UCSB Science Line
Sponge Spicules Nerve Cells Galaxy Abalone Shell Nickel Succinate X-ray Lens Lupine
UCSB Science Line
How it Works
Ask a Question
Search Topics
Our Scientists
Science Links
Contact Information
Who was the first person alive before the cave men were born?
Question Date: 2013-04-10
Answer 1:

What a great question! To answer it, we need to begin by thinking about what you mean by ‘person.’ Modern humans, or as scientists call them, Homo sapiens (which means “Thinking Man” in Latin), evolved from a long lineage of other humans (or human-like species) over millions of years. We generally think of modern humans coming into existence around 200,000 years ago, but before them, there was a number of other species that scientist classify using the genus, Homo, including Homo habilis (which first appeared about 2.3 million years ago and died out 1.4 million years ago), Homo erectus (1.8 million to 200,000 years ago), and Homo neanderthalensis (this is the species that people sometimes call ‘cavemen,’ and they lived between about 350,000 to 30,000 years ago).

All members of all of the Homo groups can be considered ‘people.’ So, you can think of humans, like those classified as Homo habilis, having pre-dated cavemen (Neanderthals). However, if you only think of modern humans as ‘people,’ you could say that there weren’t any people before there were cavemen—although Neanderthals and modern humans existed for thousands of years together in Europe, and they contributed to the DNA of modern humans (meaning that you and I are part caveman!).

Finally, thinking about who the first person was—regardless of whether you want to think of any member of the genus Homo or only Homo sapiens as people—pokes into a philosophical quandary (or problem) regarding biological classification, which is still a topic of debate among anthropologists (people who study people and their ancestors) and other scientists. A species is defined by a group, not by an individual, so if there is just one, it isn’t a species yet. That said, theoretically there has to have been some person, born at some time, who fits the entire criterion that we now think of as ‘human.’ If we are thinking about anatomically (or physically) modern humans as the only ‘people,’ this first person was probably born in eastern Africa (where scientists think that Homo sapiens evolved) around 200,000 years ago (we guess this because of clues that come from the genetics people alive today). However, we are still changing and evolving as a species, so you could also say that the first person, or someone that would have behaved and used their brain in ways similar to the ways that we do, wouldn’t have been born until around 50,000 years ago.

As for specifics, all we know about people before about 5,000 years ago (when people started writing things down) comes strictly from things, or artifacts, that scientists and other people find. So, when the first person would have born (whether 2.3 million, 200,000, or 50,000 thousand years ago), there was no one writing down that they come into existence. Further, the remains of people from the past that we find are fairly random, and while we may find people whose bodies are very old, we will never be able to know if they are the oldest, because those remains may have broken down in the earth. We wouldn’t know that they were the ‘first person’ even if we found them.

Thus, while we could argue that theoretically they existed, who exactly the first person was will always be a mystery!

I hope this answers your question!

Answer 2:

The answer depends of what a "person" is or isn't. There were a number of species of apes more similar to humans than to any other living species starting about six million years ago. Over time, species more and more similar to us started to appear. Our own species is thought to be about 100,000 years old, although some very similar species that did sometimes live in caves are older. We don't know when our ancestors started living in shelter of one sort or another.

Click Here to return to the search form.

University of California, Santa Barbara Materials Research Laboratory National Science Foundation
This program is co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and UCSB School-University Partnerships
Copyright © 2020 The Regents of the University of California,
All Rights Reserved.
UCSB Terms of Use