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From Sahelanthropus to Homo sapiens: What Did our Predecessors Look Like? 

Virtual and 3D reconstructions lead you down the branching paths of 7 million years of human evolution. 15 different hominid species illustrate our prolific evolution, and what an evolution! From Toumai the Sahelanthropus tchadensis to our species, Homo sapiens – the only one still around –, via Lucy the Australopithecus afarensis, Homo habilis the first craftsman, Homo erectus the explorer, and the Man of Spy, a Belgian Homo neanderthalensis, in between; this virtual exhibition reveals what they looked like.

Toumai, the first biped
Toumai is a Sahelanthropus tchadensis. Its skull is the oldest skull discovered to date. Additionally scientists found a femur. But who the owner of that femur is, is still uncertain. As a consequence, the rest of his body remains a big mystery! Toumai seems to be very close to our common ancestors, the great apes, and is considered to be the first biped. Just as in human beings, the opening through which the spinal cord runs is located more towards the front. Opponents have their doubts. The skull was completely pulverised. Was it reconstructed correctly? Did Toumai really walk on two feet? This is still under investigation. 

Scientific name: Sahelanthropus tchadensis
Gender: Male
Lived around: 7-6 million years ago
Height: 113cm
Weight: Approx. 46kg
Brain volume: 24% of a modern human
Habitat: Wooded savannah area with lakes, rivers and woods
Site: Toros-Menalla, Chad

Ardi, grasping with the foot!
The discovery of the seemingly complete fossil of Ardipithecus ramidus was a revelation for palaeontologists: her teeth and jaws have human characteristics and she was bipedal, but could climb trees too. Most scientists believe that Ardi’s coat looks very much like that of our closest living cousins, the apes. The body is completely covered in hair. The only exceptions are the face, the hands and the feet.

Scientific name: Ardipithecus ramidus
Gender: Female
Lived around: 4.5-4.3 million years ago
Height: 121cm
Weight: Approx. 50kg
Brain volume: 22% of a modern human
Habitat: Ancient woods
Site: Middle Awash valley, Ethiopia

Lucy, the first found complete skeleton
The discovery of Lucy, an Australopithecus afarensis, changed the way scientists perceive our origins; she was a biped with a small brain. This evidence dispelled the notion that an increase in brain size predated bipedalism. Footprints in ash tell us something about the form of Lucy’s feet. Her hair and skin colour remain a mystery. Human’s ancestors lost their hair gradually. Because Lucy is right at the beginning of the family tree she probably had dark fur.

Scientific name: Australopithecus afarensis
Gender: Female
Lived around: 3.9-2.9 million years ago
Height: 105cm
Weight: Approx. 29kg
Brain volume:31% of a modern human
Habitat: Woods and savannahs
Site: Hadar, Ethiopia

The human from Kenya, different or distorted
Kenyanthropus platyops, “the human from Kenya”, was a contemporary of Australopithecuse afarensis (Lucy). During this era several species of humans co-existed, some of which were probably not from the lineage that led to modern humans. Kenyanthropus is believed to have had fur. If he did, his colour is a mystery. With camouflage he would have been barely noticeable, but maybe he had brightly coloured fur to attract attention.

Scientific name: Kenyanthropus platyops
Gender: Male
Lived around: 3.5-3.2 million years ago
Height: Unknown
Weight: Approx. Unknown
Brain volume: Unknown
Habitat: Grassland and woods
Site: Lomekwi, Kenya

Ples, the oldest South African fossil 
A pre-human, and a human, is an animal and a potential prey for others. Ples, the first Australopithecus africanus to be discovered was a young boy aged three, who was the victim of an eagle; the bite marks from its beak are visible in his eye sockets. Ples is the oldest fossil to have been found in South Africa. He lived 3.3 million years ago. He probably had a thick coat of fur just like other human predecessors from this period. He had strikingly large teeth.

Scientific name: Australopithecus africanus
Gender: Male
Lived around: 3.3-2.3 million years ago
Height: 135cm
Weight: Approx. 38kg
Brain volume: 35% of a modern human
Habitat: Woods, savannah and grassland
Site: Sterkfontein, South Africa

Handy man, the first of all Homo species
Stone tools and the waste created when they are made were found close to fossils of Homo habilis, “the handy man”‘. Her ability is attributed to the fact that she had a notably bigger brain than other species. Handy man is small, but has comparatively long arms. Her whole body is covered in hair. Yet her coat was probably a lot thinner than that of older human ancestors. She is a member of the very first Homo species.

Scientific name: Homo habilis
Gender: Female
Lived around: 2.4-1.7 million years ago
Height: 131cm
Weight: Approx. 32kg
Brain volume: 43% of a modern human
Habitat: Woods and grassland with lakes and rivers
Site: Koobi Fora, Kenya

The nutcracker, so different
The fossils of Paranthropus boisei, the nutcracker, are separated into two types: large with a thick skull, or small and spindly. They are interpreted as males and females and scientists think they had different behaviour. The sturdy bones tell us that the nutcracker was big and heavy. The skin colour remains a mystery. Variation is possible within a species which explains why the reconstructed man and woman have different skin colours.

Scientific name: Paranthropus boisei
Gender: Male, female
Lived around: 2.3-1.2 million years ago
Height: Man 137cm, woman 124cm
Weight: Approx. 49kg, approx. 34kg
Brain volume: 34% of a modern human
Habitat: Grassland and areas abounding in water with rivers and lakes
Site: Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania - Koobi Fora, Kenya

Australopithecus sediba, the last Australopithecus?
This late australopithecine was around at the same time as early humans (Homo), but as each of the species would have had their own lifestyle and diet, they did not compete with each other for resources. This Australopithecus probably had a thinner coat of hair than that of her predecessors. As a consequence her skin had more contact with the sun. She needed protection against the sun’s harmful UV rays. This is why she was probably dark in colour.

Scientific name: Australopithecus sediba
Gender: Female
Lived around: 2-1.8 million years ago
Height: 130cm
Weight: Unknown
Brain volume: 29% of a modern human
Habitat: Grassland Savannah and woods
Site: Close to Johannesburg, South Africa

Turkana boy, increasingly modern
The Turkana boy, an Homo ergaster, had a large brain that controlled a modern body with proportions identical to our own. This made him probably the first human to behave like a hunter. He lived in open savannah. Maybe he didn’t have much hair. It is possible that dark skin protected him from the sun. If he still had a coat of hair then it could be that his skin was light in colour. 

Scientific name: Homo ergaster
Gender: Male
Lived around: 1.9-1.4million years ago
Height: 160cm
Weight: Approx. 48kg
Brain volume: 57% of a modern human
Habitat: Savannah
Site: Nariokotome near Turkana Lake, Kenya

The upright human, the longest living?
This upright human, Homo erectus, doesn’t have much hair. This meant he didn’t get hot all that quickly and could be active all day long. 

Scientific name: Homo erectus
Gender: Female
Lived around: 1.8 million to 140,000 years ago
Height: 160cm
Weight: Approx. 40kg
Brain volume: 68% of a modern human
Habitat: Grassland and steppe
Site: Zhoukoudian, China

The Georgian human, away from Africa
This male fossil discovered at the border of Europe and Asia, the Georgian human, is an enigma: palaeontologists had not expected to find such ancient primitive humans outside of Africa. He soon lost pigment in his skin, because he had less contact with the sun. This means he probably has a lighter skin tone.

Scientific name: Homo georgicus
Gender: Male
Lived around: 1.8 million years ago
Height: 146cm
Weight: Approx. 50kg
Brain volume: 46% of a modern human
Habitat: Mix of grassland and woods
Site: Dmanisi, Georgia

The human from Heidelberg, the first house builder 
Homo heidelbergensis was always on the move. Some populations migrated to Europe, where they developed into Neanderthals, while others remained in Africa and evolved into modern humans (Homo sapiens). Homo heidelbergensis lived in very different habitats, from hot to very cold regions. Her skin colour was dependent on the environment. In areas with little sun she probably had a lighter skin tone.

Scientific name: Homo heidelbergensis
Gender: Female
Lived around: 700,000 to 200,000 years ago
Height: 158cm
Weight: Approx. 59kg
Brain volume: 46% of a modern human
Habitat: From steppe to savannah regions
Site: Kabwe, Zambia - Mauer, Germany - Atapuerca, Spain

Spyrou, the  Spy Man, not a barbarian
The relationship between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis – illustrated here by the Spy Man, a Belgian specimen – is the subject of endless debate that highlights both our similarities and our differences. What we do know today is that humans in Eurasia and Oceania have Neanderthal genes. His compact body and large nose meant that Spyrou didn’t get cold easily. From his DNA scientists have discovered that 5% of the species had red hair. The other 95% were not red, but probably not blonde either, because this is a rather more recent physical characteristic. His skin is probably light in colour.

Scientific name: Homo neanderthalensis
Gender: Male
Lived around: 250,000 to 30,000 years ago
Height: 150cm
Weight: Approx. 68kg
Brain volume: 100% of a modern human
Habitat: Grasslands in glacial periods and woods during hot periods
Site: Spy, Belgium

The Spy Man
English version (French and Dutch versions below)
1:12

L'Homme de Spy
Version française
1:12

De Mens van Spy
Nederlandstalige versie
1:12

The hobbit, the littlest people
With an unusual appearance, short stature and small legs Homo floresiensis had several ancient characteristics. This species evolved on a small island without predators and without many resources. The small build is a typical sign of adaptation to these conditions. The skeleton of the hobbit is almost complete, but what did she look like? Was she dark-skinned, or more light-skinned like Homo erectus or hairy like her earlier predecessors? We don’t know who she descends from. That is why we don’t know what she looked like.

Scientific name: Homo floresiensis
Gender: Female
Lived around: 95,000 to 12,000 years ago
Height: 110cm
Weight: Approx. 25kg
Brain volume: 27% of a modern human
Habitat: Heavily wooded and mountain peaks over 2000 metres high
Site: Liang Bua cave, Flores Island

The human, the only survivor
Everyone looks different. So too are our two reconstructions. The first reconstruction has a dark skin like that of people living in southern Egypt, where the fossil evidence was found.

Genetic studies show that South African San people’s coppery skin is the closest in colour to that of the first modern humans. So both skin colours are possible.

Scientific name: Homo sapiens
Gender: Male
Lived around: 200,000 years ago to date
Height: 161cm
Weight: Approx. 70kg
Brain volume: 100% of a modern human
Habitat: All continents. From the tropics to the North Pole
Site: Nazlet Khater, Egypt

Museum of Natural Sciences (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences)
Credits: All media
The exhibit featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.