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The Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, one of Africa's most important geological sites
Origins of the Human Race

Researchers believe that members of the human family - hominids - and African apes once had a common ancestor, perhaps as recently as 5 to 10 million years ago. At some stage the hominids split off from the apes and began to develop one of the first and perhaps most important human characteristics - the ability to walk upright.

The earliest ancestors of humankind are known as Australopithecines - commonly known as 'ape men'.

AUSTRALOPITHECUS
The first example of Australopithecus was found in 1925 in a limestone cave near Taung, in South Africa, by the anthropologist Raymond Dart. He found the skull of a six year old creature with an ape-like appearance but human characteristics. Australopithecines were small, with long arms, prominent skulls and small brains and retained the ability to climb trees.

Since 1925 there have been numerous finds of Australopithecus fossils in East and Southern Africa, mainly based around the Great Rift Valley - a fracture in the earth's surfaces that runs 3,500 kilometres from the Red Sea to Mozambique. The non-acidic nature of the Rift Valley soil and sediment has made it the ideal environment for the preservation of specimens.

In 1997 an Australopithecus skull and skeleton was found in a cave in Sterkfontein north of Johannesburg. It is thought to be around 3.5 million years old. The bones are likely to be of a hominid, who fell through a shaft and died while trapped underground.

One of the most famous finds was in Ethiopia's Omo Valley in 1974. It was the skeleton, about 40% complete, of a young girl known to the outside world as Lucy and to Ethiopians as Dinqnish - the wonderful or precious one. She was about the same age as Sterkfontein man.

Australopithecus split into several different species. Some developed powerful teeth and jaws and became known as 'robust' while others were more lightly built and dubbed 'gracile'.

HOMO HABILIS
By around 2.5 million years ago a more recent ancestor - Homo habilis or 'man, the toolmaker' appears to have evolved. It is not clear whether Homo habilis developed directly from Australopithecus, but if so, it is likely to have been from one of the gracile, rather than robust species.

Homo habilis was an individual whose larger brain size enabled it to manufacture simple stone tools, usually pebbles which were split and then chipped to give a cutting edge.

Such technology is most clearly on display in the excavations at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania - one of Africa's most extraordinary geological sites. The gorge cuts through five colourful volcanic layers, each representing a different period in time, ranging from two million to 500 thousand years ago.

Listen hereListen to an expert at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania explaining the use of lava and chert rock tools

HOMO ERECTUS
With this species, which evolved around 1.5 million years ago, we encounter an ancestor who looked a good deal like a modern human. Homo erectus was taller than Homo habilis, more robust and had a larger brain. They developed tool-making further, producing a characteristic hand axe known as the 'Acheulian'.

Fossils of Australopithecus and Homo habilis have been found only in Africa, but examples of Homo erectus have been found in the Far East and China while the hand axe has been found in Asia and Europe.

The widely held belief is that these other parts of the world were populated by Homo erectus who left Africa.

LAUNCHED IN AFRICA
"There is no question that Africans contributed towards the development of human beings as we know them today. They were the first to use their physical capabilities to enlarge their brains.

They were able to develop the technology of stone tools…they were the first ones to move out of trees and walk upright…and they were the first ones to explore….crossing the seas and going out to Asia and Europe….and to me this is the greatest achievement that humanity has ever done."
George Abungu, of the National Museums of Kenya

Listen hereListen to George Abungu, of the National Museums of Kenya, on how Africans developed stone tool technology

Listen hereListen to South African President Thabo Mbeki highlighting the crucial contribution of the African continent to the development of humankind