This early beacon on the journey of man was lit long before modern humans evolved. Sites that provide the oldest good evidence for the controlled use of fire include Swartkrans in South Africa, where the burned bone leftovers of prehistoric meals date to between 1 million and 1.5 million years ago.
The finds make Homo erectus, our direct human ancestor, the earliest known fire-starter. This milestone opened up greater culinary opportunities by enabling humans to consume meats and tough plants more easily. The life-changing impact of fire use is revealed in the dramatically reduced chewing muscles of humans compared with those of earlier hominins (as humans and their fossil ancestors are called). Cooking by fire upped the intake of energy-rich meat and plants required to fuel the calorie-hungry growth of the modern human brain.
Showing up early in our evolutionary origins, the oldest stone tools made by hominins appeared in Africa about 2.5 million years ago. Which group first began knocking stones into shape isn’t known; however, toolmaking technology didn’t really get going until humans arrived on the scene.
The hands of early Homo species such as H. habilis, or “handy man,” allowed them to grip objects firmly and dexterously between their thumb and fingertips (an ability that other primates, apes and monkeys, lack). Evidence of the skill with which early humans produced and wielded stone tools comes from slice marks on animal bones dating to almost two million years ago. Mammals ranging from small antelopes to giant hippos were butchered in a way that yielded the tenderest cuts of meat.
Though later humans were handy with tools, innovations by Homo sapiens gave our own species a crucial cutting edge, particularly in the field of hunting. While Europe’s native cavemen the Neanderthals owned pointed spears, they were outgunned by modern humans with finely crafted spear-throwers and bone fishing hooks. Whereas Neanderthals typically hunted animals at close range, taking advantage of the forest cover that was ubiquitous in Europe until around 40,000 years ago, modern humans arrived in Europe around that time with an arsenal that allowed them to fell dangerous prey from a distance and go after smaller game and fish. The climatic changes that led to the disappearance of European forests would have favored these efficient hunters, and within 10,000 years or so the Neanderthals were gone.
Language is also credited with giving modern humans a winning edge over their prehistoric neighbors. Its development from a guttural to a more complex and recognizable form of communication is linked to a key period of cognitive and technological advancement that occurred 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. This period when our species set out from Africa and began to colonize the rest of the planet has been termed the “Great Leap Forward.” That isn’t to say that other humans didn’t possess language of sorts—genetic tests of Neanderthal bones have detected the so-called “speech and language gene,” FOXP2, which is necessary for language—but researchers suspect modern humans benefited from better communication skills because of our higher rate of technological innovation. Language gave Homo sapiens a crucial advantage in areas ranging from creating a better stone tool to coordinating group hunting activities.
Another key milestone in our evolutionary past, art is seen as an expression of symbolic thought and of humans starting to look beyond their material lives. Early examples include red-stained abalone shells from a South African cave. Scientists think the 100,000-year-old site served as a prehistoric art studio where paints were mixed from ochre, charcoal, crushed seal bone, and rock chips.
Other items include clay-coated, pierced shells from eastern Morocco which were worn as body ornaments 82,000 years ago. Such finds suggest humans may have acquired a modern mindset much earlier than previously thought. Nevertheless, the most impressive artworks date to after the modern human expansion out of Africa. Stunning cave paintings in Europe, such the famous animal scenes at Lascaux in France, marked the beginnings of figurative art, and intricate rock art in the Northern Territory of Australia may date back to at least 30,000 years ago.