9 Fascinating Discoveries that Changed Our Understanding of Human Evolution

A replica of the Laetoli footprints discovered in Laetoli, Tanzania; The original footprints were dated to 3.6 million years ago.
A replica of the Laetoli footprints discovered in Laetoli, Tanzania; The original footprints were dated to 3.6 million years ago. / Momotarou2012, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

In the last couple of centuries, scientists have uncovered ancient fossils, prehistoric artwork, and other clues to the evolutionary origins of humankind. Here are nine of the most revealing discoveries that have changed our understanding of our early ancestors—and ourselves.

1. Hominin Footprints Preserved in Volcanic Ash // Laetoli, Tanzania

In 1978, the famous paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey and anthropologist Paul Abell excavated a trail of fossilized footprints in Laetoli, Tanzania. Preserved in volcanic ash and measuring 27 meters (88 feet) long, the 3.6-million-year-old footprint trail was likely left behind by one of the earliest hominin species, Australopithecus afarensis—the same species as the world-renowned “Lucy” fossil. The anatomy of the feet and the walkers’ gait indicated that A. australopithecus was bipedal and moved more like a human than an ape, giving scientists more clues about human evolution.

2. Prehistoric Murals // Chiribiquete National Park, Colombia

Chiribiquete National Park is home to rock paintings more than 22,000 years old.
Chiribiquete National Park is home to rock paintings more than 22,000 years old. / Jorge Mario Álvarez Arango, UNESCO // CC BY-ND

Spanning eight miles in southern Colombia, caves in Chiribiquete National Park are covered in vast prehistoric paintings. An estimated 75,000 figures are depicted on the rock walls, many of which are at extreme elevations. Experts aren't sure how the artists were able to climb so high to create them.

In addition to being beautiful artworks in their own right, the cave paintings are thought to have a deep spiritual meaning. They depict dancing, hunting, and rituals, as well as the prehistoric animals native to the region. Paintings of jaguars may be particularly important. Anthropologists interpret them as symbols of fertility and power, and they may have connections to religions of other, more recent inhabitants of the region, like the Maya and Aztec.

The people that made these paintings were among the very first humans to arrive in the Americas. Scientists estimate the paintings as more than 22,000 years old—which supports emerging theories, based on other archaeological findings, that humans occupied the Americas around 20,000 to 30,000 years ago.

3. A Mysterious Human Ancestor // Siberia, Russia

In a cave deep within the Altai mountains near the Russia-Kazakhstan border, Russian archaeologist Michael Shunkov discovered fossils of an unknown hominin in 2008. Because the fragments were too small to identify, geneticists sequenced their mitochondrial DNA. The fossils proved to be from a previously unknown human ancestor—one that branched off from anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals about 1 million years ago. According to the study announcing the finding in Nature, the mDNA profile showed the Denisovans—named after the cave where the fossils were discovered—migrated out of Africa separately from early Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.

4. Oldest Known Examples of Representational Art // Sulawesi, Indonesia

The limestone caves of Sulawesi are a treasure trove of art that sheds light on prehistoric cultures. In 2019, researchers found paintings of a hunting scene that was dated to 43,900 years ago using a method that analyzed the age of overlying mineral deposits. In 2021, Australian and Indonesian archaeologists found even older representational art. Depicting prehistoric Indonesian pigs, the art was made using ochre, an inorganic mineral that cannot be carbon-dated. The research team instead dated the calcium build-up—stalagmites and stalactites—beneath and on top of the paintings, showing the oldest painting was created at least 45,500 years ago.

5. Skull of an Australopithecine Child // Taung, South Africa

A cast of the skull of a 2.1 million-year-old Australopithecus africanus child, dubbed the Taung child, discovered in Taung, South Africa.
A cast of the skull of a 2.1 million-year-old Australopithecus africanus child, dubbed the Taung child, discovered in Taung, South Africa. / Didier Descouens, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1924, quarry workers near Taung brought an unusual skull to anatomist Raymond Dart. The skull didn’t match the dimensions of an ape or a modern human. After further examination, Dart concluded the skull had belonged to a 3-year-old hominin, which he named Australopithecus africanus and dated to around 2.8 million years old. The discovery was one of the first fossils that indicated early hominin bipedalism, and supported the then-new theory that humans evolved in Africa, rather than Asia or Europe. In the mid-1990s, anthropologist Lee Berger examined the skull and suggested that the child had been attacked and killed by eagles.

6. Lascaux Cave Paintings // Montignac, France

In 1940, a group of teenage boys stumbled upon a cave filled with prehistoric artworks. The boys were so moved by the art that they camped outside the cave for a week just to protect the paintings inside. Eventually, they told a trusted teacher about their find—which turned out to be one of the most important discoveries in the history of art. The extensive paintings of bulls, deer, and other prehistoric animals are estimated to be about 17,000 years old and demonstrate that Stone Age peoples grasped the complexity of figurative art.

7. Shell Engravings Around a Half-Million Years Old // Java, Indonesia

Dutch anatomist Eugène Dubois discovered the first Homo erectus fossils in Indonesia in 1891. At the same time, he found an engraved mussel shell that then remained in a museum drawer for more than a century. In a 2014 study in Nature, researchers dated the engraved lines on the shell to between 430,000 and 540,000 years ago. The findings suggested that H. erectus was capable of sophisticated and complex ideas as well as abstract thought.

8. A 40,000-Year-Old Lion Man Sculpture // Baden-Württemberg, Germany

The Lion-Man figure is made of mammoth ivory.
The Lion-Man figure is made of mammoth ivory. / Dagmar Hollmann, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Discovered in 1939 by geologist Otto Völzing, the Löwenmensch figurine is made from mammoth ivory and depicts a half-human, half-lion being. Standing just over a foot tall, it was carved about 40,000 years ago during the Aurignacian period—the same era in which the Chauvet cave paintings were made—and is the oldest non-human figurine ever found. It may represent a deity. The figurine, along with other evidence in the cave, may be the oldest known evidence of religious belief.

9. The Oldest Known Musical Instruments // Schelklingen, Germany and Cerkno, Slovenia

Our love of music isn’t a new phenomenon. In 2008, a team led by archaeologist Nicholas Conard found a number of flutes in a cave in Southwestern Germany. The tiny flutes were made of mammoth ivory and created about 40,000 years ago by anatomically modern humans in a period of prehistory called the Basal Aurignacian. However, there’s evidence that Neanderthals played music thousands of years before those flutes were created.

Found in Slovenia in 1995, the Neanderthal-made flute was made out of the thigh bone of a prehistoric cave bear. The flute was made about 60,000 years ago and is the oldest known musical instrument in the world. The act of creating a physical instrument, combined with the distinct musical intelligence required to understand concepts like rhythm, tempo, and melody, suggest Neanderthals were more sophisticated than we knew. Finds like these further support the idea that artistic expression isn’t just for Homo sapiens.