When a child asks the “where did we come from” question, one answer you might give would involve evolution. To a child, humans sharing a common ancestry with apes might seem incredulous. But the 10 oldest human fossils ever found are more than enough proof to support the theory.
It’s thought that the first humans evolved from apes about 6 or 7 million years ago. Humans — that’s us— share features like a large brain, erect posture, and bipedal (two-legged) gait. We also have thumbs and can make highly precise tools, which are some of the features that paleontologists look for in the oldest human fossils.
The fossils we’re about to unearth together through this article are bound to tell us an old and complex story of our origin and history.
Hominids (3 to 7 Million Years Ago)
Technically speaking, the 10 oldest fossils ever were all from the time when humans were just beginning to differentiate from apes. This period was the Miocene epoch, about 4 to 7 million years ago.
There are several fossil discoveries from this epoch found mostly in Africa, including:
- Graecopithecus, found in Bulgaria and Greece (7 million years old)
- Sahelanthropus, found in Chad, Central Africa (7 million years old)
- Orrorin tugenensis, found in Kenya (6.1–5.7 million years old)
- Australopithecus anamensis, also found in Kenya (4.6 million years)
- Bipedal hominin, found in Tanzania (3.7 million years old)
- Australopithecus afarensis, also found in Tanzania (3.4 million years old)
All these share similar anatomical features, although we don’t know much about them because very few bone fragments have been found. But, that’s nothing compared to sharks, whose oldest fossils date back hundreds of millions of years ago.
Human remains from more recent times provide scientists with more evidence to work as we try to weave the story of our origins. The best way to approach the question of the oldest human fossils ever is to select the oldest from each stage of human evolution. That way, we get a more complete picture of each human species through time and the differences between them.
1. Graecopithecus, Greece, Bulgaria ~7 Million Years Ago
In 1944, a lower jawbone was discovered in Athens, Greece. Modern dating technology estimates that it’s as old as 7.24 million years and very similar to a single upper premolar tooth found in Bulgaria.
These remains are attributed to Graecopithecus, an early ancestor of humans. Scientists determined that the jaw and tooth belonged to a human because the roots of the molar are partially fused, a distinctive feature of human teeth. The roots of apes, our close cousins, have three or four diverging roots.
The fused roots and other features are strong proof that the jaw belonged to a hominid. However, there’s still a lot of controversy surrounding this extremely old find. For one, it suggests that humans first diverged from our ape-like ancestors in Europe, and not in Africa as commonly accepted.
Even worse, some paleontologists dispute that Graecopithecus was an early human ancestor. They say that it’s more likely the fossils belong to an ancient ape species called Ouranopithecus, saying that a single tooth and jawbone are insufficient evidence of human origin.
Whatever you believe, El Greco remains the oldest human-like fossil ever discovered. There’s more on monkey fossils here.
2. Sahelanthropus, Chad (Africa), ~7 Million Years Ago
Before El Graeco came along, the oldest human fossils were discovered in Chad, Central Africa, in 2001. French paleontologist Michael Brunet led a team of experts in excavations that dug up remains of skulls and jawbones.
Despite the limited fossil remains, experts determined that these early humans had small brains, elongated skulls, and prominent brows. From the way the spinal cord connected to the skull, they concluded that Sahelanthropus walked upright.
The fossils indicate that these hominids had small canine-like teeth, although they probably lived on a plant-based diet. This was unusual because primates of the time had prominent canine teeth that they used to ward off other males.
These fossils were dated at about 7 million years, about a hundred thousand years later than Graecopithecus. However, the location of these fossils in central Africa supports the commonly accepted theory of common human origins in Africa.
3. Ardipithecus kadabba, Ethiopia, ~5.2 to 5.8 Million Years Ago
Human fossils recovered in Ethiopia’s Awash River valley between 1997 and 2004 rocked the archaeological community at the time. One of the first people to discover these remains was Yohannes Haile-Selassie.
The Ethiopian paleontologist discovered a piece of a lower jaw and fragments of teeth, toes, arms, and collar bones from a species he suspected was a hominid. These fossils were 5.6–5.8 million years old, but a toe bone was found to be 5.2 million years old.
Eleven more specimens were to follow, the conclusion of which proved that Haile Selassie had found an entirely new species of man. This species walked on two feet and had large molars and a small brain, which is more similar to apes than hominids.
These primitive ape-like features led some scientists to question whether Ardipithecus kadabba was a human ancestor or an ape. Additionally, this species used unshaped stone tools and probably lived on trees on a diet of plant fruits, roots, twigs, and nuts. They also had large canine teeth, just like apes.
4. Lucy, Ethiopia, 3.2 Million Years Ago
In November 1974, American paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson, his graduate student Tom Gray (both of Arizona State University), and French geologist Maurice Taieb excavated the fossil remains famously known as “Lucy.”
Found in Hadar, Ethiopia, Lucy is the oldest and most complete human fossil ever found, making up 40% of a complete human skeleton. She was dated at 3.2 million years old and was a hominid with clear evidence of being bipedal (two-legged).
Further evidence shows that Lucy was an adult female when she died, and scientists have even reconstructed what she may have looked like in life. Even today, Lucy is one of the most famous human fossils, being seen as one of the “missing” links that prove our connection to hominids and a common ape-like ancestor.
Fossils even older than Lucy help to complete this evolution picture. For example, some remains discovered in a South African cave in the Sterkfontein region have been dated between 3.4 and 3.6 million years.
However, none of these hominid fossils have been as complete or provided as much scientific information as Lucy.
Archaic Humans (~2-3 Million Years Ago)
Archaic humans occupied the intermediate period from Homo erectus to the time when modern Homo sapiens evolved about 200,000 years ago. Their thick skulls, low flat craniums with prominent brows, and lack of a chin made them similar to the hominids. However, their large complex brains made them more modern than the hominids.
Fossils of archaic humans have been found all over the world, including Africa, Asia, and Europe. This is important because it shows that, by this time, humans had settled across the world. Differences in the fossils recovered in various places tell stories about how each population developed and evolved according to regional changes.
5. Neanderthal 1, Germany, ~400,000 Years Ago
One of the main populations of archaic humans was the Neanderthals of Europe. They’re the ancestors of modern humans on the continent, and their fossils continue to pop up in excavation sites all across Europe. The Neanderthals lived across a broad period between 400,000 and 40,000 years ago.
The very first fossils were found in the Neander Valley in German (thal is German for valley). Neanderthal 1 was the first of these fossils to be discovered in 1856 in the Feldhofer Cave in the valley. He had an oval skull with a sloped receding forehead, prominent brow ridges, and thick, strong bones.
This species was named Homo neanderthalensis and is our oldest extinct human relative. They ate plants and animals, hunting for meat with sharp spears to help them survive through winter. Those who lived near large lakes or seas also ate fish, mollusks, seals, and dolphins.
Fossil evidence also suggests that Neanderthals made clothing out of animal skins, the first of our ancestors to do that. They did it by using bone needles and stone tools to clean hides and sew them together to make heavy coats.
Additionally, their sophisticated behavior, such as the intentional burying of their dead, brings them much closer to modern humans.
6. Jebel Irhoud Fossils, Morocco, ~300,000 Years Ago
In 2017, a shocking find in Northern Africa shook up the paleontological and archaeological community. Paleontologist Jean-Jacques Hublin led the team that found the fossils in the mountains of Morocco, which were dated at 315,000 years old.
This was much older than scientists expected and far away from Central Africa, where modern humans are thought to have first evolved. At the time, scientists didn’t think older remains of Homo sapiens would appear anywhere else other than in East Africa, which was considered the cradle of mankind.
After the discovery, Jacques said that the paleontologic community would have to rethink the story of our evolution as a species. For one, the fossils were found alongside stone tools and artifacts similar to those found in East Africa.
If the dating technology is accurate, modern humans are much older than we first suspected. It may also mean that early man evolved in different places in Africa at the same time, rather than from a single cradle of mankind.
7. Omo Remains, Ethiopia, ~200,000 Years Ago
Apart from the Morocco discoveries, some of the first fossils showing evidence of evolution into modern humans were discovered in Ethiopia between 195,000 and 233,000 years ago.
The most important of these is a skull dated 195,000 years ago discovered in Ethiopia’s Omo-Kibish Formation. Some scientists think the Omo fossils may even be much older, up to 233,000 years according to more recent and accurate dating of volcanic ash found in the region.
Regardless, the Omo-1 fossils were the oldest existing skulls of Homo sapiens until the Jebel Irhoud remains were discovered. Omo-Kibosh became an important archaeological site after the same team found remains of about 200 early humans there.
It’s not unusual to find many fossils in the same place, which can result from the type of rock formations in the area. An important site right here in North America is the Morrison Formation, an important source of animal fossils.
More advanced remains were found in Tanzania at a place called Laetoli. These are thought to have existed 120,000 years, before spreading to South Africa and SouthWest Asia.
Modern Humans (70,000 Years Ago To Date)
If you’re not an expert in the social sciences, “modern humans” might evoke images of civilization, agriculture, art, and sophisticated language. However, these are very recent developments that happened less than 15,000 years ago.
On the grand scale, this is a very short time. By comparison, the oldest fossil ever found is 3.5 billion years old. Humans have only bloomed in the last few thousand years in an explosion of intelligence and progress.
That being said, modern humans started to evolve from archaic humans between 200,000 and 70,000 years ago, during which period archaic humans died off. Classic anatomical features of Homo sapiens skeletons include:
- Rounded skulls indicative of a large brain
- Thin-walled skull
- Protruding chin
- High, flat foreheads
- Lacking occipital buns
Our species is also defined by a large, complex brain, sophisticated behavior, and complex social life.
8. Cro-Magnon Man, France, ~30,000 Years Ago
Some of the oldest fossils of early modern humans were found in South Western France in the village of Les Eyzies. They’re the famous Cro-Magnon Man, who stood at a height of 5 feet 4 inches to about 6 feet tall.
The skull of Cro-Magnon Man was discovered by road construction workers at a site in Les Eyziers in 1868. After excavation, skeletal fragments from five humans, stone tools, ivory pendants, shells, and carved reindeer antlers were discovered. The site was dated at 30,000 years old, making these some of the oldest Homo sapiens fossils in Europe.
The site and placement of the Cro-Magnon fossils indicate that it was a deliberate burial. One skull of a middle-aged male was found almost complete and showed significant similarities to modern humans.
You should note that these are not the oldest fossils ever discovered of modern man. Various other discoveries have been found detailing this evolution, including:
- Skhul 5 and Skhul 9, both Homo sapiens found in Mount Carmel, Israel, 80–120,000 years old
- Liujiang Man, a Homo sapiens found in China, about 70,000 years old
- La Ferrasie 1, a Neanderthal found in the Dordogne valley in France, between 50 and 70 thousand years old
- Kebara 2, a Neanderthal found in Israel, about 60,000 years old
- Tam Pà Ling fossils found in Laos, are estimated to be 44–60 thousand years old
However, unlike these older fossils, Cro-Magnon Man shows clear anatomical differences that are very similar to modern man.
9. Mungo Man, Australia, 42,000 Years Ago
Mungo Man and Mungo Lady are human remains discovered in the Lake Mungo Region of New South Wales, Australia, in 1974 and 1969. Both remains, found about 1600 feet apart, suggested careful burial, possibly even ceremonial.
Mungo Man’s remains were very important in Australia and in the global archaeological community. They were very well preserved, allowing scientists to determine that they probably belonged to a male who died at 50 years, suffered from osteoarthritis, and probably wove baskets or fishing nets.
The site near the remains revealed signs of human occupation including hearths, grindstones, stone tools, as well as waste from food such as fish, mussels, fowl, and eggs. These discoveries paint a clear picture of the life of ancestral Aborigines and proved that they occupied the land much earlier than was commonly accepted.
After studying the site and remains for over 40 years, the cultural interests of the Aboriginal people prevailed and Mungo Man and Lady were reburied in a colorful traditional ceremony in November 2017.
10. Tianyuan Man, China, 39,000 to 42,000 Years Ago
The Tianyuan skeleton found in Tianyuan Cave, in Zhoukoudian, Beijing, in 2003 was a landmark moment. The fossils were among the oldest of early humans inhabiting Eurasia, with radiocarbon dating placing them about 39,000 to 42,000 years old.
Tianyuan Man was fully Homo sapiens, one of the founding ancestors of Asian populations. Thirty-four bone fragments were discovered in the cave, but no other artifacts were in the vicinity that could point to the man’s life, diet, or culture.
Discover What It Means to Be Human
In addition to these ten, many other human remains have been found all over the world that tell the story of humanity. More recent finds from less than 15,000 years ago may be better preserved, but it’s the old remains that pose the most poignant questions.
Were the earliest hominids humans or apes? At what point did the transition from apes to humans occur? And why did our species survive out of the many that have lived over time?
The past can tell us a unique story of the progress we have made and where we started. It provides us with clues, and to a learner’s delight, points us in the right direction in our attempts to understand evolution.
We will undoubtedly learn more about who we are and where we fit in the cosmos as additional information still buried beneath the surface gets unearthed. However, much remains unknown still. It is through the exploration of these ancient remains and examining the changes in human development over time that we have been provided with the golden opportunity to explore our history with unprecedented depth and appreciation.
Summary Of 10 Oldest Human Fossils Ever Found
|Rank||Fossil||Found In||Dates Back To|
|1||Graecopithecus||Greece, Bulgaria||7 Million Years Ago|
|2||Sahelanthropus||Chad||7 Million Years Ago|
|3||Ardipithecus kadabba||Ethiopia||5.2 to 5.8 Million Years Ago|
|4||Lucy||Ethiopia||3.2 Million Years Ago|
|5||Neanderthal 1||Germany||400,000 Years Ago|
|6||Jebel Irhoud Fossils||Morocco||300,000 Years Ago|
|7||Omo Remains||Ethiopia||200,000 Years Ago|
|8||Cro-Magnon Man||France||30,000 Years Ago|
|9||Mungo Man||Australia||42,000 Years Ago|
|10||Tianyuan Man||China||39,000 to 42,000 Years Ago|
Who Are the Oldest Persons to Have Ever Lived?
In case you are curious, we wanted to give a shout-out to those humans who have broken records for the longest documented lifespans in recorded history. We’ll stick with those who lived in the last couple of centuries, though the Bible does record the oldest man ever to live as being Methuselah, who was recorded as living 969 years! Our list, however, begins with a woman born in the last quarter of the 19th century.
1. Jeane Calment
This French woman, who was born on 21 February 1875 and died on 4 August 1997, lived 122 years and 164 days. She is the oldest documented human. She’s also the only known person to have ever lived past the age of 120.
2. Kane Tanaka
This Japanese woman made it awfully close to 120 years, living 119 years and 107 days. She was born on 2 January 1903 and passed just last year on 19 April 2022. Amazingly, she lived through paratyphoid fever in her mid-30s, pancreatic cancer in her mid-40s, and colorectal cancer at the age of 103.
3. Lucille Randon (Sister André)
Lucille Randon of Toulon, France passed just this year (2023) at the age of 118 years 340 days, born on 11 February 1904 and passing on 17 January 2023. She broke another record as the oldest confirmed survivor of the COVID-19 pandemic. A month before her 117th birthday, she tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, yet went on to live almost two more years.
4. Jiroemon Kimura
Considered the oldest man in history, this Japanese veteran of WWI was born on 19 April 1897 and passed on 12 June 2013, making his lifespan 116 years and 54 days.
5. Christian Mortensen
This Danish supercentenarian lived 115 years and 252 days, being born on 16 August 1882, and passing on 25 April 1998. He was an occasional smoker who refrained from eating meat or drinking alcohol.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Puwadol Jaturawutthichai/Shutterstock.com
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