How Homo sapiens became world’s dominant species

‘First Peoples’ engagingly describes humans’ rise, global spread

Omo I skull

ADAM OR EVE  The new miniseries First Peoples tells the story of how humans emerged in Africa and went on to colonize the rest of the world. Found in Ethiopia, this roughly 195,000-year-old skull known as Omo I is the oldest known Homo sapiens fossil.

Courtesy of Tim Lambert/Wall to Wall Media

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No superhero’s origin story is more epic than our own: Some 200,000 years ago, the first modern humans arose in Africa and went on to take over the world. This remarkable feat is chronicled in the series First Peoples, which begins airing on PBS June 24.

The series consists of five hour-long episodes that focus on how Homo sapiens emerged in Africa and then spread to Asia, Australia, Europe and the Americas. The series provides a compelling overview of the major human evolution discoveries of the last several years. It also methodically dismantles outdated notions about our origins.

First Peoples tackles many big questions, including who the first Americans were (SN: 12/27/14, p. 29), why the Neandertals went extinct (SN: 9/20/14, p. 11) and how our ancestors entered and dispersed across Asia. One thing quickly becomes clear: Early human history is not as straightforward as once thought.

The emergence of humans, for instance, can’t be traced to a single birthplace (SN: 10/20/12, p. 9). Instead, numerous populations across Africa, linked through social and trade networks, contributed to the modern human gene pool; different physical  features probably originated in different parts of Africa, the series explains. And even after H. sapiens established itself, early people interbred with archaic hominids in Africa, Asia and Europe. Long after those species went extinct, bits of their DNA live on in modern people.

The rise of genetics as a powerful tool in the study of human evolution is a recurring theme in the series. At times, the emphasis on DNA overshadows the continuing importance of fossils and stone artifacts in learning about ancient people. Yet overall, First Peoples does a great job of weaving together interdisciplinary lines of evidence.

The series concludes with an intriguing suggestion about how modern humans conquered the world. Our ancestors were not necessarily more intelligent than neighboring hominids, just more social. By maintaining social ties across groups through symbolic culture, modern humans could move into new environments and grow in number, eventually overwhelming more scattered, isolated hominid populations.

Tam Pa Ling fossils
Discovered in a cave in Laos, the Tam Pa Ling fossils are among the oldest modern human remains ever found in Asia. The skull fragments belonged to a woman who lived roughly 63,000 years ago. Courtesy of Julius Brighton/Wall to Wall Media
Mungo Man skeleton fragment
The Mungo Man skeleton (skull cap shown) dates to about 42,000 years ago and is the oldest known modern human fossil found in Australia. A recent genetic analysis of hair collected from an aboriginal man suggests people reached Australia even earlier — sometime around 60,000 to 70,000 years ago. Courtesy of Julius Brighton/Wall to Wall Media
40,000-year-old skull of a teenager
This 40,000-year-old skull of a teenager who lived in what is now Romania is one of the oldest modern human fossils in Europe. The skull’s mix of modern and archaic features suggests modern humans interbred with Neandertals. Courtesy of Tom Cebula/Wall to Wall Media
oldest known modern human fossil found in the Americas
Found in an underwater cave in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, this 13,500-year-old skull is the oldest known modern human fossil found in the Americas. The finding overturns the long-held view that the earliest people in the New World were members of the Clovis culture, who lived in North America around 13,000 years ago and made distinct spearpoints. Courtesy of Lawrence Gardner/Wall to Wall Media

Erin Wayman is the managing editor for print and longform content at Science News. She has a master’s degree in biological anthropology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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