Homo sapiens (Human being)
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)
|7 - 6 million
||Earliest recorded fossil hominids from East
|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
|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).
2.4 - 1.8 million
||Homo habilis living in
East Africa and southern Africa.
||First record of Homo habilis making stone
tools in East Africa.
||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
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.
||Based on a fossil from Florisbad, near
Bloemfontein, "archaic" Homo sapiens was living at this time
in what is now the Free State.
||Start of the Middle
|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.
||"Modern" Homo sapiens dispersed beyond
Africa to start populating the whole world.
||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.
||"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".
||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.
||Start of Holocene Epoch.
||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).
||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
||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.
||The Taung skull is named Australopithecus
africanus by Professor Raymond Dart, anatomist at the University
of the Witwatersrand.
||Discovery of "Saldanha Man", arguably the
earliest true Homo sapiens specimen from southern Africa.
||Discovery of fossil "archaic" Homo sapiens from
Florisbad near Bloemfontein, dated to about 259 000 years ago.
Dreyer named it Homo (Afranthropus) helmei.
||First adult specimens of Australopithecus
africanus discovered at Sterkfontein Caves in what is now
Gauteng, by Robert Broom, palaeontologist at the Transvaal Museum in
||First discovery of Paranthropus robustus
from Kromdraai (Cradle of Humankind, Gauteng).
||Discovery of "Mrs Ples", one of the most famous
fossils of Australopithecus africanus, by Dr Robert Broom and John
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?).
and drink biodiversity for more on domesticated and wild food eaten in
Giliomee, H. and Mbenga, B. (eds) 2007.
New History of South Africa. Tafelberg, Cape Town. [contribution on
Early Humans was by Sandra Swart]