In This Article Human Evolution

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • History
  • Journals

Evolutionary Biology Human Evolution
Bernard Wood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0050


Study of human evolution involves (1) understanding the evolutionary context and the circumstances surrounding the origin of the branch of the “Tree of Life” (technically referred to as a clade) that includes modern humans, (2) recognizing the extinct species that are more closely related to modern humans than to chimps/bonobos, (2) reconstructing the morphology and behavior of those species, (4) determining how they are related to each other and to modern humans. (5) investigating the factors and influences that shaped their evolution, and (6) reconstructing the origin(s) of modern human anatomy and behavior. The study of the fossil evidence for human evolution is traditionally referred to as hominid paleontology, but the molecular evidence is consistent with a particularly close relationship between Homo sapiens (the formal Linnaean name for modern humans) and the species of living chimpanzees and bonobos included within the genus Pan. In the light of this compelling evidence, many researchers use the name of the tribe (the taxonomic category below the level of the family and above the level of the genus), Hominini, and the equivalent informal name “hominin” to accommodate the species and genera more closely related to modern humans than to chimpanzees and bonobos. So, in the “new” terminology the study of the human fossil record should be referred to as “hominin paleontology.” The study of the artifacts (e.g., stone and bone tools, drawn and carved images, early structures, evidence of decoration, etc.) made in prehistoric times is called prehistoric archaeology. In the United States the combined study of hominin paleontology and prehistoric archaeology is called “paleoanthropology,” “human prehistory,” or just “prehistory.” This article focuses on “hominin paleontology.” The data available for reconstructing human evolutionary history are genetic (from molecules) and phenotypic (from true and trace fossils). Genetic data include information about modern-human genetic variation that allows researchers to reconstruct the relatively recent migration of modern humans, plus ancient DNA that so far has been recovered from modern humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans. Phenotypic evidence, which is divided into macroscopic and microscopic, can be gathered from the outer surface of true fossils (i.e., bones and teeth) and from their internal structure. The latter can be accessed nondestructively by using imaging techniques or destructively by making sections of bones and teeth. The trace fossils that are most relevant for human evolution are footprints such as the c. 3.6-million-year-old hominin footprints from Laetoli in Tanzania.

General Overviews

The sources cited below are books or textbooks that cover human evolution. While they have that in common, their currency and emphases are different. Aiello and Dean 1990 focuses on morphology; Lewin and Foley 2004, on methods; Klein 2009, on archaeology; Conroy and Pontzer 2012, on the fossil record; and Harcourt 2012, on what can be gleaned from living and recent modern humans.

  • Aiello, L., and C. Dean. 1990. An introduction to human evolutionary anatomy. London: Academic Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    A classic. Despite its age, it is indispensable for advanced students taking human evolution courses.

  • Conroy, G. C., and H. Pontzer. 2012. Reconstructing human origins: A modern synthesis. 3d ed. New York and London: Norton.

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    A sound and up-to-date presentation of the fossil evidence for human evolution and its context.

  • Harcourt, A. H. 2012. Human biogeography. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10764-012-9639-7E-mail Citation »

    This wide-ranging survey covers many, but not all, of the topics subsumed into human evolution.

  • Klein, R. G. 2009. The human career: Human biological and cultural origins. 3d ed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226027524.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Richard Klein specializes in archaeology, but he is very well informed about the hominin fossil record. For anyone particularly interested in archaeology, this is the book to read.

  • Lewin, R., and R. Foley. 2004. Principles of human evolution. 2d ed. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell.

    E-mail Citation »

    A survey of human evolution that stresses theory and the comparative context.

  • Wood, B., ed. 2011. Wiley-Blackwell encyclopedia of human evolution. 2 vols. Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444342499E-mail Citation »

    An up-to-date source for information about the evidence for human evolution and the science that underpins it.

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