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biodiversity explorer

the web of life in southern Africa

Homo sapiens (Human being)

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Synapsida (mammal-like reptiles) > Therapsida > Theriodontia >  Cynodontia > Mammalia (mammals) > Placentalia (placental mammals) > Euarchontaglires > Euarchonta > Primates > Family: Hominidae (Human being, gorilla, chimpanzees, Orang-utan)


Rock art human forms, Josephskraal farm, near Laingsburg, Western Cape, South Africa. [photo H. Robertson, Iziko ]


Assembling an account of the human species in southern Africa and beyond is challenging because there is so much that can be presented and discussed. Rather than trying to duplicate or summarise the millions of web pages and books on humans and their culture we focus here on the evolution of humans in southern Africa and their interaction with the environment, in particular with other species. We are inclined to think of ourselves as apart from nature but we are very much integrated with the environment we live in. In Africa, this interaction goes back millions of years to ancestors that looked very different to how we look now. There are organisms that live in us and on us. Some can kill us others are beneficial. We depend on a suite of animals, plants and microorganisms for our food, many of which have been domesticated over time to produce higher yielding, easier to cultivate varieties.

We are becoming increasingly aware of our impact on the environment and the fact that our own survival and prosperity depends on us living in a way that least impacts on the environment. Probably our biggest impact on the environment is through the direct (e.g. driving a car) or indirect (e.g. using electricity) burning of fossil fuels which is resulting in an increase in atmospheric CO2 that is causing a warming effect that feeds through to climate change that can drastically effect our future survival. It is interesting to think that fossil fuels are derived from accumulations of crude oil and gas that are derived from plants that lived millions of years ago. The accumulated carbon in these fossil fuels is now being liberated into the atmosphere as CO2.

One of the major goals of Biodiversity Explorer is to foster a better understanding of the environment we live in. Understanding the life around us helps us to become aware of the history of life, the forms of life that can help us and those forms that can be a danger to our existence. 

Timeline of human evolution in southern Africa and beyond

See article by Dr Deano Stynder entitled "A record of human evolution in South Africa", from which much of this information was extracted.  Information was also obtained from Giliomee and Mbenga (2007).

Years before present (BP) Event
7 - 6 million Earliest recorded fossil hominids from East Africa
5.3 million Start of Pliocene Epoch.
4 - 1.3 million Australopithecines were living in the African savannas of East and southern Africa. A number of species have been described (two from southern Africa) and it is uncertain as to which of these gave rise to the genus Homo. Some believe that Homo did not evolve from this group of apes at all.
3 - 2.5  million   Australipithecus africanus living in southern Africa (evidence from dated fossils from Taung in the North West Province and from the sites within the Cradle of Humankind).
1.8 - 1.3 million   Australopithecus robustus (also called Paranthropus robustus) living in southern Africa (evidence from fossils from Kromdraai, Swartkrans and Driemolen in the Cradle of Humankind, Gauteng).
1.8 million Start of Pleistocene Epoch.
2.4 - 1.8 million Homo habilis living in East Africa and southern Africa.
2.5 million   First record of Homo habilis making stone tools in East Africa.
1.8 million   First record of Homo habilis making stone tools in southern Africa, which also marks the beginning of the Early Stone Age in southern Africa. These earliest stone tools are from Sterkfontein Caves in Gauteng.
1.8 million to 500 000 Homo erectus living in East Africa, southern Africa and Asia. Those from Africa are often referred to as Homo ergaster. Homo erectus is believed to have evolved from Homo habilis.
500 000 to 150 000 "Archaic" Homo sapiens living throughout Africa, southern Europe and Asia. Differs from earlier Homo species by the much greater brain capacity, hence it is named Homo sapiens but still retains massive brow ridges and flat receding frontal bones, hence the qualification as "archaic".
500 000 to 200 000   Based on a fossil discovered on the farm Elandsfontein near Hopefield on the West Coast of South Africa, "archaic" Homo sapiens was living on the West Coast at this time.  This fossil is referred to as "Saldanha Man" and is considered the earliest record of Homo sapiens from southern Africa.
259 000   Based on a fossil from Florisbad, near Bloemfontein, "archaic" Homo sapiens was living at this time in what is now the Free State.
250 000   Start of the Middle Stone Age.
150 000 to 100 000 "Modern" Homo sapiens (also known as Homo sapiens sapiens) evolved from "archaic" Homo sapiens somewhere in Africa during this time period and has existed ever since.
120 000 to 90 000   "Modern" Homo sapiens was living in a cave at Klasies River on South Africa's south coast, as revealed from about 30 bones discovered during archaeological excavations. Some argue that these people were not yet fully modern. They might have been the direct ancestors of the Khoesan people but opinions differ on this matter.
80 000   "Modern" Homo sapiens dispersed beyond Africa to start populating the whole world.
80 000   Earliest record of rock art in the world in the form of two pieces of engraved ochre found in Blombos Cave on the southern Cape coast, South Africa. Also found at this site are 75 000 year old perforated shells that that from their appearance were probably strung together as a necklace, thus being the earliest record of the use of jewellery.
74 000   "Modern" Homo sapiens were living in a cave on the border between what is now Swaziland and KwaZulu-Natal, as revealed from bones excavated from "Border Cave".
25 000   Start of the Later Stone Age, which extended though to the last few hundred years.
 24 000 to 17 000   Last Glacial Maximum. The cool, dry glacial climate would have resulted in the aridification of much of southern Africa., particularly the inland regions. It is thought that this caused depopulation of these areas, which would explain the poor archaeological deposits in these regions for this time period. At the same time, the glaciation would have caused a drop in sea level, thus exposing large areas of land along South Africa's south coast, extending the coastal plain by over 100 km in some places. Archaeological evidence suggests that these coastal areas were relatively densely populated by people at this time. It is believed that direct selection and genetic drift at this time caused morphological changes in these people so that they became antomically similar to the modern Khoesan people.
11 430   Start of Holocene Epoch.
2300   Domesticated animals come into southern Africa, which ultimately resulted into the differentiation of the Khoesan into a population that developed a nomadic herding lifestyle (the Khoekhoe) and a population that remained exclusive hunter-gatherers and occupied mainly the inland areas (the San, otherwise referred to as 'bushmen'). The Khoekhoe dominated the more productive zones such as the coastal areas (where they were referred to as "strandlopers") and the San tended to be relegated to marginal areas (e.g. mountains).
1700   Bantu speaking people who practiced farming migrated into southern Africa from further north in Africa. Their ancestors developed farming practices in the vicinity of Cameroon and Nigeria  about 2000 to 4000 years ago.
520 (1488 AD)   First European contact with the indigenous Khoesan people, when the Portuguese mariner Bartolomeu Dias sailed his caravelle around the southern tip of Africa.
356 (1652 AD)   The first permanent European settlement established in southern Africa, at the Cape, when the Dutch East India Company set up their refreshment station for passing ships.
295 (1713 AD)   A devastating small pox epidemic spread through the Cape among the Khoekhoe and San people and this, added to their persistent persecution by European settlers resulted in the breakdown of their social structure and for the most part their incorporation into the colonial social and economic structures.

Timeline of discoveries about human evolution in southern Africa

Year Event
1924 Discovery of the first ever australopithicine fossil, a skull of a child. Found at the Buxton Limeworks near Taung in the North West Province, South Africa.
1925 The Taung skull is named Australopithecus africanus by Professor Raymond Dart, anatomist at the University of the Witwatersrand.
1953 Discovery of "Saldanha Man", arguably the earliest true Homo sapiens specimen from southern Africa.
1932 Discovery of fossil "archaic" Homo sapiens from Florisbad near Bloemfontein, dated to about 259 000 years ago. Dreyer named it Homo (Afranthropus) helmei.
1936 First adult specimens of Australopithecus africanus discovered at Sterkfontein Caves in what is now Gauteng, by Robert Broom, palaeontologist at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria.
1938 First discovery of Paranthropus robustus from Kromdraai (Cradle of Humankind, Gauteng).
1947 Discovery of "Mrs Ples", one of the most famous fossils of Australopithecus africanus, by Dr Robert Broom and John Robinson. 

The food we eat

Only within the past 2000 years have humans in southern Africa become dependent on domesticated crops and animals. For the time before this, humans in southern Africa led a hunting and gathering existence and many continued this way of life after the development of agriculture and well into the 20th century. Even now, most humans in southern Africa depend on wild foods for at least part of their diet (eaten any fish recently?).

See Food and drink biodiversity for more on domesticated and wild food eaten in southern Africa.


  • Giliomee, H. and Mbenga, B. (eds) 2007. New History of South Africa. Tafelberg, Cape Town. [contribution on Early Humans was by Sandra Swart]