A timeline of fossil discoveries

A key part of writing a coherent story about our origins is finding and identifying the remains of our ancestors and understanding their significance. Scientist will not always agree on identifications and opinions will change as new find are made and new ways of studying them are developed.

Gibraltar Skull Homo neanderthalensis side view

Carl Bento © Australian Museum

A timeline of significant discoveries

1840s to 1850s

The first discoveries of ancient human fossils. Neanderthals were the first ancient humans to gain scientific and popular recognition. Their fossils began to be found in Europe in the 1800s but scientists had no perspective or evolutionary framework by which to explain them. Decades passed before they were recognised as being a different and extinct form of ancient human.

Opinions about the relationship between our own species and Neanderthals have continually changed. The early 1900s saw them as sub-humans, a stereotype that didn’t change until the 1950s when it was widely considered that they may be the ancestors of modern Europeans. New research in the 1980s led many to move them to a side branch of our family tree, a decision supported by the comparisons of the mitochondrial DNA of modern humans and Neanderthals in the 1990s and 2000s.

Key finds:

  • Gibraltar skull - Homo neanderthalensis. Discovered in 1848 in Forbe’s Quarry, Rock of Gibraltar
  • Neanderthal 1 skullcap - type specimen for Homo neanderthalensis. Discovered in1856 in the Neander Valley, Germany. Although originally presented as an inferior human that inhabited Europe before modern people, some felt that the differences between Neanderthals and modern humans were due to pathology and disease. This marked the effective beginning of Palaeoanthropology as a science.

1860s to 1890s

1868 - The remains of early modern humans found at Cro-Magnon in France.
These remains were the first firm evidence of the antiquity of our species, Homo sapiens.

1886 - Neanderthal skulls found in Spy, Belgium.
These finds supported the idea that Neanderthals were an ancient and distinct type of human, but exactly how they fit into our family tree was still debated.

1891 - Homo erectus skullcap found in Trinil, Java by Eugene Dubois, and described as a new species in 1894.
This specimen was originally named Pithecanthropus erectus as it was considered different enough from humans to be placed into a new genus. It was renamed Homo erectus in the 1940s, a species name that, in the opinion of most researchers, includes specimens from Java and China.

1900s to 1920s

1908 - Homo heidelbergensis named as a new species after the discovery of a jaw in Mauer, Germany in 1907.
This species was originally dismissed as being too apelike for human ancestry, particularly after the Piltdown Man find. In the 1960s it was grouped with other similar skulls and called archaic Homo sapiens, but today the preference is to use the original scientific name and to give this species an ancestral position on the human family tree.

1912 - Piltdown Man ‘discovered’ in England.
In a gravel-pit at Piltdown Common, Southern England, in 1912, amateur collector Charles Dawson ‘discovered’ what appeared to be the long-sought ‘missing link’ between apes and humans. This fortuitous find – nine pieces of a large-brained human skull and an ape-like lower jaw with two teeth – was readily accepted by the British establishment due to their belief that a large brain was one of the first human features to evolve. Although inconsistent with later discoveries, ‘Piltdown Man’s’ authenticity remained virtually unchallenged for 41 years. In 1953, advanced analytical and dating techniques proved Piltdown Man to be a fake. The mandible was stained with potassium bichromate and the teeth had been filed down. Fluorine testing proved that the pieces of the skull were of different ages. This was confirmed in 1959 by carbon dating, which provided a date of about 600 years for the skull!

1924 - Discovery of the ‘Taung skull’ in South Africa, classified as Australopithecus africanus in 1925.
This fossil was clearly more ancient than earlier finds and anatomist Raymond Dart, who first analysed it, claimed it was a human ancestor. He was criticised very strongly by English scientists who believed in ‘Piltdown Man’. It was not until the 1950s that this species was fully acknowledged as belonging on the human family tree.

1929 - The first remains of Homo erectus found in China.
Chinese specimens were discovered in a cave at Zhoukoudian near Peking and named Sinanthropus pekinensis (‘Chinese man of Peking’). In the 1950s these specimens, and the ones from Java, were placed in the one species, Homo erectus.

1930s to 1960s

1938 –Paranthropus robustus remains first discovered in South Africa.
Many of these fossils were originally given different names, which led to a confusing family tree. In the 1950s they were reclassified into the one species, Paranthropus robustus.

1959 - Remains of Paranthropus boisei found by the Leakeys in Olduvai Gorge.
This specimen OH5 (originally called Zinjanthropus boisei) was the first of our fossil ancestors to be given an accurate date with the new technique of radiometric dating. The date of 1.8 million years, obtained by potassium-argon dating, was announced in 1961.

1964 - Homo habilis announced as a new species after remains were discovered in Olduvai Gorge in 1960.
Although controversial, this fossil was the most primitive human to be classified into our genus. The family tree was still in a linear shape, with this species at the base.

1970s to 1980s

1972 - Specimen KNM-ER 1470 found in East Turkana.
Originally thought to be Homo habilis, this specimen was reclassified as Homo rudolfensis in 1986 and made the type specimen of that species.

This specimen and another attributed to Homo habilis, KNM-ER 1813, are at the centre of the debate regarding which remains are attributed to that species. Homo habilis is a well-known but poorly defined species and scientific opinions about the attributed specimens vary widely. Scientists often disagree about naming fossil specimens as scientific names may be changed following new discoveries or there are different interpretations or new lines of investigation.

1974 - Discovery of ‘Lucy’ in Hadar, Ethiopia.
In 1978 this specimen, and a number of other remains from Laetoli, Tanzania, and Hadar, Ethiopia, was classified as a new species, Australopithecus afarensis.

1975 - Specimen KNM-ER 3733 found in East Africa.
This specimen was initially considered to be an African Homo erectus, but many now classify it as Homo ergaster.
This fossil was found in the same layer as a specimen of Paranthropus boisei, finally disproving the ‘single species’ theory that was popular at this time. Followers of this theory believed that only one hominin species could occupy an area at the one time and that the family tree was a single, evolving line moving through phases to modern humans. This find proved that the human family tree was more like a branching bush and that evolution was not linear.

1984 - Discovery in Kenya of an almost complete Homo ergaster skeleton, nicknamed the ‘Turkana Boy’.

1990s to 2000s

1991 - discovery of fossils at Dmanisi in Georgia, dated to 1.8 million years old and tentatively assigned to the species Homo ergaster. More remains found in 1999-2001 led the discoverers to propose that the Dmanisi population were different enough from H. ergaster to be a new species, Homo georgicus (announced in 2002). Many other scientists believe that the Dmanisi and early H. ergaster fossils represent different populations of a single, highly variable species.

1995 - Ardipithecus ramidus announced as a new species after fossil remains were found in Ethiopia.
At 4.4 million years old this species was the oldest of our ancestors found to date. A more detailed analysis of the species was published in 2009.

1996 - Australopithecus bahreghazali described as a new species after remains were discovered at Bahr el Ghazalin Chad.

1995 - Announcement of a new species, Australopithecus anamensis after remains were discovered in Kenya.

1997 - Homo antecessor announced as a new species after remains were found in Gran Dolina, Spain.
These are the oldest humans (genus Homo) found in Western Europe (dated to 800,000 years old) and may be the ancestors of modern humans and the Neanderthals. Their species designation is debated.

1999 - Australopithecus garhi announced as a new species after parts of a skull were discovered in Bouri, Ethiopia in 1997.

2000 - Discovery of a well-preserved skeleton of a young Australopithecus afarensis, nicknamed 'Lucy's baby', in Ethiopia. It is the earliest juvenile hominin ever found and dates to about 3.3 million years old. Published in 2006.

2001 - Kenyanthropus platyops announced as a new species after the discovery of a skull in Kenya in 1999.
There is some debate about the validity of this species. In 2003, scientist Tim White argued that the reconstructed skull of Kenyanthropus platyops may be a misreconstructed skull of Australopithecus afarensis.

2001 - Announcement of a new species, Orrorin tugenensis, after fossils were discovered in Kenya in 2000.
This is the earliest dated fossil (6 million years old) that may be an ancestor of humans. Its position on our family tree is still hotly debated.

2001 - Ardipithecus kadabba announced as a new species. Remains of this species were found in Ethiopia over a number of seasons from 1997-2000.

2002 - Sahelanthropus tchadensis announced as a new species. It was discovered in Chad in 2001 and dates to about 6-7 million years old. Scientists consider the find to be of major significance but debate its relationship to humans. It is very possible that it comes before the split between the human and chimp line, making it an ancestor of both branches.

2004 - Homo floresiensis, a type of dwarf human discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores, is announced as a new species. Fossils date from about 12,000 to 100,000 years old, making this a contemporary of modern humans. This species was not ancestral to modern humans and may be a descendant of Asian Homo erectus or a yet to be discovered Homo species.

2009 - Publication of study of Ardipithicus ramidus skeleton, first found in 1994. The skeleton provides the first substantial fossil evidence about the appearance of the last human-chimp common ancestor and confirms that living African apes do not much resemble this ancestor, as was commonly thought.

2010 - Publication of a new species Australopithecus sediba. The first specimen was discovered in 2008 at Malapa in South Africa. Remains date to about 1.8 million years old. There is much debate about these remains and the species designation, with many considering them to be late A. africanus rather than a new species.

2010 - release of nuclear DNA analysis carried out on a finger bone and tooth from Denisova cave, Russia (found in 2008) reveals the remains come from a species that is neither Homo sapiens or Homo neanderthalensis. This suggests a fourth human species (as Homo floresiensis was extant in Flores) was still in existence between 48,000 and 30,000 years ago.

Fran Dorey , Exhibition Project Coordinator
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