Humans: Homo sapiens

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The illustration shows a very human looking Neanderthal wearing fur and cutting a hide with a stone tool.
Neanderthal. The Homo neanderthalensis used tools and may have worn clothing. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

A number of species, sometimes called archaic Homo sapiens, apparently evolved from H. erectus starting about 500,000 years ago. These species include Homo heidelbergensisHomo rhodesiensis, and Homo neanderthalensis. These archaic H. sapiens had a brain size similar to that of modern humans, averaging 1,200 to 1,400 cubic centimeters. They differed from modern humans by having a thick skull, a prominent brow ridge, and a receding chin. Some of these species survived until 30,000 to 10,000 years ago, overlapping with modern humans.

There is considerable debate about the origins of anatomically modern humans or Homo sapiens sapiens. As discussed earlier, H. erectus migrated out of Africa and into Asia and Europe in the first major wave of migration about 1.5 million years ago. It is thought that modern humans arose in Africa from H. erectus and migrated out of Africa about 100,000 years ago in a second major migration wave. Then, modern humans replaced H. erectus species that had migrated into Asia and Europe in the first wave.

This evolutionary timeline is supported by molecular evidence. One approach to studying the origins of modern humans is to examine mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from populations around the world. Because a fetus develops from an egg containing its mother’s mitochondria (which have their own, non-nuclear DNA), mtDNA is passed entirely through the maternal line. Mutations in mtDNA can now be used to estimate the timeline of genetic divergence. The resulting evidence suggests that all modern humans have mtDNA inherited from a common ancestor that lived in Africa about 160,000 years ago. Another approach to the molecular understanding of human evolution is to examine the Y chromosome, which is passed from father to son. This evidence suggests that all men today inherited a Y chromosome from a male that lived in Africa about 140,000 years ago.

The study of mitochondrial DNA led to the identification of another human species or subspecies, the Denisovans. DNA from teeth and finger bones suggested two things. First, the mitochondrial DNA was different from that of both modern humans and Neanderthals. Second, the genomic DNA suggested that the Denisovans shared a common ancestor with the Neanderthals. Genes from both Neanderthals and Denisovans have been identified in modern human populations, indicating that interbreeding among the three groups occurred over part of their range.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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