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View series: Prehistory

Series: Prehistory
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Humans colonise the planet

This map is part of a series of 5 animated maps showing the history of Prehistory.

About seven million years ago, our ancestors’ lineage split from that of the great apes.

Over millions of years, several species of the genus Homo evolved by meeting and interbreeding on the African continent – palaeontologists call this ‘branching’ evolution.

Two million years ago, some of these Homos left the African cradle. In the Caucasus, fossils have been found and dated as 1.81 million years old, on the island of Java as 1.8 million years old, in northern Spain as 1.2 million years old, and on several sites in northern China.

These human groups, which were small in number and scattered over a vast area, continued to evolve differently.

Around 300,000 years ago, these evolutions gave rise to Neanderthals in Europe and parts of Asia, Denisovans in Asia, Flores Man in Indonesia and Homo luzonensis in the Philippines.

In Africa, further evolution led to the appearance of Homo sapiens – modern humans – about 300,000 years ago. Fossils attest to their presence in various parts of the continent, including present-day Morocco, southern Africa and the Omo Valley in today’s Ethiopia.

In turn, Homo sapiens came out of Africa. Traces of modern humans’ presence in the Middle East date back at least 180,000 years. Some then moved eastwards along the southern coast of Asia and reached Australia, where there is evidence of human settlement about 60,000 years ago.

At the same time, groups of H. sapiens migrated to central, then northern Asia, where they adapted to a very different environment from that of their ancestors in Africa.

However, H. sapiens arrived in Western Europe later, around 40,000 years ago, despite its relative proximity to Africa.

For tens of thousands of years, Neanderthals, Denisovans and Homo Sapiens coexisted in Eurasia, sometimes interbreeding and exchanging techniques. However, human species other than H. sapiens gradually died out. The reasons for this extinction remain uncertain.

No human species had set foot on the American continent before H. sapiens. According to current knowledge, several waves of humans arrived from Siberia in the north when sea levels were sufficiently low. Some human groups remained in the north, while others dispersed across the continent by land or by boat along the coast.

By around 10,000 BCE, Homo sapiens had colonised most of the planet, with the notable exception of certain islands such as those in Oceania. At that time, they probably numbered less than two million individuals.