Blog / Early Humans / Natural History and Science / Science, History and Culture

The Family Human, Part 1



Well, Huwoman in actuality. Without the latter, you don’t get the former. Hominids for this essay.

The family Hominidae includes the Great Apes: Orangutans, Gorillas, and Chimpanzees. Humans are also classified as Great Apes. And we act that way sometimes. We are all in the Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Class Mammalia, and the Order Primates. So there you have it. Biology 101. Taxonomy.


And we have reasonably close cousins and ancestors. Let us start with the extinct Genus, Australopithecus. This one means “Southern Ape.” And early species walked upright, Australopithecus afarensis⎯this is the one we affectionately call “Lucy.” She appeared in the fossil record of Africa about four million years ago. We have footprints of her people preserved in lava beds dated to 3.6 million years ago! They seem to follow Antelope, Elephant, and Rhino prints. But there are also Saber Tooth Tiger imprints. Were they being followed? At about 4’9″, they were probably not following the tiger. And they had no tools or weapons.

But these hominids were special. Standing up, you could see the far reaches of the Serengeti Plain and look over the tall Savannah grasses. And your hands were free. Free to make mischief, but not yet tools. That would come later as Hominid brains grew larger to process and map the new spatial data observed, and develop algorithms for the complex manipulation of fingers and hands. However, for women to walk upright, they needed a more narrow pelvic structure. Better to balance on. But a more constructed space through which to birth a child. All at a time when Hominid brains were getting bigger.


Watch a horse giving birth. Its foal is almost fully formed when it arrives, and ready to run. To get a human baby safely out, we start early, prematurely so to speak, to give birth when the child’s brain is smaller, even pliable. Great care and protection must be provided to bring that child to maturity. Maybe that is why natural selection keeps women healthy after menopause. To help raise that child. The “Grandmother Hypothesis?”

Olduvai Gorge

The northeastern edge of Africa is rifting apart. The Somali Plate is sailing into the ocean. About 100,000 years ago, this action opened a tear in the Serengeti Plain of Tanzania behind it. A steep walled rip that exposed four ancient lakebeds reaching back through time in a ladder-like layering of sediment. Two million years of sediment. Olduvai Gorge. “The Cradle of Humankind?”

A German butterfly hunter before World War I had reported finding bones there. Another surprising result of “The Butterfly Effect.” It was where Louis and Mary Leakey would open the chest of marvels reflecting our fossil history. Your fossil history. Where they found Homo habilis, the “Handy Man.” Handy because he made tools.

Homo habilis

Something special happened there, down in Olduvai Gorge. And quickly, too, in evolutionary terms. Our genus, Homo, appeared there about 2.5 million years ago. And Homo habilis, the Handy Man, was the first to make stone tools. His brain was 30% larger than his Australopithecus predecessor. He walked upright too, maybe 4.5 feet tall, and

about 90 pounds in weight. He ate more meat, and had less specialized teeth. His shorter

intestines reflected a less fibrous diet, even if still primarily fruit. And his long, strong arms reflected the time that he still hung out in trees. But he made tools. And that was a game changer!

The Leakeys found many stone tools in the Olduvai Gorge of this time period. We call them “pebble stone” tools. Really just cobblestones in the creek beds that, when hit against another rock, formed a primitive chopper. Random in design, primitive in conception.

The first tools were probably used to crack open animal bones and suck out the nutritious marrow. Bones left by the more powerful animals that had killed and eaten the meat of their prey.

Yes, we were scavengers. Why not? We knew that marrow was there, and could visualize it. And we had the tools to get to that bone marrow. Those other predators did not.

And so it began.


Louis and Mary Leakey were mightily interested in those stone tools. They had additional backing now, due to their spectacular finds at Olduvai Gorge. So in 1956, Louis Leakey raised additional funding to send out anthropologists to study the habitats of other primates. The journeys of those three women scientists is now the stuff of legend. Jane Goodall was sent to Tanzania to study chimpanzees in 1960. Diane Fossey signed on to study mountain gorillas in Rwanda in 1966. And in 1971, Birute Marija Galdikas agreed to study orangutans in Borneo.

Next: Java Man, Peking Man, and the Man from Neander Valley!


An Oldowan style, “Pebble Stone Tool.”

About Author

Ronald R. Van Stockum, Jr. is a lawyer, teacher, biologist, writer, guitarist, and recently an actor living on his family's old farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. He has a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Santa Clara University, and a Masters and PhD. in Biology from the University of Louisville. He also has his Juris Doctorate in Law from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. He practices law from offices in Shelbyville, Kentucky concentrating his legal practice in environmental law. His biologic research is in historical phytogeography. Dr. Van Stockum, Jr. has published numerous books, articles, and short stories in the areas of law, science, and creative writing. most of his 24 titles are available on this site and Amazon with many on Kindle and Audible!

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