100 000 years ago to now

Homo sapiens

After the first modern humans (Cro-Magnons) emerged in Africa about 100 000 – 120 000 years ago, they migrated northward, spreading rapidly over Europe and Asia.

If we had been alive then, we would have seen that we look more like the Cro-Magnons than the Neanderthals. The Cro-Magnons were lighter boned, had long, slender arms and legs, and they had large hands with short fingers that allowed precision grips. We would have seen that the head was also more like ours. The skull had changed shape so that it was longer and narrower than the Neanderthal skull, with a straight forehead and a higher, more rounded braincase. The face was short and wide and the ridges over the brows had almost disappeared. The upper jaw did not stick out, the front teeth were smaller than the Neanderthals' and the lower jaw had changed so that Cro-Magnons had full chins. We would have also noticed differences in the eyes and nose.

So the Cro-Magnons were very similar to us — in fact they were the same species as us, Homo sapiens sapiens. They did have some similarities to the Neanderthals that we do not, but those slight differences gradually disappeared over several thousand years. We have only the weakest trace of the ridge over our eyes, our teeth are smaller and our jaws are slightly different in shape, but the rest of our body is virtually identical to the Cro-Magnon.

However, some changes, like the use of language, increased intelligence and improved social relationships, cannot fossilise.

A changing world

A changing world

Although our species evolved such a short time ago, we have changed the Earth for ever.

As the number of people increased, they began to hunt more, so that eventually some animals, like the mammoth, giant elk and aurochs (a huge wild cow-like animal), declined into extinction. In Britain, animals such as the wolf, boar and bear disappeared. One hour ago on our timeline, humans learnt how to become farmers. People cut down forests to create fields, build houses and burn for cooking and heating. The disappearance of the forests meant that many wild animals also disappeared, because there was no longer anywhere for them to live.

Just one minute ago on our timeline, people learned how to make large machines and the Industrial Revolution began. Coal was used to fuel factories, heat and light homes and power ships and trains. Smoke and steam belched out of the chimneys, changing the atmosphere, and rubbish was dumped in the countryside or poured into rivers and seas. Problems like pollution, holes in the ozone layer, acid rain and climate change have happened as a result of our activities in the last few seconds of the timeline!

And it is still going on today. Animals and plants are becoming extinct; tropical forests are being cut down. Energy production, plus pollution from cars, lorries and aeroplanes, is changing our atmosphere. More and more waste is polluting our land, our rivers and our oceans. There is nowhere on Earth that has not been touched and changed by us — and that includes you and me.


Cro-MagnonCro-Magnon

The Cro-Magnon type of prehistoric human appears to have been heavily built and fairly tall compared with the Neanderthals.

The Earth is now 46 years oldBack to 100-0 million years ago

The Earth is now 46 years old.