Introduction to World History

Human Origins

Dictionary and Thesaurus and the HyperHistory Timeline

A couple of notes before beginning. You will note the links to "Dictionary, Thesaurus and the HyperHistory Timeline" at the head of this page. You will encounter these items throughout our on-line pages during the course of the semester. If you click on "Dictionary and Thesaurus," you will be taken to the Merriam-Webster On-Line Language Center, at which you can search for any word you do not understand. Take the time to learn the dictionary's way of showing you how the word in question is pronounced and learn both the meaning and pronunciation of the words you look up. You will find that it is much easier to remember terms if you know what they sound like. It can also be important to know how a word is used, and the Thesaurus can provide you with a greater range of synonyms and examples of usage. It can be difficult to keep the sequence of things straight, but this is an essential feature of thinking in an historical manner. If you find that the chronology of events is beginning to confuse you, click on "the Hyperhistory Timeline," and you will be taken to a web site that specializes in names and events, and when things happened. Don't be afraid to use these aids. When you are finished with them, you can always return to this site by clicking the BACK arrow near the top of your screen.

The second matter is that is one of word usage. When I refer to "man" or "mankind," I consider the terms to include both genders. I know that a different and more specifically gender-neutral terminology is preferred by many, but this is the grammar and style with which I grew up and this is the usage with which I am most comfortable.

Today's subject is the study of Genus homo, the entire family of manlike creatures, of which our own species, homo sapiens, is the most recent, and apparently the only surviving example. At the close of this section, you should

  • Know the meaning of the terms hominid, homo habilis, homo erectus, and homo sapiens, and be acquainted with the importance of Lucy, the Leakeys, and Olduvai Gorge.
  • You should also know something about Charles Darwin, The Evolution of Man, the Theory of Evolution, and the role played by variation and natural selection in driving that evolution. Some of you, of course, may not accept the theory of evolution as a proven fact, but that makes little difference. It is the dominant theory in the life sciences and you will be at a distinct disadvantage if, during future courses, you are not well acquainted with the concepts and the terms used in discussing it. You can console yourself with the consideration that I do not believe that carrots are edible but was taught by my mother how to make creamed carrots in spite of this deeply-held belief. I might add to the things you should learn the fact that I am sometimes a bit light-hearted about even the most serious things.
  • By the completion of these assignments, you should have started to ask some basic questions about the following matters:
    • Did hominids emerge in a single place and at a single time, or did various species arise at different places and times?
    • Why has hominid evolution progressed so slowly?
    • Why have other hominid species disappeared, leaving only homo sapiens?
    • What essential differences distinguish homo sapiens from other members of the primate family?
    • what importance is it to know something of the origin and early nature of our species?


You should begin your study of this section by getting a grasp of the overall timeframe of World History. Human Prehistory: An Exhibition will take you from early Greece to the 19th-century naturalists who developed the concept of evolution, and will do so will some excellent illustrations. Take the time to access Lucy, in order to learn a bit more about this earliest example of the hominid family, and how and where she was found.

There is a site dedicated to discussing perhaps the most important question that can be asked about the materials you have studied for today: What is Human? There is also an excellent exhibit of Human Prehistory accessible.

And, if you are interested in going into this subject more deeply, , Evolution Update offers a collection of links designed for the use of students and teachers of evolutionary biology.


The section introduces a number of important concepts, some of which we will be discussing, in various forms, from time to time. Darwin's concept of the factors driving evolution and the question of whether hominids emerged in a single place or in several different places are of particular importance.

There are several questions that are not addressed directly in the materials you will be studying since the focus of these materials is upon the hominids other than modern man. Think about the following questions:

  • Is there something of a problem with Darwin's formulation of the process of evolution? If variation is an important factor in evolution, why have hominids advanced so far? How much variability do the hominids display in comparison with other animals, such as cats? Is this a legitimate criticism?
  • If evolution tends to create species uniquely adapted to their environment, why do new species evolve? Why did homo erectus supplant homo habilis and why did homo sapiens prevail over homo neanderthalensis? What makes this an important question?
  • Many scientists are interested in discovering the nature of the hominids and their way of life, and some seek this sort of information by studying the behavior of animals, such as gorillas and chimpanzees, that are believed to be descended from the same early mammal from which hominids emerged. Why is the nature and character of the remote ancestors of modern man a significant question?
  • Finally, what characteristics marks the most important differences between the hominids, including modern man, and other animals? Is it speech, the ability to make tools, the capacity for abstract thought, or what?

This text was produced and installed by
Lynn H. Nelson,
Department of History,
University of Kansas.
12 January 1998
Lawrence KS