Did humans evolve from Apes?

Rebecca Spring
23 January 2012

Well, the saying goes that I'm a monkey's uncle, but it's not likely that your uncle is a monkey, or an ape for that matter. Primates and humans are genetically very similar but that doesn't mean that humans are directly related to the apes that we see on the discovery channel. In fact, both us and the apes at the zoo are descendant from a common ancestor species. So in a sense, we both share an extremely distant relation.

Did You Know?
We last shared a common relation with modern apes roughly 5-8 million years ago.

Our common ancestor with apes looked more like modern apes than us. Over time, our human ancestors evolved from our hunched walking, fist dragging, hairy and tree-swinging past — although sometimes I feel close to those distant ancestors when I have to get up early in the morning.

Did You Know?
Our human ancestors evolved into homonids (the phylogenic family of which we are the only remaining species) characterized by our upright walk, increased brain size and intelligence, flattened face, and reduced size of jaw and teeth.

The fossil record is scattered with steps between our ape-like ancestors and modern humans. Homo habilis lived about 2 million years ago and are best known for their hunched walking and tool use. Homo erectus on the other hand lived up to 700 000 years ago and were the first human ancestors to walk fully upright and cook their food with fire.

Did You Know?
Evolution is a challenge to trace because we are dependent on finding fossilized remains to chart the slow transition from one species to another.

Further complicating the process is that conditions must be ideal to properly form a recognizable fossil and keep it intact for millions of years. It is obvious that we are talking about many changes happening over a loooooong period of time. Evolution doesn't happen in a snap — it involves unimportant-seeming changes (in food, habitat, behaviour, etc.) that members of a species adapt to differently and as a result begin to evolve apart. In our ancestors' case, the distinctive change between them and their eventual ape cousins was the development of the ability to walk on two legs, or bipedalism.

Scientists have various theories about why the offspring of our shared ancestors split and began to change or evolve independently of each other. I'll give one theory of why this happened, but if you are really interested, consider a project or a future in Paleoanthropology, the study of human evolution. The variability hypothesis of human evolution predicts that our common ancestors were forest dwellers, mostly living in and climbing trees. At some point, about 5 million years ago, the environment changed and there were woodlands and savannas as well as forests. Open woodlands and savannas offered large tree-less areas which favoured upright walking, and the population, our hominid ancestors adapted to it.

It's amazing to think that the only reason we are as we are might be due to a change in Africa's forest structure over 5 million years ago! Although it doesn't seem like it, we humans never stop evolving and adapting to new conditions. As I said before, evolution happens on such a slow scale it's nearly impossible to notice. But there is one observable change that's happened in just 100 years. If you've ever been in a century-old home, or to Europe where the buildings are older, you've probably noticed that the ceilings and doorframes were built much lower than they are now. People in general are growing taller now than we used to, because of our lifestyle and nutritious diets. Here is a perfect example of our environment changing (we have access to better quality and constant nutrition) and our population adapting to it. Who knows where we'll go from here!

This answer was reasearched and written by Rebecca Spring, an environmentalist with an interest in genetics and the history of science. LEARN MORE! The fossil record Frequently asked questions of evolution Play games to learn more! General information about human evolution Why are there still Chimpanzees

Rebecca Spring

I am a science communication graduate. I work at an environmental organization in Toronto. In my free time, I am learning Spanish so I can travel and work in South America.

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