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  • Online publication date: August 2014

1.4 - Early Hominins

from II. - Africa
Summary

History

In this chapter, the term “early hominins” refers to all fossil human ancestor species except for those belonging to the genus Homo. In his book The Descent of Man, published in 1871, Charles Darwin predicted that fossils of the earliest human ancestors would be discovered somewhere in Africa (Darwin 1871). This speculation was put forth based mainly on his observations of the physical similarities between living humans and African great apes, and the spatial distribution of chimpanzees and gorillas, which are found only in Africa today. Before the 1920s, our knowledge of the human fossil record went back only to the Neanderthals in Europe and some presumably earlier human-like forms in Asia (Dubois 1894). The idea that human antiquity could be greater than one hundred thousand years was unacceptable for many, and Africa was considered an unlikely place to look for our origins. As it turns out, Darwin’s longstanding hypothesis has been proven valid: except for the genus Homo, all human ancestors that have existed over the past 7 million years have been exclusively African.

In 1925, Raymond Dart of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, described a juvenile fossil skull known as the Taung Child that was brought to him by quarrymen from a cave in Taung. Dart assigned it to a new genus and species: Australopithecus africanus (Dart 1925). Despite its relatively small brain, he concluded that this species was intermediate between apes and humans owing mainly to details of the brain endocast, the position of the foramen magnum and dental morphology. Most palaeoanthropologists in the 1920s rejected Dart’s claims that Au. africanus was intermediate between apes and humans, suggesting vigorously that the individual was just an ape (Keith 1925). The Taung Child did not fit the popular preconceived notion that the earliest human ancestor should have an ape-like body and a large, human-like brain.

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The Cambridge World Prehistory
  • Online ISBN: 9781139017831
  • Book DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CHO9781139017831
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