Our Human Odyssey
Our species’ complex evolutionary journey gives rise to big questions and sometimes, misunderstandings. The following answers address common questions and misconceptions about our human odyssey are informed by scientific knowledge gathered from fossil evidence, DNA research, and anthropological findings.
Q: Humans aren’t animals—we’re people, right?
A: Humans are members of the animal kingdom and as such, subject to evolutionary pressures.
Fun fact: “Animal” comes from the Latin word animalis, meaning “having breath.”
Q: Humans are primates…but what’s a primate?
A: “Primate” refers to a taxonomic name and location on the evolutionary tree of life. Humans belong to the genus and species Homo sapiens. Humans, along with gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos share enough characteristics to be grouped within the order Primates. Primates are one of many orders within the mammalian class of animals.
Fun fact: Hominid refers to our many different human ancestors. It’s less specific than using the names of individual early human species like Homo erectus, or Australopithecus afarensis.
Q: Humans descended from apes, right?
A: Humans, gorillas, and chimpanzees are different species that followed separate evolutionary paths having split from a common ancestor that lived 10 million years ago in Africa.
Q: Isn’t evolution like a ladder where one species dies out and is replaced by the next, superior species?
A: Human evolution is not a straight line. The growth of our family tree included multiple branches, dead ends, and adaptive experiments. In the long time span of human evolution, multiple human species coexisted and occasionally interbred. Homo sapiens is the only human species which exists today.
Fun Fact: Although now extinct, we count these other human species among our closest relatives:
- Homo neanderthalensis
- Homo floresiensis
- Homo denisova
- Homo heidelbergensis
- Homo erectus
- Homo habilis
Q: Did early human species live at the same time as dinosaurs?
A: Modern humans—Homo sapiens—emerged in Africa only 200,000 years ago. Our oldest ancestor, the species Sahelanthropus tchadensis, lived 7–6 million years ago. In contrast, dinosaurs went extinct around 65 million years ago.
Fun fact: Homo habilis emerged in Africa between 3–2 million years ago. Homo erectus existed for more than 2 million years before going extinct 143,000 years ago.
Q: Who was “Lucy” and why is she important?
A: In 1974, Lucy’s skeletal remains were found in Ethiopia’s Afar region. One of the oldest fossils ever discovered, Lucy provided scientists with evidence of bipedal, upright walking by our ancestors.
Both Lucy and Selam (the fossil remains of an ancient three-year-old girl discovered in 2006 by the Academy’s Zeray Alemseged) belong to the species Australopithecus afarensis, which lived between 4–3 million years ago.
Fun fact: Lucy was nicknamed for the Beatles’ song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, which the scientific team led by Donald Johanson and Tom Gray was playing in camp the night after the historic fossil was discovered.
Q: How long did it take for our ancestors to migrate out of Africa?
A: Our journey out of Africa took place over thousands of years and required many attempts by countless generations. Temperature fluctuations and severe climate conditions either limited or enabled these migratory attempts.
Q: People look so different around the world. Modern humans must be a very genetically diverse species, right?
A: We are much more alike than you might think. 90,000–70,000 years ago, our species almost went extinct. Only a few thousand humans survived the extreme changes in climate. Today, there is more genetic diversity in a single troop of chimpanzees than in the world’s humans.
Learn more about the human odyssey.
Visit the Smithsonian’s online exhibit on human origins.
Discover educator resources on human origins.
Still confused about evolution?
Find explanations to common misconceptions about evolution here.