Artists impression of a group of australopith

The Origin of ‘Us’: What We Know So Far About Where We Humans Come From

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The question of where we humans come from is one many people ask, and the answer is getting more complicated as new evidence is emerging all the time.

For most of recorded history humankind has been placed on a metaphorical, and sometimes literal, pedestal. Sure, modern humans were flesh and blood like other animals.

But they were regarded as being so special that in the Linnaean taxonomy that prevailed well into the second half of the 20th century they were given their own family, the Hominidae.

This distinguished them from the Pongidae, the separate family used for the three African great apes – the common chimpanzee, bonobo and gorilla – plus the orangutan from Southeast Asia.

We now realize that modern humans are just one of the African great apes.

So when and how did this radically changed perception come about?

Early Observations

In the 19th century the only evidence available for determining the closeness of the relationship between any two living animals was how similar they were in terms of what the naked eye could tell from their bones, teeth, muscles and organs.

Biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895).

Biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895). ( Public Domain )

The first person to undertake a systematic comparative review of these differences between modern humans and the apes was English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley .

In the central section of a small book he published in 1863, called Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature , Huxley concluded that the differences between modern humans and African apes were less than those between African apes and orangutans.

This was the evidence the English naturalist Charles Darwin referred to in The Descent of Man in 1871.

He speculated that because African apes were morphologically closer to modern humans than the apes from Asia, then the ancestors of modern humans were more likely to be found in Africa than elsewhere.


Charles Darwin (Public Domain),(Left) Figure 3 from ‘The Descent of Man’ by Charles Darwin, (Right) (Public Domain)

Charles Darwin ( Public Domain ),(Left) Figure 3 from ‘The Descent of Man’ by Charles Darwin, (Right) ( Public Domain )

A Closer Inspection

Developments in biochemistry and immunology during the first half of the 20th century enabled the search for evidence of the relationships between modern humans and the apes to shift from macroscopic morphology to the morphology of molecules.

The results of applying a new generation of analytical methods to proteins were reported by the Austrian-born French biologist Emile Zuckerkandl and American biologist Morris Goodman in the early 1960s.

Zuckerkandl used enzymes to break up the protein component of haemoglobin into its peptide components. He showed that the patterns of the peptides from modern humans, gorilla and chimpanzee were indistinguishable.

Cartoon representation of the molecular structure of the protein albumin.

Cartoon representation of the molecular structure of the protein albumin. ( Public Domain )

Goodman used a different method , immunodiffusion, to study albumin, a serum protein. He showed that the patterns produced by the albumins of modern humans and the chimpanzee were identical. He concluded that this was because the albumin molecules were, to all intents and purposes, identical.

Apes and Humans: Related 

Proteins are made up of a string of amino acids and in many instances one amino acid can be substituted for another without changing the function of the protein.

In the late 1960s, the American anthropologist Vince Sarich and New Zealand biologist Allan Wilson exploited these minor differences in protein structure and concluded that modern humans and the African apes were very closely related.

They also provided the first molecular clock estimate of modern human-African ape divergence, dating the split to only around five million years ago. This date was less than half of contemporary estimates based on fossil evidence.

In 1975 the American human geneticist Mary-Claire King and Allan Wilson showed that 99% of the amino-acid sequences of chimpanzee and modern human blood proteins were identical.

Chimpanzee sitting, (Left) (CC BY-SA 3.0), Human sitting, (Right) (CC0)

Chimpanzee sitting, (Left) ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ), Human sitting, (Right) ( CC0)

Enter DNA

The discovery by James Watson and Francis Crick, with unwitting help from Rosalind Franklin, of the basic structure of DNA , and the subsequent discovery by Crick and others of the nature of the genetic code, meant that the relationships among organisms could be pursued at the level of the genome.

Nowadays technological advances mean that whole genomes can be sequenced. Over the past decade researchers have published good draft sequences of the nuclear genomes of the chimpanzee, orangutan, gorilla and the bonobo.


I'm not doubting evolution, but I wonder why some of the apes are still apes while others of us have evolved.

Humans are still considered to be Great Apes, along with gorillas, orangatans, and chimpanzees. All three groups are still evolving, but have proceeded along different paths due to different selective forces and random mutations.Remember, evolution in biology, doesn’t refer to a speices becoming a higher organism or something greater than what it already is. Evolutionary biology respond to natural selection, and sometimes what enables a speices to survive is what we would consider to be more primal traits.

You did the exact same thing Linneaus did, you presented a picture comparing a chimpanzee and human sitting to make a taxonomical comparison. Does that mean because we sit that is a proper comparison?

How did Linneaus come up with the taxonomical chart? He said humans are apes because we have two eyes in the front, two ears on the side, two arms and two legs. Does that mean we are apes?

May I remind that even today some people still claim Neanderthals are merely cousins, yet so many are DESCENDED from Neanderthals. See, how it works is this, if you are part something that means your ANCESTORS were that and you are DESCENDANTS. That threw the wrench into the whole works as Neanderthals were not African and no indigenous Africans had Neanderthal ancestry.

While it is very easy to fall back onto Linneaus for explanations (which is what Darwin did), you fail to see the bigger picture. And using genetics only makes it worse for the case of evolution by random mutations. There is not one single yDNA or mtDNA haplotype that is the same for any primate and human group. In other words, since the yDNA and mtDNA is passed from parent to child unchanged, and there is no primate that shares those with any human, it is even more suspect for the claim.

Now, since the claim is that all humans came out of Africa and yet Africans had no Neanderthal or Denisovan, yet "Anatomically Modern Humans" umbrella all human groups, and "Anatomically Modern Humans" were supposedly from Africa, then perhaps the term should not be used. You can't include Europeans with high percentages of Neanderthal as AMH when Africans who have no Neanderthal ancestry are also called AMH.

Which should it be now?

And it is amazing that people are constantly invoking Darwin to make their claims after Darwin has been debunked AND in his own writings was a racist attempting to place Africans as the closest to monkeys. Actually read his books and you will see.

Remember, when talking about "descent with modification", that first word descent means DESCENDANT, which means that one has an ANCESTOR. My ancestors were Neanderthals. Genetics testing proves it. And if you are of European descent, then most likely your ancestors were also Neanderthal.

There is not one single shared mtDNA between me and any ape. Why not? If we have the same maternal ancestress, then we should share.

riparianfrstlvr's picture

you make some interesting points. since i am a descendant of Europeans and i am white, therefore i have neanderthal DNA, and like you said we have the most. indigenous African have no neanderthal, they are 100% homosapien and they have very dark skin. why are ancient homosapiens out of Africa portrayed as white and not black in the picture of the reconstructed homosapien in this article? this isn't the first time i have seen this. since modern homesapiens out of Africa have dark skin, would their ancient ancestors, out of Africa, have dark skin too? mine have light skin like me. it doesn't make sense to me. just sayin'


Although we seem to have variations of the general body shape and facial appearance etc we have something the apes lack. We can speak. There is no ape that will ever form words because their vocal; apparatus does not allow them to do so. explain that one

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