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The Humans That Lived Before Us

        For about a million years in the early Pleistocene epoch from about 2.4 million to 1.4 million years ago it was a really exciting time to be a hominin hominids you'll recall are the group of human ancestors that are more closely related to us than to chimps and bonobos during this million years stretch different branches of our evolutionary tree were flourishing all over southern and eastern Africa and if we were to zoom in on the earliest part of this million years we'd encounter a familiar face or at least a somewhat familiar face the face of Homo habilis it stood just over a metre tall and had a slightly larger brain and smaller teeth and its earlier relatives the australopithecines but it still had longer arms in a protruding lower face traits that are usually considered more basil in the hominin lineage and yet this ancestor probably made and used stone tools in fact Homo habilis means handyman and its discoverers gave it that name because they thought that it was responsible for the many tools that had been found near its remains but does this hominin really belong in our genus the genus Homo was it more like us than its earlier ancestors over the last fifty years or so the human family tree has really filled out we've discovered all kinds of new fossils of our ancestors and relatives like the australopithecines that have about the same brain size and limb proportions as Homo habilis and this has led some researchers to question whether Homo habilis is really a member of our genus at all as more and more fossil ancestors have been found our genus has become more and more inclusive incorporating more members that look less like us Homo sapiens and this is an important problem to think about because there's some consensus about who belongs in our immediate human family like us Neanderthals and even the ancient globe traveling hominid homo erectus they're all agreed to be clear-cut members of the genus Homo but beyond them there are lots of ancestors for whom we can't find a home and there's no official definition of what constitutes a human either whether that means being a member of our genus or our species or just being able to walk upright and make tools so by getting to know these other the ones who came before us the Neanderthals and our other contemporaries we can start to answer some big interesting and difficult questions questions about what it essentially means to be human when the first fossils of Homo habilis were found by Louis and Mary Leakey steam in the 1960s they had a difficult choice to make were these the remains of australopithecines or were they in fact the earliest known members of our own genus Homo traditionally defining who belongs in our genus has come down to which traits are considered uniquely human and when the Leakey's were pondering Homo habilis they use the definition of homo from 1955 which said that to be a member of the genus you had to have some number of features in common with the three members of homo known at the time Homo sapiens Homo erectus and the Neanderthals the Leakey's decided that Homo habilis shared three important traits with other members of our genus it had an upright posture it was bipedal and it had the manual dexterity to make tools and sure Homo habilis had those three things but in the decade after Homo habilis was found new discoveries of other human ancestors were made in the same parts of Africa and they had those traits too and these new finds were all various australopithecines which were inarguably not part of our genus the most famous of these discoveries is the specimen known as Lucy unearthed at Hadar Ethiopia in 1974 she was one of the most complete specimens of Australopithecus afarensis ever found and she gave clear evidence of an upright posture like having thigh bones that angled inwards towards the knee and a more human-like pelvis then four years later a set of fossilized footprints were found in Tanzania known as the late olie footprints they were probably made by Australopithecus afarensis - again showing that hominins were walking on two feet more than a million years before Homo habilis was around so if walking upright was not exclusive to our genus then the definition of our genus had to change instead of just physical traits the thinking then turned towards lifestyle adaptations as a way of defining who belonged in our group lifestyle adaptations are features that are linked to how a hominid it's life like what it ate how it got around and where it lived for example the increased brain size and members of homo was thought to be linked to a higher quality diet because being able to consume more calories more efficiently has allowed for larger brains and some researchers arrived at for specific lifestyle adaptations that they thought might qualify a hominin for entry into the genus Homo those adaptations included an adult brain size greater than 600 cubic centimeters limb proportions similar to ours with long legs compared to our arms the use of language and the manufacture and use of stone tools but still these things only kind of apply to Homo habilis because one of the most famous and complete Homo habilis skulls a specimen known as K in M er one eight one three had a cranial capacity of only 510 CCS meanwhile a big male specimen of Australopithecus afarensis was found to have limb proportions like those of early members of Homo but it lived 3.5 eight million years ago way before Homo habilis appeared on the scene and the capability for language can really only be inferred from the fossil record it's pretty hard to tell whether Homo habilis or any ancestor that lived millions of years ago was able to speak that just leaves stone tools and while researchers in the 1960s were pretty convinced that Homo habilis was the maker of the stone tools that Olduvai Gorge we now know that australopithecines could likely make stone tools too so let's look at our group another way instead of talking about who might not belong to our genus let's consider who might who were those other members of our genus that lived alongside Homo habilis during that exciting million year span in Africa and what can they tell us about the origin of the Homo genus well starting about one point ninety million years ago in South Africa there lived an Australopithecus scene with distinctly homo like traits known from several relatively complete skeletons it was given the name in 2010 of Australopithecus sediba its discoverers placed it in Australopithecus because of its small brain and long arms but they also noted that it had small molars and premolars and facial features that were similar to other home specimens so these researchers actually think that Australopithecus sediba might be more closely related to our genus than other australopithecines are but other experts thinks that it's too recent in age another candidate for inclusion Homo rudolfensis it's been found at sites dating back 1.8 to 1.9 million years ago in eastern Africa the best fossil of this species is known as knme r14 7-0 and when it was discovered in 1972 it was originally classified as a large specimen of Homo habilis however in 1986 and again in 1992 further studies found that it's bigger brain longer face and larger premolars and canines made it too different from Homo habilis to be a member of that species but it was still assigned to our genus because of its big brain at 775 cubic centimetres it was well over the classic 600cc cutoff and finally we come to the first indisputable member of our genus and one of the most successful and widespread Homo erectus it lived from 1.9 million to just a hundred and forty three thousand years ago the first Homo erectus fossils were found in 1891 and some anthropologists later split the species into two with Homo erectus including the later African and Asian fossils and the earlier African fossils being filed under Homo ergaster an experts generally agree that Homo erectus is definitely a member of our genus these hominins had modern human-like proportions were potentially capable of long-distance running and generally had much smaller molars and much larger brains than their predecessors in other words they were a lot more like us than any of the other species I've mentioned so far Homo erectus is also the first species that we have fossil evidence for outside of Africa they made it as far as China and Indonesia but their initial foray seems to have landed them in the Republic of Georgia at a site called Dominici that dates to about one point seven seven million years ago and the interesting thing about this site is that there's a lot of variation among the specimens down there some individuals from Dominici had the unmistakable brow Ridge of Homo erectus but their brains were smaller than 600 cc's that class that cutoff for inclusion into the genus homo in fact there's so much variation in the georgian fossils that there discovers made a case in 2013 for taking all of the other early homo fossils including the ones assigned to Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis and putting them in Homo erectus lumping everything together as a single species they argue that if the fossils from a single site can show as much variation as we find between species then all of those early groups might as well be considered the same species but of course other experts disagree they don't think overall cranial shape is enough to distinguish one species from another to them the devil is in the differing morphological details of each skull now with all this in mind let's go back to Homo habilis where does it belong well it doesn't really seem to fit anyone's definition of our genus and the best argument for keeping it in is just that taking it out would require redefining what it means to be a member which would be a major taxonomic undertaking some experts have proposed lumping habilis into the genus Australopithecus others say it's neither and that it deserves its own new genus so far no single opinion has one out Homo habilis remains attacks on in limbo ultimately what defines our genus comes down to how much variation in morphology time and space were willing to include in the group we call home in the past and increase in brain size a bipedal gait human-like limb proportions and tool-use seem to have been enough for inclusion those are all things that we thought made us members of the same genus but as we've discovered more and more hominid fossils our family tree has become more complicated rather than less so now the latest research is suggesting totally new ways of defining our lineage one new idea for a defining feature of our genus tooth size smaller teeth generally indicate a higher quality diet and the ability to prepare food with tools instead of having to chew foods for a long time another possible criterion is the pace of our development we modern humans have longer periods of childhood and adolescents compared to our closest relatives because we need that time to grow our large brains and use them to learn and we can track these growth patterns in the fossils by studying microscopic features of teeth and as recently as 2015 some experts have suggested that we should scrap the whole list of hominins altogether and just start from scratch they say we should step back and look at the totality of the fossil record with fresh eyes and decide what traits we think are important for being human as it stands there still no single way to define our genus mostly it happens by comparison is this new fossil more like what we've called homo in the past or is it more like an Australopithecus II and the jury's still out on Homo habilis the species that started all the trouble in the first place but if anything the trouble really began back in the early Pleistocene during that exciting million years or so when this group of hominins first started to flourish and it may be in the fossils from that time perhaps fossils we haven't even found yet that will help us better answer the question of who belongs to our very exclusive group.
Thank you for reading


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