VOP (Very Old People)

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

You can't get much older than 6 million years. That is when the first human beings, known as Hominidae, evolved. They were not like apes; they had bigger brains, different teeth, and walked upright. Would you like an introduction to some of your ancestors?

Australopithecus, also called “southern ape,” lived in Africa in 3 million B.C. Some were the size of modern people; others were as small as chimpanzees. Their heads were apelike with low foreheads, flat noses, and jutting jaws. “Lucy” was a complete australopithecus found in Ethiopia in 1974. (She was named for the Beatles' song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which was playing in the camp when she was excavated.) Lucy was 20 years old when she died.

Homo habilis, or “Handymen,” lived 2 million years ago and used tools. Their brain was half the size of the human brain today. Their heads were rounder and faces smaller than those of australopithecus. Homo habilis was the first to build huts for shelter. “Piltdown Man” was long accepted as a skeleton of Homo habilis. In 1953 he was shown to be a hoax made from a human skull, ape's jaw, and the bones of extinct animals.

Homo erectus, the “stand-up people,” lived 1 million years ago and were the first people to use fire. Their skulls were thick, their faces flat, and they had a sloping forehead with no chin. They lived in China, Japan, Africa, Europe, and Southeast Asia.

Neanderthals lived in Europe about 150,000 years ago and were the first to wear clothes. They looked much like modern people except that their skulls bulged more at the back and they had receding chins, larger cheeks, and more pronounced eyebrow ridges. They were also smaller and stockier and had heavier features. They cared for their sick and buried their dead. Less than half the population reached the age of 20.

Homo sapiens means “wise humans.” We are Homo sapiens and first lived on earth about 100,000 years ago. By 33000 B.C. we were the dominant species, living everywhere but in North and South America. We look different from our ancestors because of our smaller teeth, flat foreheads, straight faces, and rounded heads. We were the first of the earth's inhabitants to communicate through art, the spoken word, and religion.

Cro-Magnon people were named after the Cro-Magnon caves near Dordogne, France, where their remains were discovered. They were early Homo sapiens, quite tall and erect.

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