Olduvai Gorge
Famous sites were groundbreaking discoveries were made include the sites where Java Man, Peking Man, Taung Child, and the first Neanderthal were found. See Java Man, Peking Man, Taung Child, and the first Neanderthal. Scientists now use satellite imagery to locate isolated but promising sites, where recession has washed ancient sediments that may reveal important remains.

Many of the great early man discovery sites — Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, Lake Turkana, Kenya and Hadar and the Middle Awash, Ethiopia — are located in the Great Rift Valley in east Africa. The way the Great Rift Valley has formed makes it ideal for creating and collecting fossils. "It's a low area that collects sediments necessary to bury and preserve bones,” Bob Water of the University of California, Berkeley told National Geographic, "There's also volcanic ash, which lets us date the sediments. Faulting along the rift helps by bringing old bones back to the surface where we can find them."

There is some rivalry between East Africa and South Africa as to which hold the honor of being the birthplace of our species. Taung Child, Little Foot and several Australopithecines and modern human fossils were found in South Africa. Lucy, Zinjanthropus, Turkana Boy, the Laetoli Footprints and several Australopithecines and modern human fossils were found in East Africa. ““What it all seems to point to,” paleontologist Brian Richmond told National Geographic,” is... whether that earlier common ancestor was in South Africa, or East Africa, or some entirely different part of Africa, we still can’t tell.” Paleontologist Patricia Kramer said: "If you imagine our human origins as a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, then today we have maybe eight pieces near the east edge and four pieces from the south. We can grasp a bit of the pattern, but we're nowhere near seeing the whole picture. And neither the east nor the south are more important than each other. We need both.” [Source: Evan Hadingham, National Geographic, September 11, 2015]

Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program humanorigins.si.edu ; Institute of Human Origins iho.asu.edu ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site becominghuman.org ; Talk Origins Index talkorigins.org/origins ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History amnh.org/exhibitions ; The Bradshaw Foundation bradshawfoundation.com ; Human Evolution Images evolution-textbook.org; Hominin Species talkorigins.org ; Paleoanthropology Links talkorigins.org ; Britannica Human Evolution britannica.com ; Human Evolution handprint.com ; University of California Museum of Anthropology ucmp.berkeley.edu; BBC The evolution of man" bbc.co.uk/sn/prehistoric_life; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) bbc.co.uk/sn/prehistoric_life ; PBS Evolution: Humans pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library ; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog johnhawks.net/ ; New Scientist: Human Evolution newscientist.com/article-topic/human-evolution; Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society paleoanthro.org; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization) iho.asu.edu/; The Leakey Foundation leakeyfoundation.org; Turkana Basin Institute turkanabasin.org; Koobi Fora Research Project kfrp.com; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa maropeng.co.za ; Blombus Cave Project web.archive.org/web; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution journals.elsevier.com/; American Journal of Biological Anthropology onlinelibrary.wiley.com; Evolutionary Anthropology onlinelibrary.wiley.com; Comptes Rendus Palevol PaleoAnthropology paleoanthro.org.

Features About Africa That Allowed Hominins to Evolve There

Norman Owen-Smith wrote: That humans originated in Africa is widely accepted. But it’s not generally recognised how unique features of Africa’s ecology were responsible for the crucial evolutionary transitions from forest-inhabiting fruit-eater to savanna-dwelling hunter. These were founded on earth movements and aided physically by Africa’s seasonal aridity, bedrock-derived soils and absence of barriers to movements between north and south. These features promoted extensive savanna grasslands marked by erratic rainfall, regular fires and abundant numbers of diverse grazing and browsing animals.

My lifelong studies have focused on the ecology of Africa’s large herbivores and their effects on savanna vegetation. What emerges is the realisation that this amazing evolutionary transformation could only have occurred in Africa. This recognition emphasises the deep cultural legacy formed by Africa’s large mammal heritage for all of humankind....It was the abundance specifically of medium and large grazers in fertile savannas, concentrated near water in the dry season, that enabled the evolutionary transformation of a relatively puny ape into a feared hunter in Africa.

Africa’s high-lying interior plateau generated the seasonal dryness that restricted plant growth through its eastern and southern regions. Widespread volcanically derived soils were sufficiently fertile to foster the spread of medium-large grazers adapted to digest dry grass efficiently. These especially abundant herbivores crowded around remaining waterholes, providing sufficient remnants of flesh and marrow to make scavenging a reliable means to overcome shortages of edible plant parts during the dry season. The increased dependence on meat to supplement a plant-based diet led to social coordination between male hunters and female gatherers, which in turn promoted advances in communication and tool technology supported by expanding cranial capacity. If Africa had remained largely low-lying and leached of nutrients like most of South America and Australia, this would not have been possible.

Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania

Olduvai Gorge is where paleontologists Louis and Mary Leakey made many of their most important discoveries. A 30-mile-long ravine in Tanzania's Serengeti Plain, it is situated in a piece of land occupied between 1.9 and 1.2 million years ago by a salt lake surrounded by woodlands and savanna and between 1.2 million and 620,000 years by woodlands and savanna broken up pods and streams. Olduvai Gorge not produced some great hominin discoveries it also provided many clues to the climate conditions existing at the time that various hominin species lived.

The Leakeys chose Olduvai Gorge as a hominin prospecting site because of the vast amount of stone tools of exposed layers of rock that was two million year old years or older. The Leakeys worked the site for nearly two decades before Mary Leakey discovered the “Zinjanthropus” skull, one of the Leakey family’s greatest finds. The gorge became famous and associated with early hominin finds. A line from a joke in British satirical magazine Punch went: "When the first men were fashioned in the Good Lord's forge, He sent them, it seems, to Olduvai Gorge."

Cradle of Humankind, South Africa

The world’s greatest source of hominin fossils is among dozens of caves just hours from Johannesburg, Sterkfontein Cavem for example, hold the fossilized skeletons of hominins who fell into holes or were dragged underground by predators. Erin Wayman wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Three million years ago, an eagle soared above an enormous forest in South Africa and zeroed in on its target. Among a group of hominins searching for fruits, nuts and seeds, a 3-year-old child had strayed too far away from its mother. The eagle swooped down, grabbed the 25-pound toddler with its talons and flew off to its nest, perched above the opening to an underground cave. As the eagle dined on its meal, scraps fell into the cave below.[Source: Erin Wayman, Smithsonian Magazine, January 2012 =]

“Similarly hair-raising tales—hominins being dragged into caves by leopards or accidentally falling into hidden holes—explain why South Africa’s limestone caves are the world’s greatest source of hominin fossils. About 900 have been recovered from more than a dozen sites scattered over 180 square miles of grassland within a few hours’ drive from Johannesburg. The area is known as the Cradle of Humankind. Scientists have identified at least four hominin species—in addition to our own, Homo sapiens—that lived in this region at various times over the past 3.5 million years. =

“Fossils from South African caves have played a critically significant role in the development of our concepts of human evolution,” says C.K. “Bob” Brain, a curator emeritus at South Africa’s Transvaal Museum, who began studying the caves in the 1950s. The first major discovery of a hominin from the Cradle came in 1924, when the anatomist Raymond Dart found an unusual, bumpy rock among rubble that had been sent to him from a quarry. After months of chipping away at it with one of his wife’s knitting needles, Dart liberated a skull and stared into the face of what appeared to be a young ape that looked surprisingly human. Now known as the Taung Child after the town where it was discovered, it was the first evidence of the species Australopithecus africanus. (More recently scientists have determined that two holes in the skull were made by an eagle’s talons.) Prior to Dart’s discovery, scientists thought human ancestors emerged in Europe or Asia. The Taung and other fossils—more primitive than Eurasian hominins but still possessing human characteristics, such as the ability to walk upright—compelled early-hominin hunters to shift their search to Africa. =

“Visitors to the Cradle of Humankind can visit Sterkfontein and see a replica of “Little Foot,” a specimen recovered in 1997 that is among the most complete Australopithecus skeletons ever found. The location of one of the Cradle’s most famous specimens—the roughly two-million-year-old Australopithecus africanus skull nicknamed Mrs. Ples (who scientists now think is actually Mr. Ples)—is another highlight of the tour. Those who want to see an active excavation site can arrange private tours of Swartkrans—a cave that is home to an abundance of stone and bone tools dating back almost two million years and some 270 burned bones estimated to be more than one million years old. These bones may be evidence of the earliest known controlled fires. “There’s a rich behavioral record at Swartkrans that we’re trying to plumb for as much information as we can,” says Travis Pickering, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Swartkrans Paleoanthropological Research Project.One question Pickering is trying to answer is who made the tools and tended the fires. Both species that lived in the area at the time—Homo erectus and Paranthropus robustus—were probably capable of manufacturing tools, he says. “We’re trying to investigate and disentangle...what behaviors distinguish these two closely related species.” =

“One of the most exciting discoveries from the Cradle of Humankind came in 2010, when researchers led by Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, announced they had unearthed a new hominin species, Australopithecus sediba, in South Africa’s Malapa Cave. The hominin, nearly two million years old, shares enough crucial features with the genus Homo that its discoverers think it might be the long-sought direct ancestor of our genus, filling in a blank spot in the fossil record. If so, then the Cradle could be the site where hominins evolved beyond their more ape-like features and moved closer to being human.” =

History of Discoveries at the Cradle of Humankind

Evan Hadingham wrote in National Geographic: “If you drive into the high veld country an hour northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa, you might not even notice when you cross into the Cradle of Humankind. The reason 180 square miles of open grasslands and scattered acacia and stinkwood trees have been given such a resonant honorific—it’s a World Heritage site, no less—lies mostly hidden underground, in the fossil-rich labyrinth of caves and sinkholes that riddle the limestone bedrock. [Source: Evan Hadingham, National Geographic, September 11, 2015 **/]

“South Africa’s initial claim to be humanity’s home goes back almost a hundred years. In 1924, anatomist Raymond Dart found a skull of a juvenile primate among a box of fossil-bearing rocks sent to him by the manager of a quarry at Taung, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Despite a tiny brain and other apelike features, the position of the opening at the base of the skull convinced Dart that the “Taung child” had walked upright like a human. He described the find as Australopithecus africanus (“southern ape of Africa”). **/

“For many years, the Taung child remained an isolated oddity that few scientists took seriously. An exception was Scottish doctor and paleontologist Robert Broom, who in 1936 discovered the first fragments of an adult australopithecine in Sterkfontein, today’s most visited cave in the Cradle of Humankind. Broom later found a nearly complete pelvis there, confirming that australopithecines were upright walkers. Broom planted the South African fossils firmly on the scientific map in a 1946 study, concluding that these ancestors were “nearly men, and were certainly closely allied to mankind.”

“Firmly planted in East Africa, that version of the family tree cast a shadow over South Africa. Some new fossils were still emerging from the Cradle of Humankind, including a spectacular australopithecine skeleton dubbed Little Foot, more complete than any ever found, Lucy included. But it took its discoverer, Ron Clarke, 15 years to free it from the rock that entombed it deep in Sterkfontein cave. “And like many other South Africa finds, Little Foot suffers from an uncertain date. There are no neat layers of sediment with time stamps of volcanic ash in South African caves. Slightly acidic rainwater percolates down through the limestone and etches out a chaos of chambers, fissures, shafts, and passages. Fossils might end up there by many routes, at many times, with little information on what happened when. **/

“With so many challenges, the prospects for major breakthroughs in South Africa might seem unpromising. But recently, Lee Berger’s gift for finding astonishing fossil caches has pulled attention back to the Cradle of Humankind. At a site called Malapa in 2008, and now in the Rising Star cave ten miles away, his team has uncovered unprecedented numbers of fossil bones, adding two completely new species” — Homo naledi and Australopithecus sediba — “to the human family tree. Armed with their tantalizing mix of primitive and advanced features, Berger has become the champion of a resurgent South African claim to be the true birthplace of humankind.**/

fossil sites in Africa

History of Discoveries in East Africa

Evan Hadingham wrote in National Geographic: “In the 1950s, Louis Leakey, the Kenyan-born son of English missionaries, was struggling to vindicate his long-held belief that humanity was in fact rooted in his native East Africa. His quest finally bore fruit in 1959, when he and his wife, Mary, discovered an australopithecine skull in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge. A year later, the Leakeys found fossils of a more advanced species, seemingly a bridge from the australopithecines to us. They dubbed it Homo habilis, or “handy man,” after a scatter of stone tools close by. [Source: Evan Hadingham, National Geographic, September 11, 2015 **/]

“Aided by Leakey’s charismatic personality—and extensive coverage by National Geographic—the finds drew global attention. But what really moved the human origins spotlight to East Africa was the ability to accurately pin an age on the bones the Leakeys and others were uncovering. While neither the fossils nor the ancient sediments they were found in could be dated directly, volcanic ash layers interspersed between the sediments, like layers of icing in a cake, could be dated by the clocklike decay of their radioactive elements, fixing limits to the age of the fossil-rich sediments above or below. These volcanic ash deposits are a feature throughout the Great Rift Valley running north to south through East Africa, so the ability to date them proved crucial not only for Louis and Mary Leakey’s finds at Olduvai Gorge but also for the later discoveries of their son Richard on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya, and for the team led by Donald Johanson that discovered the Lucy skeleton in Hadar, in Ethiopia, in 1974. **/

“Being able to date fossils enabled researchers to know how old they were in relationship to each other, connecting the discoveries emerging from the East African Rift into a phylogeny—a human family tree. Johanson and his collaborator Tim White assigned the Lucy skeleton and some other fossils to a new species, Australopithecus afarensis, dated to 3.2 million years ago. In their phylogeny, A. afarensis was the ancestor to Homo habilis, at a little under two million years old the most primitive member of our genus. H. habilis evolved into the younger, more advanced species Homo erectus, which in turn evolved into us. And Dart’s “southern ape,” A. africanus? Along with some other species with robust skulls and teeth and gorilla-like crests on their craniums, it was assigned to an extinct side branch of the family tree.” **/

Lake Turkana

Lake Turkana
Lake Turkana National Parks was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997: According to UNESCO: “Lake Turkana National Parks are constituted of Sibiloi National Park, the South Island and the Central Island National Parks, covering a total area of 161,485 hectares located within the Lake Turkana basin whose total surface area is 7 million ha. The Lake is the most saline lake in East Africa and the largest desert lake in the world, surrounded by an arid, seemingly extraterrestrial landscape that is often devoid of life. The long body of Lake Turkana drops down along the Rift Valley from the Ethiopian border, extending 249 kilometers from north to south and 44 km at its widest point with a depth of 30 meters. It is Africa's fourth largest lake, fondly called the Jade Sea because of its breathtaking color. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage site website =]

“The property represents unique geo-morphological features with fossil deposits on sedimentary formations as well as one hundred identified archaeological and paleontological sites. There are numerous volcanic overflows with petrified forests. The existing ecological conditions provide habitats for maintaining diverse flora and fauna. =

“At Kobi Fora to the north of Allia Bay, extensive paleontological finds have been made, starting in 1969, with the discovery of Paranthropus boisei. The discovery of Homo habilis thereafter is evidence of the existence of a relatively intelligent hominid two million years ago and reflect the change in climate from moist forest grassland when the now petrified forest were growing to the present hot desert. The human and pre-human fossils include the remains of five species, Austrolophithecus anamensis, Homo habilis/rudolfensis, Paranthropus boisei, Homo erectus and Homo sapiens all found within one locality. These discoveries are important for understanding the evolutionary history of the human species.” =

Hadar, Ethiopia

The badlands around Hadar and Aramis, Ethiopia contains some of the world's richest fossil beds. Many of the fossil hunters are Afar tribesmen from the village of Elowaha to the north. Equipped with sticks for balance and traction on the tricky landscape of lose sands, lava and volcanic ash, the Afar, wrote paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson "can spot a hominin tooth from standing height with the sun in his eyes."

The badlands around Hadar and Aramis are known for their extreme heat, flash floods, malaria and occasional shoot-outs between rival clans and ethnic groups. There are also lions, hyenas and a variety of snakes that scientists and fossil hunters have to contend with. Although the region is dry and desolate now it was once home to forests and wetlands. Hominin find are rare. Fossil mammal that frequently show up including include ancient elephants, hippos, rhinos and antelopes.

Hadar is located near the head of the Great Rift Valley, where the African, Somali and Arabian tectonic plates meet. It has been the site of numerous volcanic eruptions which have left behind ash that make fossils found there relatively easy to precisely date. Lucy was discovered in 1974 near Hadar. More than than 320 “Australopithecus afarenis” fossils ranging in age between 3 million and 3.4 million years in age have been found in the same area.

Ethiopian king Haile Selassie gave permission to scientists to begin exploring Ethiopia for hominin fossils in the 1960s after he ran into Louis Leakey at a diplomatic event and asked him why all the great early man discoveries were being made in Kenya and Tanzania not Ethiopia. Leakey told the Ethiopian leader that significant fossils surely could be found all that was slacking was government permission to look. Selassie gave his permission. In the 1980s, the Communist government of Ethiopia imposed a 10 year moratorium on fieldwork in Ethiopia. Fieldwork resumed in the 1990s after the Communist regime was ousted. More discoveries were made and continue to made today. The biggest obstacle to working in the region today is trouble from gun-toting Afar tribesmen, some of whom are bitter they haven’t been hired as fossil hunters.

Aramis and Middle Awash, Ethiopia

Middle Awash area around Aramis Ethiopia has been described by National Geographic as “the most persistently occupied place on Earth. Hominins have lived there for almost six million years and left behind a step by step record of how mankind’s ancestors evolved.[Source: Jamie Shreeve, National Geographic, July 2010]

The Middle Awash area lies west of the often dry Awash River and north of Yardi Lake in a part of the Great Rift Valley not far from where Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti come together. The area has been ideal for preserving fossils as bones of prehistoric animals were quickly buried by sediments in flood plains and deltas and then were exposed millions of years later as the valley pulled apart and sediments were uplifted and eroded. Fossils can be dated using volcanic material that fell on the sediments and using basalt east of the Awash River can be used to date sediments underneath them based on periodic changes in the Earth’s magnetic polarity.

Scientists from around the world, assisted by Afar tribesmen, are searching through the dirt and sediment layers. The main excavations are led by Tim White, a paleoanthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and his Ethiopian colleagues Berhame Asfaee and Giday WoldeGabriel.

“Ardipithecus ramidus” —“Ardi” — was discovered in the Aramis area. The sediment in which she was found is part of a 10-kilometer-long arc that has yielded more than 6,000 vertebrate fossils, including 35 other “Ardipithecus ramidus” individuals. Fossils of “Australopithecus garhi, Australopithecus afarensis” and “Australopithecus anemensis” and 5.8-million-year-old “Ardipithecus ramidus kabbada” have been found here too. The fossils of 160,000-year-old Herto Man were found a little to the south near Lake Yardi. See Herto Man, Early Modern Man.

Lower Valley of the Awash, Ethiopia: Discovery Place of Lucy

Awash River, Ethiopia

The Awash River valley in Ethiopia, Tia Ghose wrote in Live Science, is an “arid region — part of the East African Rift valley, where two continental plates are peeling apart — has yielded some of the best examples of both early hominin fossils and fossils from anatomically modern early humans [Source: Tia Ghose, Live Science, August 20, 2015]

The Lower Awash Valley was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980: According to UNESCO: “The Awash valley contains one of the most important groupings of palaeontological sites on the African continent. The remains found at the site, the oldest of which date back at least 4 million years, provide evidence of human evolution which has modified our conception of the history of humankind. The most spectacular discovery came in 1974, when 52 fragments of a skeleton enabled the famous Lucy to be reconstructed. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage site website =]

The Lower Awash Valley paleo-anthropological site is located 300 km northeast of Addis Ababa, in the west of the Afar Depression. It covers an area of around 150 km2. Excavations by an international team of palaeontologists and pre-historians began in 1973, and continued annually until 1976, and ended in 1980. In that time, they found a large quantity of fossilised hominid and animal bones in a remarkable state of preservation, the most ancient of which were at least four million years old. In 1974, the valley produced the most complete set of remains of a hominid skeleton, Australopithecus afarensis, nicknamed ‘Lucy’, dating back 3.2 million years. Afarensis has since been proved to be the ancestral origin for both the Genus Australopithecus and Homo-sapiens. =

A recovered female skeleton nicknamed ‘Ardi’ is 4.4 million years old, some 1.2 million years older than the skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis ‘Lucy’. There is a wealth of paleo-anthropological and pre-historic tools still awaiting discovery and scientific study and these are seen as constituting an exceptionally important cultural heritage resource. =

The Lower Valley of the Awash is important becaise: 1) The evidence of hominid and animal fossil remains discovered in the Lower Awash Valley testify to developments in human evolution that have modified views of the history of mankind as a whole. 2) The excavated paleo-anthropological remains from the Lower Awash Valley dating back almost 4 million years are of exceptional antiquity. 3) The human vestiges that have been excavated dating back over 3 million years provide an exceptional record that contributes to an understanding of human development.

“The boundaries of the sites have yet to be defined. The most extensive remains assigned were found in Hadar, one of the localities within the Lower Awash Valley, but the rest of the valley is seen to have the potential to contribute to further paleontological and historical evidence. Furthermore, the Middle Awash Valley has been the focus of intensive research since 1981 and it is the entire valley that is now seen to constitute one of the most important paleontological and pre-historical sites in the world. The boundaries of the property need to be defined to encompass all the attributes related to known and potential archaeological evidence. A buffer zone needs to be provided for the property. In spite of its remote location in the Afar Depression, the property is reportedly the target of individual tourists hunting fossil souvenirs and is thus highly vulnerable. =

Woranso-Mille in Ethiopia's Afar Region

Pete Spotts wrote in Christian Science Monitor: ““A. deyiremeda's remains were found at a site in Ethiopia's Afar region known as Woranso-Mille, about 22 miles north of another site rich in A. afarensis fossils – pointing to the possibility that the two species roamed the same general region at about the same time. With several Australopithecus species living in eastern and central Africa in the same general period, "we're looking at hominins who are potential candidates as human ancestors," says Henry Bunn, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. During this period, known as the middle Pliocene, the climate was getting cooler and drier. Vegetation and food resources were changing. [Source: Pete Spotts, Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 2015]

With Lucy and subsequent discoveries, it now appears that the middle Pliocene also hosted a diverse array of hominins that included at least one additional group beyond Australopithecines – a group represented by Kenyanthropus platyops. The newly discovered jawbones and teeth – dated to between 3.5 and 3.3 million years ago – shared some characteristics with A. afarensis and others with K. platyops. This period also coincides with the appearance of the earliest stone tools yet found, a discovery announced last week in another paper in Nature.

“The new species is yet another confirmation that Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, was not the only potential human ancestor species," according to Yohannes Haile-Selassie, curator of physical anthropology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History who headed the team making the discovery. “Current fossil evidence from the Woranso-Mille study area clearly shows that there were at least two, if not three, early human species living at the same time and in close geographic proximity,” he said in a prepared statement.

Sangiran, Indonesia: Where Java Man Was Discovered


Sangiran (10 miles from Solo) is near where the skull of "Java Man" was found. A small museum is dedicated to the ancient fossil. Java man was discovered by Eugene DuBois, a young Dutch military doctor, who came to Java in 1887 with the sole purpose of finding the "missing link" between humans and apes after hearing about discoveries of ancient human bones (which later turned out to belong to modern humans) near the Javanese village of Wajak, near Tulung Agung, in eastern Java.

With the help of 50 East Indian convict laborers, he discovered a skull cap and thighbone — that clearly didn't belong to an ape — along the banks of the Sunngai Bengawan Solo River in 1891. After measuring the cranial capacity of the skull with mustard seeds, Dubois realized that the creature was more of an "ape-like man" than a "man-like ape." Dubois dubbed the find Pithecanthropus erectus , or "upright ape-man," which is now regarded as an example of Homo erectus . He also discovered a fossilized primate jawbone at Trinil further east down the Solo river. This jawbone possessed distinctly human characteristics. Dubois was convinced that this was Darwin’s “missing link” in the evolution of man but lacked the evidence to prove his theory.

The discovery of Java Man was one the first major hominid finds. It helped launch the study of early man. Dubois’s finding created such a storm of controversy that Dubois felt compelled to re-bury the bones for 30 years to protect them. DuBois was the student of Ernst Haeckel, a Charles Darwin disciple who wrote History of Natural Creation (1947), which advocated the Darwinian view of evolution and speculated about primitive human beings. Dubois came to Indonesia with the ambition of confirming Haekel's theories. He died a bitter man because his discoveries he felt weren't taken seriously.

After Dubois other Homo erectus bones were unearthed in Java. In the 1930s, Ralph Berlin born paleontologist G H R von Koenigswald, unearthed a fossilized Homo erectus jawbone and other fossils, dated at be over 1 million years old, near the village of Sangiran, along the Solo river, 15 kilometers north of Solo. The fossils found by Koenigswald were much lder than those found by Dubois. Other fossils have been found along the Sungai Bengawan Solo in Central and East Java and near Pacitan in East Java's south coast. In 1936 a skull of a child was found at Perning neat Mojokerto. Java man was proof that Homo erectus existed in Java about as early as in Africa.

Zhoukoudian: the Peking Man Site


The site where Peking Man was found is in a cave on a low hill called Dragon-Bone Mountain at Zhoukoudian, 42 kilometers to the southwest of Beijing. Declared an important National Cultural Protected Unit in 1961 and named a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1987, the site is set into a mountainside, with running water available nearby. Natural caves exist in these mountains. The weather was warmer in the Peking Man period. Pekin Man is believed to have lived here continuously for 300,000 years. Evidence of this habitation includes bones, stone tools, and traces of fire and other signs of occupation. [Source: China's Museums ++]

The main cave measures 140 meters from east to west and 53 meters from north to south. At twilight on a cold early winter's evening in 1929, archaeologists crawled into the space of this cave, using a candle for light, and found the famous Peking Man skull. Thousands of Paleolithic stone tools have been found in the Peking Man cave and neighboring caves. They come in many shapes and are made from several types of stone. Some of these can be seen in the exhibition cases of the museum. Through long periods of experimentation, Beijing Man became familiar with the different uses and chipping qualities of different kinds of stone. ++

In 1973, the so-called 'New Cave Man' was discovered at Zhoukoudian, where hominid remains dating to 200,000 to 100,000 years ago were found. Around 20,000 years ago, the humans living in the vicinity of Zhoukoudian were given the name Mountaintop Cave Man following the discovery of their remains in a cave above the Beijing Man Cave. Discovered in 1933, the cave contained some interesting artifacts, including an 82-millimeter bone needle, with a shiny surface, slightly arced in shape, and very sharp side. A very fine instrument was sued to hollow out a tiny hole. It is believed that Mountaintop Cave Man sewed and clothed himself with animal hides and leather. Among the other objects found at the site have been earrings, animal teeth with holes in them for stringing, fishbones, ocean shells, stone beads, and bones carved in particular ways. ++

Damanisi, Georgia: Site of Several 1.7-Million-Year-Old Hominid Fossils

Dmanisi location

As of 2005, more than 50 bones from four Homo erectus individuals were found in Dmanisi, 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. It is the largest collection of Homo erectus bones ever found in one place. Not only that they are the oldest undisputed fossils found outside of Africa. One individual stood four feet seven inches — a bit shorter than other Homo erectus specimens. The foot bones are thick suggesting that its owner was quite strong and spend a great deal of time walking around. The first hint that interesting thing were to be found in Dmanisi was the discovery of 1.8 million year tools there in 1991. Bones from African species such as ostriches and short-neck giraffes were also found there. [Source: John Fischman, National Geographic, April 2005]

In 1997, a 1.7 million-year-old jaw bone of a teenager was found beneath the ruins of the medieval castle of Dmanisi. In 1999, two skulls and stone tools were found at Dmanisi. The tools were similar to tools found Homo erectus sites in Africa. The bones were found between layers of basalt and ash deposited by volcanic eruptions and dated by examining grains of magnetic material that recorded the direction of the earth's magnetic fields around 1.78 million years ago when the magnetic poles of the earth changed from north to south.

In 2002, scientists found the 1.77-million-year-old cranium of a toothless “old man” near Dmanisi. The skull held a brain that was a quarter smaller than the other skulls found there and had an apelike brow and huge canine teeth. Scientists also found stone chopping and scraping tools similar to those found Homo habilis sites in Africa. The discoveries were made by a team led by the Georgian David Lordkipanidze, a paleoanthropologist and director at the Georgian State Museum.

An article published in Nature in September 2007 said the Dmanisi fossils contained a surprising mix of primitive and modern traits: spines and lower back are similar to those in modern humans, which enabled them to walk fully upright and make long-distance treks, but arms that were more like those on australopithecines than people. The tools found at the site were less sophisticated than researchers had expected.

Atapuerca in Spain

Atapuerca, an anthropological and archaeological in northern Spain, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. According to UNESCO: “The caves of the Sierra de Atapuerca contain a rich fossil record of the earliest human beings in Europe, from nearly one million years ago and extending up to the Common Era. They represent an exceptional reserve of data, the scientific study of which provides priceless information about the appearance and the way of life of these remote human ancestors. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage site website =

The Archaeological Site of Atapuerca is located near the city of Burgos, in the Autonomous Community of Castilla y León, in the North of the Iberian Peninsula. The property encompasses 284.119 ha and contains a rich fossil record of the earliest human beings in Europe, from nearly one million years ago and extending into the Common Era. It constitutes an exceptional scientific reserve that provides priceless information about the appearance and way of life of these remote human ancestors. =

“The Sierra de Atapuerca sites provide unique testimony of the origin and evolution both of the existing human civilization and of other cultures that have disappeared. The evolutionary line or lines from the African ancestors of modern humankind are documented in these sites. The earliest and most abundant evidence of humankind in Europe is found in the Sierra de Atapuerca. The sites constitute an exceptional example of continuous human occupation, due to their special ecosystems and their geographical location. The fossil remains in the Sierra de Atapuerca are an invaluable reserve of information about the physical nature and the way of life of the earliest human communities in Europe. In addition, painted and engraved panels have been recorded, with geometrical motifs, hunting scenes, and anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures.

Henry McHenry wrote in Encyclopædia Britannica: Atapuerca is a “site of several limestone caves near Burgos in northern Spain, known for the abundant human (genus Homo) remains discovered there beginning in 1976. The site called Sima del Elefante (“Pit of the Elephant”) contains the earliest evidence of humans in western Europe—fragments of a jawbone and teeth date to 1.1–1.2 million years ago. The nearby site of Gran Dolina contains human remains dating to about 800,000 years ago and some of the earliest tools found in western Europe. Paleoanthropologists who first described the fossils attributed them to a new species, H. antecessor, which they proposed as the ancestor of modern humans (H. sapiens) owing to certain distinctly modern facial features. Other researchers, however, hesitate to accept this assertion and group the fossils with similar remains classified as H. heidelbergensis.” [Source: Henry McHenry, Encyclopædia Britannica]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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