Modern Human

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Kari Bruwelheide, M.A.

Kari Bruwelheide examines the inside of an iron coffin with fellow Smithsonian researchers.

Photo by Smithsonian Institution

Kari Bruwelheide is a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History where she studies human bones, including skeletons from the distant past and more recent remains involved in criminal cases. She stumbled upon her career path by accident when she volunteered on a project during her undergraduate studies. Much of her current research in bioarchaeology, skeletal biology, and forensic anthropology is focused on the early colonial period in the Americas. Favorite parts of her job are that each day presents a new mystery and a new person to meet and learn about on a personal level, and the ability to give closure to families of victims of criminal cases. Although she's learned about so many people, the one that’s had a large impact on her was a young boy who died at historic Jamestown, Va. His incredible story makes the past real and relevant to people, especially younger people who are rarely represented in historical writings or documents. Kari received her bachelor's degree in English and Anthropology from Luther College in Iowa and a master's degree in Physical Anthropology from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

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Two fossil teeth (incisors) and two stone tools from Yuanmou, China
Photo by Smithsonian Institution

Homo sapiens

Both Prehistoric and modern humans are scientifically known as Homo sapiens. They are members of the primate family. They share many traits with their most closely related relatives, the living great apes, but are not directly descended from them. First appearing in Africa roughly 200,000 years ago, they spread to Europe, Asia, and Australia by about 40,000 years ago. Some of the earliest fossils of our species were found in 1868 at the site of Cro-Magnon in France. Homo sapiens have flat faces, reduced brow ridges (the area above the eyes), and very large brain cases. Their large brains allow them to interact with their surroundings and each other in ways that other animals and species of Homo could not. Unlike their ancestors, Homo sapiens have complex social networks and languages, art, specialized tools, and have learned to change and control their environment to benefit themselves. They continue to adapt and survive throughout the world today.

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Adaptation of Human Ancestors

Evolution occurs when a species adapts and changes over time through descent with modification. This is based on selective pressures within their environment. Human evolution is no different. Early humans walked on four legs, ate mostly plants, and had small brains. Over millions of years, they adapted to take advantage of the world around them. For example, they began to walk upright on two legs, became predators and skilled hunters, and developed large brains that allowed for sophisticated communication, a higher degree of forethought and planning, complex social interactions, and other traits that define them as a species. Often these adaptations were in response to a change in their environment, such as temperature change in the beginning or ending of an ice age or when a new species of predator moved into the area. Like all species, modern humans continue to change today and further adapt to their environment.

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Humans as Primates

Humans are part of a large taxonomic group known as Primates that falls within the phylogenic class that contains all mammals, Mammalia. This group includes our closest living relatives, the great apes, as well as living monkeys, and all extinct early human and non-human primate species. Because we are related, humans and non-human primates share many anatomical and behavioral characteristics. For example, our hands and feet have five digits, we have large brains relative to other mammals, and we have binocular vision in which our eyes face forward on the front of our skulls. Also, some non-human primates can communicate with symbols, occasionally use tools, walk on two legs for short distances, and have complex social interactions. By studying non-human primates, researchers can learn about the ancestry of modern humans and more about the lives of early human ancestors.

Smithsonian researchers analyze data found while uncovering human remains.
Photo by Smithsonian Institution

Studying Human Bones

By studying human bones, physical and forensic anthropologists can learn a number of things about events of the past and the present, and the people who experienced them. The condition of bones, the location they are found in, and items they are found with can inform researchers about burial practices and the circumstances leading to disposal of the remains. The bones themselves can tell researchers how old a person was, how tall they may have been, if they were a man or a woman, and what role they played in their society. Information on diet and activities in life can be found in bones by looking at their composition. Researchers can also learn about diseases that leave marks in bones and how they affect individuals and populations through time. Bones can sometimes tell researchers how a person died and this information may help law enforcement agencies solve modern forensic cases.