefore required a sea journey of at least 60 kilometres of open sea, so sea-going craft would have been essential. What these groups of Homo sapiens used for this so far remains unknown.

Settlement in Sahul-land expanded rapidly, with the southern and eastern areas becoming fully occupied within 25,000 years. During this time the environment changed quite dramatically, becoming increasingly dry and reaching a peak of aridity 18,000 to 16,000 years ago, followed by a slight improvement in conditions. The same dramatic changes brought about the extinction of the giant marsupials at the end of this period.

After 40,000 years of Homo sapiens settlement on on Sahul-land,  rising sea levels cut off New Guinea and Tasmania, and covered the rich coastal sites. This was simultaneous with the appearance of another variety of human type in Australia, fully modern but with a heavy robust skull. These individuals may be a later wave of immigrants, but it is also possible that they are the result of local breeding effects on a small community.



Homo erectus was still in existence in Java, but probably not for long.

Recent studies into the complicated stratigraphy of the Java Homo erectus sites have revealed some surprising information. Researchers have dated the deposits thought to contain erectus fossils near the Solo River in Java to only 50,000 years ago. This would mean that at least one population of Homo erectus in Java was a contemporary of Homo sapiens.

The two species had some level of direct contact, as is proven by the distribution of lice. Lice have stuck with hominids and their primate ancestors for at least 20 million years, and their lineages are remarkably close to those of the hominids. The distribution of lice around the world proves that there was either some interbreeding on a limited scale between erectus and sapiens, or sapiens hunted erectus for food and the lice were  transmitted during the process of preparing the meat. This very individual strain of lice (found only in the Americas) was then carried by sapiens as they headed northwards towards Beringia. The first wave of humans arrived there around 48,000 years ago.

Homo erectus may have held on in Java for another 20,000 years before it died out totally.



Something happened that transformed the world of Homo neanderthalis, especially in Europe. There was a sudden change in the weather. The climate in Europe began to deteriorate significantly, getting colder and drier. Although this had happened before, during other gaps between Ice Ages, this was different. The changes were more rapid, and very unsettled, with no particular pattern emerging. And they were simply getting worse and worse.

Neanderthals were built to survive the cold, but the speed of this climate change was different to anything they had experienced before. These changes were not happening at a scale of thousands of years, sometimes they were at a scale of tens of years or hundreds of years, within the space of a few Neanderthal generations.

They faced a crisis of survival. The forests in which they lived were dying out because of the weather. And in this new, more open landscape, they would have found it increasingly difficult to hunt. Neanderthal hunting methods - on the edge of woodland where their prey wouldn't see them coming - just wouldn't work so well on open step land environments because the size and weight of their heavy spears made them almost useless for throwing any distance.



Homo denisovan certainly existed at this time, especially in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, but at the moment, this recently-discovered cousin of H sapiens is mostly a mystery.

Homo sapiens' 'troop-to-tribe' transition seems to have involved systems of gift exchange between distant peoples. Beads made out of ostrich eggshell seem to have been important items in this system of gift-giving, as they are today amongst South African !Kung San hunter-gatherers.

The earliest examples of these beads have been dated to 40,000 years old. These beads were exchanged over areas of 200km in order to secure future favours when times became tough. In this way, humans increased the likelihood of survival or 'spread the risk of survival'. Gift-giving was a key activity of early modern humans, as it is today.

Another important innovation after 70,000 years ago is the invention of a stone tool technology called 'microliths' in Africa. Microliths are small flakes and blades that characterise the Later Stone Age in Africa. These tools are very diverse, because each was specialised for a task. Ambrose describes previous stone technologies as jack-of-all-trades (master of none) toolkits, whereas microliths reflect modern humans using the right tool for the job.

At the same time, Homo sapiens first emerged into Europe and began to compete with the indigenous Homo neanderthalis population for food and resources. Neanderthals were already facing problems from abrupt climate change, so when the first Homo sapiens arrived in northern Europe with their new technology - a much lighter spear that could be thrown - Neanderthals were hit again with the blow of being out-hunted.

In fact, it could have been Neanderthal's loss of dominance in Europe that opened the door for Homo sapiens to begin moving west from Anatolia and competing directly with them. Homo sapiens was established across all of habitable Europe within 5,000 years.



What characterised all Neanderthals was their extraordinarily short lower limbs, built for power but not so good for speed or long distance running. They also had a pelvis that itself was extraordinarily broad. This meant that the pelvis was not going to be as bio-mechanically efficient in long distance locomotion as that of Homo sapiens.

It seems that the very features that made Neanderthal perfectly adapted to the rigours of the Ice Age had also locked him into an evolutionary dead end. Homo sapiens may not have been adapted to the cold, but they were tailor made for the open plains. They were better able to exploit the open spaces, the step land habitats that were expanding in Ice Age Europe. And as the forest retreated, the Neanderthals retreated along with them.

Unable to survive in the open Neanderthals could only have clung on in ever decreasing woodland refuges. And as their habitat collapsed around them their population fell.

The effect seems to be that the populations that were once closely connected across Europe began to get fragmented and scattered. There came a point at which these populations were no longer viable and the Neanderthals became extinct, with their last communities on the western edges of Europe, in modern Portugal, disappearing.



Research in 2011 showed that modern humans and archaic humans, or Homo denisovan, were interbreeding on the mainland of East Asia.

A study indicated that people in East Asia share genetic material with Denisovans, suggesting that the modern human ancestors of East Asians interbred with Denisovans around this time.

Previous studies indicated the occurrence of two separate hybridisation points between archaic humans, who are genetically and morphologically different from modern humans, and modern human ancestors after leaving Africa. One occurred between Neanderthals and modern humans and the other between Denisovans and ancestors of Oceanians.

But the latest study indicates that hybridisation also occurred in East Asia. This was determined using genotype data, which greatly expands the database. Recent studies have been limited to using complete genomes of modern humans, only available from comparatively few individuals. Genotype data, on the other hand, is currently available from thousands of individuals. Using advanced computer simulation, the genotype data was compared with the genome sequence data derived from bones recovered from Neanderthal locations and the single known Denisovan location.

Findings showed that modern individuals, mainly from South-East Asia, have a higher proportion of Denisova-related genetic variants than people from other parts of the world, such as Europe, the Americas, West and Central Asia, and Africa. Genetic material from these archaic humans lives on to a greater extent than was previously thought, although very little is known of the history of these groups and when their contacts with modern humans occurred.



In 2012, what seems to be the remains of a previously unknown human species were identified in southern China. The bones, which represented at least five individuals, were dated to between 11,500 and 14,500 years ago.

They were named simply the Red Deer Cave people, after one of the sites from which they were unearthed, at Maludong (or Red Deer Cave), near the city of Mengzi in Yunnan Province. A further skeleton was discovered at Longlin, in neighbouring Guangxi Province. The skulls and teeth from the two locations are very similar to each other, suggesting they are from the same population.

The Red Deer Cave people have a mix of archaic and modern characteristics. In general, the individuals had rounded brain cases with prominent brow ridges. Their skull bones were quite thick. Their faces were quite short and flat and tucked under the brain, and they had broad noses. Their jaws jutted forward but they lacked a modern-human-like chin. Computed Tomography (X-ray) scans of their brain cavities indicate they had modern-looking frontal lobes but quite archaic-looking anterior, or parietal, lobes. They also had large molar teeth.

One theory for the origins of this group posits that they represent a very early migration of a primitive-looking Homo sapiens that lived separately from other forms in Asia before dying out. Another possibility contends that they were indeed a distinct Homo species that evolved in Asia (out of Homo erectus) and lived alongside Homo sapiens until remarkably recently. A third scenario being suggested by scientists not connected with the research is that the Red Deer Cave people could be hybrids. A fourth is that they were Homo sapiens who evolved more primitive features independently because of genetic drift or isolation, or in a response to an environmental pressure such as climate.

A good deal more investigation is required before any decision on this new find can be made.



A new wave of Homo sapiens crossed the frozen Baring Straits - Beringia - and entered the Americas.

Despite years of controversy over when humans first entered the Americas (a date around 40,000 years ago for the very first of them still cannot be discounted), it was proven without doubt in 2011 that those scholars who were sticking to the Clovis culture first idea were now definitely mistaken.

A mastodon rib was dated precisely to 11,800 years ago and was found to have a projectile point lodged in it.

This placed it before the so-called Clovis hunters, although in truth, the "Clovis first" model, which held to the idea that America's original human population swept across a land-bridge from Siberia some 11,000 years ago, had looked untenable for some time. A succession of archaeological finds right across the United States and northern Mexico had already indicated that there was human activity much earlier than this - perhaps as early as 13-14,000 years ago. It was the mastodon rib that clinched it.

The specimen has actually been known about for more than thirty years. It was found in the late 1970s near Manis, just north of Seattle, in Washington State. It is plainly from an old male animal that had been attacked with some kind of weaponry.

DNA investigation also threw up a remarkable irony - the point itself was made from mastodon bone, proving that the people who fashioned it were systematically hunting or scavenging animal bones to make their tools.

This species, Homo sapiens,  was now the most successful ever, having colonised and thrived on all six habitable continents and out-competed all related Homo species.





All images copyright © BBC or affiliates unless otherwise stated. No breach of copyright is intended or inferred. Text copyright © P L Kessler, adapted from numerous sources and notes, most notably the BBC tv series, Walking with Cavemen, and subsequent archaeological discoveries. An original feature for the History Files.