Somewhere between two and three million years ago, many changes were taking place on the Earth. A new species was evolving that was better suited to its environment. Compared to the australopithecines, this species had a larger brain, a more human-looking face, and a more human-looking pelvis. Homo, named for the Latin word meaning “man,” is considered to be the first direct ancestor of humans. One of the earliest species of the genus Homo had developed techniques for making primitive tools and was therefore name Homo habilis, or “handy man.”
Homo habilis probably lived between one and two million years ago. Louis and Mary Leaky were the first to find remains of a Homo habilis at the Olduvai Gorge in east Africa. More remains have shown that related groups may have also lived in the southern part of Africa and in Southeast Asia. A Homo habilis was only about 4.5 feet (1.4m) tall. Its legs and feet seem to have been fully adapted for walking upright.
A Homo habilis had a more rounded skull than an Australopithecus did. Its face was smaller, longer, and narrower. Furthermore, the jaw was lighter and the teeth were lightly smaller than that of an Australopithecus. The jawline was curved with sloping sides, making it appear even more like that of a modern human. The brain measured 40-49 cubic inches (650-800cc), so it was slightly larger than that of the Australopithecus. However, the brain of a Homo habilis was still only about half the size of a modern human’s brain.
The increase in brain size coincided with an increase in intelligence. The Homo habilis were the first species able to use their culture to help them adapt to their environment, an ability that is unique to humans. These early humans were able to remember important information, plan ahead, and work out abstract problems in order to make tools and organize hunts. Tools that have been found indicate that the Homo habilis probably did not use weapons to hunt but would work together to creep up and pounce on their prey. Once the prey was down, the hunters would kill it with stones or branches. At the site of the kill, they would chip sharp flakes of stone to use as knives for cutting the meat. Then they would use heavy stones to smash open the animal’s bones and eat its marrow. Meat was eaten raw since fire had not yet been discovered. The Homo habilis probably got its food by hunting small animals, foraging for plants, and taking birds’ eggs.
Homo habilis constructed simple huts made from branches and held in place by stones. These simple dome-shaped huts would have protected them from animals and the wind.
Scientists believe that this early species of humans was not capable of speech. Therefore, they probably communicated using some primitive gestures and simple sounds.