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Glossary: Early Humans

All of the following terms appear in this unit. The terms are arranged here in alphabetical order.
anthropology — The scientific study of human beings and human culture, including beliefs, customs, and archaeological records.
archaeology — The scientific study of human activity in the past, primarily by finding and examining objects that humans created or interacted with.
australopithecines — An early group of hominine species with brains similar in size to those of chimpanzees; they flourished in Africa between 4 and 1 million years ago.
bipedalism — The ability to walk on two rear limbs (legs).
culture — The customs, values, beliefs, and general patterns of behavior of a particular group of people.
foraging — Relying on wild (uncultivated) plants and animals for sustenance; hunting and gathering. Foraging was the dominant way of life during the Paleolithic era.
fossils — The preserved remains of organisms from the distant past. Fossils are usually mineralized or hardened remains of the organisms themselves, but can also include traces of an organism’s behavior (for example, footprints) that have been preserved.
genealogy — The study of lineage and family history.
genetics — The scientific study of how traits are inherited.
hominines — All bipedal species in the human line since it diverged from the common ancestor with chimpanzees; first appeared 8 to 5 million years ago. The only survivors of this line are Homo sapiens, or modern humans.
Homo ergaster or Homo erectus — A hominine species that originated in Africa around two million years ago and migrated into Eurasia, reaching as far as China and Java. Almost as tall as modern humans, their brains were larger than those of Homo habilis, and they may have been able to control fire. Homo erectus and Homo ergaster may have been the same species.
Homo habilis — A hominine relative of human beings that appeared in Africa between 2 and 3 million years ago, and was able to make simple tools.
Homo sapiens — The scientific name for our species, which is thought to have evolved in Africa between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago.
marsupials — A group of mammals whose young are born in an undeveloped state, and then develop and nurse in a maternal pouch.
migration — Movement of animals from one place to another, often in search of more abundant resources.
Neanderthal — A species of hominine very closely related to our own species, Homo sapiens, that went extinct roughly 35,000 to 30,000 years ago. Genetic research shows that the DNA of people with Eurasian ancestry is partly (a few percent) Neanderthal. Though Neanderthals have sometimes been portrayed as brutish or stupid, they were probably very similar to Homo sapiens, and some experts even consider them part of our species.
nomadic — Describes a way of life in which people move from place to place rather than settling in a single location; movements are often dictated by climate and availability of food sources.
Paleolithic era — A long, early era of human history that featured the creation and use of many different types of stone tools; literally means “Old Stone Age.”
paleontology — The study of prehistoric life on Earth using the fossil record.
primate — A member of the order of mammals appearing between 60 million and 70 million years ago that is characterized by a relatively large brain, hands with multiple movable fingers and nails instead of claws, and eyes positioned on the front of the skull to enable stereoscopic vision.
symbiosis — An interdependent relationship between two different species that live in close contact with one another; may be beneficial to both species, or beneficial to one but neutral or harmful to the other.
symbolic language — A powerful form of communication; much more powerful than communication by  other animals because it can convey much more information, much more precisely. Symbolic language makes collective learning possible because it allows humans to share huge amounts of accumulated information generation to generation.
taxonomy — The science of classifying different forms of life based upon distinguishing characteristics.

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