Human Evolution


Welcome to the Human Evolution Exhibition, which is a collaboration between RCEAP at Liverpool John Moores University and Liverpool's World Museum.

The Human Evolution Exhibition

This exciting collaboration between researchers and lecturers at LJMU and the World Museum will take visitors through seven million years of evolution – from the very early beginnings in Africa, right up to today, and ask – “What does it mean to be human?”

You will soon be able to visit the museum and see all the fascinating artefacts that tell the story of our journey, and also learn about it here in the virtual anthropology museum. We would love you to tell us how much you enjoyed the exhibition, by giving us some feedback.

You can visit the exhibition for real at the Liverpool World Museum. Visit their website here.

The journey begins around seven million years ago, on the African continent. Early humans evolved over time and adapted to new habitats.

Early Hominins

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Homo Erectus

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Homo sapiens

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What Makes Us Different?

When Hominins (human ancestors) first appeared in Africa seven million years ago, they lived together with other primates that we still recognise today.

Homo sapiens share 98.8 percent of their DNA with modern chimpanzees, so what makes us so different? Over time hominins adapted to their environments, overcoming harsh conditions and in doing so allowing them to inhabit regions other species couldn’t.


The Human Brain

As early humans faced new environments they evolved larger and more complex brains that could process and store a lot of information. That was a big advantage in their social interactions and encounters with unfamiliar habitats.

When hominins first emerged and began a separate evolution from other primates, their brain size was broadly similar to that of chimpanzees, but over the course of human evolution, brain size tripled. The modern human brain is the largest relative to its body size and most complex of any living primate and this ability to think through complex situations and adapt has brought us many advantages.

The Human Hand

Take a look at your hand, and compare it to a gorillas hand. They share many similarities – four fingers and a thumb, that can grasp and perform many other functions, but apart from a difference in size, there are other anatomical differences that evolved from early humans that changed the way we live today.

Both primate and human hands have opposable thumbs, or thumbs that can move to touch the other four digits on the hand. But the human thumb is longer, stronger and more mobile. This makes it great for holding and manipulating objects. We need our ability to pinch to carry out most daily tasks these days.

The first evidence of stronger thumbs dates back to around three million years ago with Australopithecus africanus.


The Human Foot

The human foot is very different from that of primates such as chimpanzees. Our feet have evolved for walking on two legs (bipedal) and although chimpanzees can walk short distances like this their legs are set wider apart and they must shift weight from side to side, making this an inefficient form of locomotion for them.

The chimpanzee requires an opposable thumb for grasping tree branches, but in humans, the big toe has moved and sits next to our other toes. Humans also have an arch in their feet which also aids movement on two legs.

How Humans Walk

Humans are bipedal, walking and running on two legs, and this is a  very efficient form of locomotion. These adaptions allowed early humans to move faster, over longer distances, increasing their ability to hunt animals for food and live in more varied environments.

To achieve this our skeletons evolved over time. Walking upright on two legs means the vertebral column exits from beneath our skull, rather than towards the back, as the head sits on the top of the spine.


Human Teeth

Apes have large canine teeth and a gap (called a honing complex) beside the neighbouring tooth so that they can still close their mouth. Their large canines do not reflect what they eat, but have a social function and are displayed in shows of strength.

Human canines look more like incisors (front teeth). Hominin canines became smaller and smaller, during human evolution, probably as the way we interact with each other changed.

African specimens

The very earliest examples of hominins were discovered in Africa. They date back to around seven million years ago.

From then several branches of early humans evolved throughout the continent over the following millions of years. The existence of these species often overlapped in geological time.

The models below, show some of the different hominin species in Africa and are courtesy of

Paranthropus boisei_model2

Early Humans // Paranthropus boisei

Exploring the then unknown sites of east Turkana near Ileret in 1969 using camels with Kamoya Kimeu and Peter Nzube, Richard and Meave Leakey were walking along a dry sand river, when they saw looking directly at them, this skull.

The skull has the characteristic pronounced saggital crest running along the top of the skull and would have been a male individual.

homo habilis_model2

Early Humans // HOMO HABILIS

This delicate and small skull of Homo habilis, was discovered in 1973 by Kamoya Kimeu. He spotted several fragments of the upper jaw with beautifully preserved teeth just visible on the rocky ground. 

Many years later geologist Frank Brown was visiting the site and recovered a small fragment of the eyebrow that had been missed and it stuck perfectly on to the original.

homo ergaster_model2

Early Humans // Homo Ergaster

This discovery was also made by Kamoya Kimeu. He was walking up a gentle slope on the southern side of the seasonal Nariokotome River when he spotted a matchbox sized skull fragment, which he recognized as belonging to a human ancestor.

Found at Nariokotome on the west side of Lake Turkana, he is sometimes referred to as the “Turkana Boy” or the “Nariokotome Boy”. Most of his skeleton was found.

homo erectus_model2

Early Humans // Homo Erectus

This nearly complete cranium was found in 1975 by Bernard Ngeneo. The brow ridges above the eyes were just visible, exposed on the surface.  Richard Leakey carefully excavated this very fragile specimen over about three days. 

This is one of the most complete skulls of Homo erectus from Africa, with a face and teeth. Dated at 1.75 million years, it lived alongside several other species of hominins.

Early hominins were much smaller than modern humans. Australopithecus afarensis stood about 1m tall. It was with the evolution of Homo erectus around 2 million years ago that our ancestors stood as tall as we do today.

Homo erectus

Homo erectus was the earliest species to display human-like body proportions and generally considered to have been the first species to have expanded beyond Africa. The adult males would have been up to 1.80 m (5’10”) tall, and females around 1.65 m (5’5”).

Homo neanderthalensis

Homo neanderthalensis lived in cold Ice-Age Europe and had a stocky build. This cold adapted body shape would have helped to keep them warm. Males were around 1.70 m (5’7”) tall, females around 1.60 m (5’3”).

Australopithecus afarensis

Australopithecus afarensis had long arms and short legs. Although their body was adapted to walking upright, their curved finger bones and long arms suggest they still climbed trees. Males were around 1.3 m (4’3”) tall, females around 1 m (3’3”).

Australopithecus afarensis

Australopithecus afarensis had long arms and short legs. Although their body was adapted to walking upright, their curved finger bones and long arms suggest they still climbed trees. Males were around 1.3 m (4’3”) tall, females around 1 m (3’3”). The most famous Australopithecus afarensis fossil is the partial skeleton named Lucy (3.2 million years old) found by Donald Johanson and colleagues, who name her after the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds".

Homo neanderthalensis

Homo neanderthalensis lived in cold Ice-Age Europe and had a stocky build. This cold adapted body shape would have helped to keep them warm. Males were around 1.70 m (5’7”) tall, females around 1.60 m (5’3”).

Homo erectus

Homo erectus was the earliest species to display human-like body proportions and generally considered to have been the first species to have expanded beyond Africa. The adult males would have been up to 1.80 m (5’10”) tall, and females around 1.65 m (5’5”).

For most of the last one million years, the British Isles formed part of a peninsula extending from northwest Europe, accessible by migrating humans and animals.

The First People In Britain

Britain was not a straightforward place to settle with the local climate fluctuating between temperatures similar to the modern Mediterranean through to polar desert conditions. Humans temporarily migrated into the region at least nine times but were repeatedly pushed out by successive ice ages.

The site with the oldest evidence for humans in the British Isles is at Happisburgh (pronounced “Hazebruh”) in Norfolk, now located on the eastern English coast. During the Early Pleistocene, Happisburgh formed part of a large river estuary, close to the confluence of the now extinct Bytham river and the Thames, which flowed further north at the time.

The Happisburgh sites (now more than five) are situated on and near the present-day beach. The sediments at the base of the cliffs (Happisburgh site 3) were excavated between 2005 and 2010, and around 80 stone tools were discovered dating approximately to between 850,000 and 950,000 years ago. The remains of a wide range of plants and animals were also found.

In May 2013, a series of footprints also aged 850-950 thousand years old were found at Happisburgh site 3. They looked similar to other preserved coastal footprints in Britain (e.g. Formby Point, Sefton Coast). Waves and tides destroyed the footprints, but not before scientists could study them.

Although there are no hominin fossils from this warm interglacial period in Britain, scientists believe the footprints were left by Homo antecessor, the only hominin species known in northwestern Europe at that time.

Based on the size of the footprints, these hominins were estimated to have been between 0.93 m and 1.73 m tall. This suggests the footprints could have been made by a family group including males, females and children of different ages.

Until fairly recently, we were not the only hominins on earth. Our close cousins, the Neanderthals, lived alongside us in Europe and Asia. Although very similar to us, Neanderthals went extinct while we survived.

Homo Neanderthalensis

Neanderthals appeared in Europe and later expanded into Southwest, Central and Northern Asia. They were archaic humans that became extinct about 40,000 years ago. Neanderthals and humans interbred when they met leaving some Neanderthal DNA in that of modern Europeans. 

There, they left hundreds of stone tools. Compared to modern humans, Neanderthals were stockier, with shorter legs and a bigger body.

Here you can view the cast of a Neanderthal cranium, specimen Amud 1 (ark:/87602/m4/M5749), from the Morphosource collection, held by Duke University. It was found in 1961 in Israel – M6229-5749

Human Skull

Compared to the Neanderthal skull, a human skull has a rounded brain case and high forehead. Homo sapiens also had a pronounced chin.

Homo sapiens (rollover)

Neanderthal Skull

The Neanderthal skull has a flat brain case, and low forehead. Another difference between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis is the lack of a chin clearly seen in the illustrations.

Homo neanderthalensis (rollover)

Come into our “cave”, which showcases ice age art inspired by important sites like Lascaux and Chauvet, France and Altamira, Spain, and find out how early humans created it. Learn about how Britain has changed and discover Ice Age animals that once lived here.

The First Modern Humans

Homo sapiens evolved in Africa, before spreading around the world and becoming the only species of human survivng today. Modern humans show craftsmanship and ingenuity, and use symbolism extensively.

While some believe that modern human behaviour, such as using complex tools and producing art, emerged gradually over several hundred thousand years, others believe that it blossomed rapidly from around 40,000 years ago. Early evidence for symbols, art, and more sophisticated tools start to appear with the emergence of modern humans and innovations have rapidly increased over the past few thousand years.

Sometimes, early humans made stencils of their hands by blowing paint over them. We can use the size and shape of the hands to tell whether the artists were men or women, adults or children.

Animals and geometric designs were common, but fish and birds were rarely shown. The artists used three main colours made from yellow ochre, red ochre or charcoal mixed with spit, water or animal fat. They used reed or bone pipes, moss, their fingers or hair brushes to apply the paint.

The Last Ice Age In Britain

During this last glacial period there were alternating episodes of glacier advance and retreat. Within the last glacial period the Last Glacial Maximum was approximately 22,000 years ago, ending approximately 11,700 years ago. This period was known as the Devensian glaciation in Britain.

The name Devensian glaciation refers to what is often popularly meant by the latest ice age. Irish geologists, geographers, and archaeologists refer to the Midlandian glaciation as its effects in Ireland are largely visible in the Irish Midlands. The name Devensian is derived from the Latin Dēvenses, people living by the Dee, a river on the Welsh border near which deposits from the period are particularly well represented.

Over the last 2.6 million years, Britain experienced several Ice Ages, as well as times when the climate was similar to the Mediterranean today. Many large mammals which are now extinct once lived in Britain, such as the woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, hippopotamus, saber-toothed cat, cave bear and cave hyena. Their fossils have been found at many British sites.

The Prehistoric Mammals Of Britain

Reconstructions are a useful way to show information about the appearance, anatomy, behaviour and ecology of extinct animals.

Discovering fossils like these also help to show how climates changed, and as a result how our ancestors lived. Sharing their lives and land with them, early humans, like Neanderthals would have hunted some of these animals, using the tools and weapons they had developed.

Fossils of this extinct saber-toothed cat (Homotherium latidens) were found in Kent’s Cavern, Devon. Reconstructions like this result from the joint work of artists and scientisits, such as Mauricio Antón and Alan Turner.

Cave Bear

Cave bears (Ursus Spelaeus) were widespread in Europe (the red area on the map) between 1.2 million and 24 thousand years ago. Males weighed on average 450 kg (990 lb), so were around twice the size of females, who weighed 230 kg (510 lb). Cave bears were mainly vegetarian but sometimes scavenged meat and ate insects. They competed with cave lions and cave hyenas for food. Their bones are commonly found in caves where they hibernated during the winter. The increasing human population and changing climate in the late Pleistocene may have played a role in their disappearance.

Cave hyena

The cave hyena (crocuta crocuta spelea), a relative of modern African hyenas, is a carnivore that once lived in Europe during the Pleistocene (2.5 million to around 12 thousand years ago). Like many mammals living in cold environments, they were larger than their warm-climate cousins and weighed up to 160 kg (350 lb). Capable of scavenging woolly rhino and woolly mammoth carcasses, cave hyenas were also skilled hunters very often in conflict with cave bears and cave lions. Cave hyenas often took their food back to caves to eat it hidden from their competitors. As a result, they are responsible for many of the accumulations of animal bones from this period that we find today in Europe and Russia.


The same hippo species (Hippopotamus amphibus) we find today in Africa (in the orange are on the map), once lived in Britain and across Europe and Africa (red area on the map). They were found here during the Last Interglacial Period (around 125 thousand years ago) when the climate was much warmer than today.

Like modern hippos, they were amphibious and generally lived close to lakes or slow-flowing rivers.

Hippos graze at night and clearly roamed some distance from the water. Their bones have been found in caves which were more than 2 km (1.2 miles) from any ancient bodies of water.


This small herbivorous rodent currently lives only in Norway, Sweden, Finland and northwest Russia (orange on the map above). Lemmings (Lemmus lemmus) live exclusively in tundra and alpine environments, and were found in the UK and central Europe during the last Ice Age (red area on the map). At that time it was much colder, and lemmings’ preferred habitats extended further south than today.

Lemming numbers can grow so high that it was believed they sometimes committed mass suicide to manage their own population.

Early Human Tools

Stone  tools offer evidence of how human made things, interacted with their environment and evolved over time.

Spanning the past 2.6 million years, many thousands of archeological sites have been excavated, studied, and dated. These sites often consist of the accumulated debris from making and using stone tools. Because stone tools are less susceptible to destruction than bones, stone artifacts typically offer the best evidence of where and when early humans lived, their geographic dispersal, and their ability to survive in a variety of habitats.

Most importantly stone tools provide evidence about the technologies, dexterity, particular kinds of mental skills, and innovations that were within the grasp of early human toolmakers.

Knapping Stone Tools

Flintknapping or knapping is done in a variety of ways depending on the purpose of the final product. For stone tools, chert is worked using a fabricator such as a hammerstone to remove lithic flakes from a nucleus or core of tool stone. Stone tools can then be further refined using wood, bone, and antler tools to perform pressure flaking.


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So we have travelled seven million years through time and crossed the globe. Now, in the 21st century; what does it mean to be human? 

Being Human

“At some point in our evolution we developed a sophisticated spoken language. It enables us to teach our children about things not present, make plans for the distant future, and gather together to discuss ideas and problems. This, I believe, has been important in triggering the explosive development of our intellect. Our clever brain has allowed us to dominate the natural world: at the present time we are destroying the finite resources of Planet Earth, our only home. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, are capable of brutality, even a kind of primitive war.

But only humans, I believe, are capable of true evil – the deliberate planning of physical or mental torture separated from the emotion that leads to violence in other animals. Chimps and humans are also capable of love, compassion and altruism. With our greater capacity for understanding, surely we have a responsibility to care for our environment for the benefit of future generations.

We need to change our mindset now and stop using the finite natural resources of our planet as though they are infinite. For the sake of future generations of life on Earth.”

Dame Jane Goodall DBE

Primatologist and conservationist

What do you think it means to be human? Please share your thoughts and opinions by leaving a comment below.

DigiArt Project is funded by the European Commision under grant number 665066

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