Home History The Herto Man: Explore the First Humans on Earth and the oldest fossils

The Herto Man: Explore the First Humans on Earth and the oldest fossils

Who are the first humans on earth?

by Hafsa Subhan
the first humans on earth

Imagine going back over 160,000 years ago to the Middle Awash region in Ethiopia. Walking through the African savannah, you might encounter a small group of early humans, now known as the first humans on earth, Herto Man. The Herto Man was considered one of the oldest known Homo sapiens fossils. These ancient ancestors left behind clues to their existence in the form of their bones. Through careful study, scientists have been able to unlock some of the secrets of their lives.

The discovery of Herto Man, the oldest fossils of humans, has revolutionized our understanding of human evolution. Their fossils were found at the Middle Awash archaeological site in 1997. Have since sparked heated debates among scientists about the origins of our species.

Some researchers argue that the Herto Man represents a critical missing link between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. While others believe they are simply the oldest examples of our species. In this article, we will delve into the story of the Herto Man, exploring their physical characteristics, their significance in human evolution, and the debates surrounding them.


The discovery of Herto Man was a watershed moment in studying human evolution. Nevertheless, the road to this groundbreaking discovery was long and arduous. The Herto Man fossils were discovered at Ethiopia’s Middle Awash archaeological site in 1997. The team braved scorching heat, flash floods, and even armed bandits to uncover the fossils scattered across the desert-like terrain. The remains of three adults and one child were eventually found. Their bones are remarkably well-preserved despite the passage of more than 160,000 years. 

The Age and research history:

Herto man

 The discovery of Herto Man was a watershed moment in studying human evolution. However, the road to this groundbreaking discovery was long and arduous. 

The fossils of the Herto Man were first discovered in 1997 at the Middle Awash site in the Afar region of Ethiopia during a paleontological expedition led by a team of international scientists. The initial discovery consisted of three crania and other skeletal fragments, representing at least three individuals, with estimated ages ranging from young adults to elderly. The fossils were well-preserved, which allowed for a detailed study of their morphology and dating.

Further analyses of the Herto Man fossils have revealed important information about human evolution. They provided early evidence of complex behaviours such as mortuary practices. The fossils also had anatomical features suggesting that the Herto Man were anatomically modern humans with a combination of archaic and modern traits. For example, one of the skulls showed evidence of cut marks, possibly from a stone tool.

Scientists used various techniques to date the fossils, including radiometric dating of the surrounding sediment layers and electron spin resonance (ESR) dating of the tooth enamel. The results of these dating methods suggest that the Herto Man lived between 160,000 to 154,000 years ago, making them the earliest known fossils of modern humans.

Physical Characteristics:

The physical characteristics of the Herto Man, specifically their skulls, provide crucial insights into the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens. The skulls of the Herto Man, discovered in Ethiopia in 1997, are believed to be approximately 160,000 years old.

Researchers have noted several distinctive features of the Herto Man skulls. One of the most notable is their large cranial capacity, which is, on average, 1450 cubic centimetres, like modern humans. Their cranial shape resembles modern humans, with a high and rounded braincase and a vertical forehead.

However, several differences exist between the Herto Man skulls and modern human skulls. One of the most striking is the presence of prominent brow ridges. These are more pronounced than those found in modern humans. The Herto Man skulls also exhibit a more pronounced bulge at the back of the skull. It may be related to the shape of the brain.

Further research on the physical characteristics of the Herto Man, as well as their genetic makeup, is needed to understand their place in human evolution fully. 

Are Herto Man truly Homo Sapiens or a Missing Link?

oldest fossils of humans

The Herto Man discovery has sparked a debate in the scientific community about whether they are the earliest known Homo sapiens or a “missing link” between early hominids and modern humans. 

On Their physical characteristics, Some argue that the Herto Man are early members of Homo sapiens. At the same time, others suggest that they may represent a transitional form between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens.

They were first described in a 2003 paper in the journal Nature. It reported on the discovery of three crania (skullcaps) from the Middle Awash area of Ethiopia. The crania were found in deposits around 160,000 years ago using stratigraphic and paleomagnetic methods (Clark et al., 2003). The crania were named after the Herto village near where they were found.

The researchers who analyzed the Herto Man fossils concluded that they were anatomically modern humans based on a detailed comparison of their cranial features with those of other early and modern humans. They noted that the Herto Man had a combination of archaic and modern traits but that they were most similar to modern humans (Clark et al., 2003).

This classification has been supported by later research on the Herto Man fossils. For example, a 2005 study that used computed tomography (CT) scans to examine the internal structure of the Herto Man crania found that they had brain shapes and sizes similar to modern humans (Gunz et al., 2005). 

A 2007 study that analyzed the dental features of the Herto Man fossils also concluded that they were modern humans (Bailey et al., 2007).

Future Research: What Questions Remain Unanswered?

Despite the significant findings and research on Herto Man, many questions still need to be answered, leaving ample opportunities for future research. Some of the crucial questions that still need to be addressed include the following:

  • Origins and Evolution: 

While the discovery of Herto Man has provided insight into the origins and evolution of Homo sapiens, many questions remain unanswered. 

  • Culture and Behavior: 

The physical characteristics of Herto Man suggest that they were anatomically modern humans. However, their cultural and behavioural characteristics could be more precise. Researchers are interested in learning more about their diet, hunting practices, social structure, and use of tools.

  • Relationship to Other Early Human Species:

The relationship between Herto Man and other early human species is still being explored. Some researchers believe that Herto Man represents a distinct lineage that eventually led to Homo sapiens. Others argue they may be a transitional species between Homo heidelbergensis and Homo sapiens.

  • Genetic Analysis: 

Advances in genetic analysis techniques have made it possible to study ancient DNA from early human fossils. 

  • Climate and Environment: 

The Middle Awash region of Ethiopia, where Herto Man was discovered, has a rich fossil record that provides insight into the environmental and climatic conditions of the area during the Pleistocene epoch. 

Overall, the discovery of Herto Man has opened up exciting new avenues for research and has the potential to contribute to our understanding of human evolution significantly. While many questions remain unanswered, ongoing research will likely shed light on the mysteries surrounding these ancient humans.

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Clark, J. D., Beyene, Y., WoldeGabriel, G., Hart, W. K., Renne, P. R., Gilbert, H., … & Asfaw, B. (2003). Stratigraphic, chronological and behavioural contexts of Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia. Nature, 423(6941), 747-752.

Gunz, P., Neubauer, S., Maureille, B., & Hublin, J. J. (2005). Brain development after birth differs between Neanderthals and modern humans. Current Biology, 15(14), R579-R580.

Bailey, S. E., Lynch, J. M., & Dean, M. C. (2007). Dental evidence for the hominid status of KNM-ER 42700, KGA6-84, and Omo 18. Journal of human evolution, 52(5), 515–535.

Hublin, J. J. (2009). The origin of Neandertals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(38), 16022-16027.

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