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Human prehistory 101: Prologue

Award winning video introduces human prehistory starting over 200,000 years ago. Who were our first human ancestors? Where did they live? Created by 23andMe.
Video transcript
Your personal ancestry story begins with the shared story of our human ancestry. You and your distant cousin, the chimpanzee, have a common ancestor. which lived about 6.5 million years ago. We can learn about this common ancestor by noting what makes us similar to chimps. But many things also distinguish us from chimpanzees, like our big brains, which enable abstract reasoning and the development of complex languages. And our anatomy, adapted to up-right walking, these human traits developed gradually over millions of years. The fossil record reveals a long and eventful parade of human ancestors. During some periods, several of our ancestors co-existed. Gradually, they became more efficient up-right walkers. And later, developed skulls with larger brain cases devoted more to thinking and less to chewing. Our knowledge of the exact relationships between these ancestors is incomplete. And often, is revised, because of new fossil finds. Some of them were our direct ancestors, some of them were distant cousins, who became evolutionary dead ends. But by 200,000 years ago, we're on firmer ground. We find the bones of people in Africa, who looked something like us, not exactly like us, but close. They built fires and flaked stone into spear heads, knifes, and scrapers. They were physically strong, and still depended on their muscles, not their technology for much of their survival. Here, in addition to fossils, we have genetics to help us find our prehistoric kin. All of this, living today, inherited our DNA from this small group of ancient people in Africa. Over time, they began to look more and more like us. And by 100,000 years ago, their skeletons weren't so different from ours, but these early Homo sapiens shared the planet with two of their distant cousins. By this time, as a result of previous migrations, Homo erectus was living across Asia, and had been for 2 million years. Homo erectus had a big brain, some made hand axes, some do fires, and some may even have worn clothing. At the same time, Neanderthals lived across Europe, and western and central Asia. They had even bigger brains. They made spears and stone tools, similar to those found in Africa, and we suspect they had strong social relationships. They cared for the sick, and infirm, and buried their dead. Not so very different, culturally, from early Homo sapiens, it seems that our human anatomy developed before our complex human culture. But things were about to change. Today, we live in all climates, all over the world; and are unique, in our dependence on our cultures for survival. How we got from there, to here, forms the next chapters in our human story.