What Were The First People Who Left Africa Millions Of Years Ago Like?

January 23, 2018

|Zoralis Pérez

They were short, great runners, and had to compete with wild animals to get some food.

If every person on the planet traced their ancestry to its beginning, they would end up somewhere in East Africa, humanity’s birthplace. Every human species that has ever existed (including ours, Homo sapiens) comes from this part of the world. Before Homo sapiens, scientists agree that there were 15 to 20 different human species, and according to fossil evidence, the earliest humans emerged about 6 million years ago. Some of them, like Neanderthals, went extinct, but others survived, evolved, and gradually migrated north out of Africa and into Asia.


The earliest groups to leave Africa did so around 2 million years ago. Presumably, by crossing the Levant. Have you ever wondered what they were like? What they looked like? How they lived? What they ate? How they had fun? There’s only so much information we can get from fossils and archaeological artifacts, but the little evidence that has been found already can help us get an idea.


Source: Macedonian Historian


The first human fossils found outside of Africa were found by an international team of paleoanthropologists in 1991 in the small town of Dmanisi, in the south of Georgia. It was a jaw with a full set of teeth, around 1.7 million years old, surrounded by stone tools and animal fossils. In the years since, further excavations have found more fossils at Dmanisi, including even a complete skull. No other archaeological site in Europe has older fossils than these, which makes the Dmanisi specimens the first Europeans that we know of.


Source: Georgia About


Now, I’m sure that you’re asking yourself: but what did they look like? The answer is right above this paragraph. Meet Zezva and Mzia, the oldest Europeans ever. They are artistic recreations made with the data obtained from the fossils found at Dmanisi. You can see them with your own eyes at the Dmanisi Museum-Reserve, built right next to the site. If you look at them closely, you’ll see past the obvious differences and realize that they look very similar to us. However, don’t be fooled. Almost 2 million years of evolution separate us, Homo sapiens, from them.


Source: Tabula


Their most distinctive feature is their small skull. That’s actually what sets them apart from later human species that had larger skulls, bigger brains, and better reasoning capabilities. They were also pretty short, averaging 1.4 to 1.5 meters tall. However, despite being so short, they had rather long, strong legs, a trait that brings them closer to more evolved human species. Scientists state that they developed strong legs because they had to run a lot in order to escape from predators (like saber-toothed tigers and wolves) and to catch their prey.


Source: J. H. Matternes


From the evidence found at the site in Dmanisi, it’s also pretty clear that their lives weren’t easy. In fact, their teeth say a lot about the hardships they had to go through to survive. Many of the specimens show chronic dental problems, which tells us that they had a poor diet, were probably malnourished, and used their teeth as tools for everything: cutting, breaking, chopping, and chewing very tough cuts of meat. Eating meat was essential for their survival because it allowed them to have protein, but it also meant competing with other predators for food and going without any kind of sustenance for days. The only tools they had were simplest stone tools they could make on the go: simple, knife-like slabs of stone to cut and round rocks carved for pounding things.


Dmanisi site in Georgia. Source: Wikipedia


Now, because paleoanthropology is such a difficult field of science, there is actually no consensus as to what Homo sub-group the Dmanisi specimens belong to. Their small, primitive skulls resemble Homo habilis the most, but their long, developed limbs are like the Homo erectus’s. Most scientists have decided to classify them as Homo erectus, but others claim that the Dmanisi people are a different stage in evolution that should be called Homo erectus georgicus.


Can you imagine what their lives were like? Almost 2 million years ago, making their way into Europe, fighting off wild animals, and struggling to survive in the cold in a world that was completely unknown to them? Sadly, we’ll probably never know very much about these ancestors of ours, but just knowing that they existed is enough to spark our imagination.


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Zoralis Pérez

Zoralis Pérez


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