Populating the World

Essential Question

How and where did humans populate the world?


To study prehistory, historians rely on the work of archaeologists and anthropologists. Archaeologists have found old bones that appear to belong to hominids, early ancestors of humans. Discoveries of ancient bones give us information about how and when early humans and their ancestors lived. Some of the oldest fossils show hominids go far back as 7 million years ago.

As time passed hominids became more like modern humans. Many scientists think that the first modern humans appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Scientists call these early humans homo sapiens, or “wise man.” Every person alive today belongs to this group.

Human Migration

Scientists who study early human fossils and genetics figure modern humans appeared around 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. Most scientists agree that modern humans first evolved in West Africa and lived in West Africa then humans began a long migration (the movement of people from their homeland to another place) out of West Africa. Possibly because of the Ice Age.

During the Ice Age, huge sheets of ice covered much of the earth’s land. These ice sheets were formed from ocean water, leaving ocean levels lower than they are now. Many areas that are now underwater were dry land then. Scientists think that in some places the ocean level dropped and exposed land bridges between continents. Early humans probably came to North America across a land bridge from northern Asia and spread throughout North America and to South America.

These land bridges and lower ocean levels allowed early humans to migrate around the world to every continent except Antartica.

Discussion Questions

  • Follow the arrows and describe the path of early human migration across the world. Where are the oldest human settlements outside Africa? Why do you think these areas were settled first?

  • Consider the physical geography encountered by our ancient ancestors. Do you think early humans followed any geographic patterns in their migration out of Africa?

  • Migration to remote island groups, such as the Philippines or the islands of Polynesia, appears to have been one of the final stages of global human migration. Can you think of any reasons for this?

  • You may notice that many of the time estimates have huge time gaps? Why might that be?

Discussion Questions

  • How did this video add to your understanding of early human migration?

  • How did this video compare to the previous map? Which is better? Why?

Activity 2: What is the process of how human migrated and settled across the world?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

People Adapt To New Environment

Early people had to learn to adapt to new environments. The places to which they migrated were often much colder than the places they left and often had strange plants and animals.

To keep warm, they used fire and learned to sew animal skins together to make clothing. At first, they took shelter in caves. When they moved to areas with no caves, they built their own shelters. At first, these shelters were pits in the ground with roofs of branches and leaves. Later, people learned to build more permanent structures with wood, stone, clay, or other materials, even bones from large animals such as mammoths. They covered frames with animal hides to form solid roofs and walls.

People also began to make new types of tools. These tools were smaller and more complex than tools from the Paleolithic Era. These new tools included hooks and spears for fishing and bows and arrows for hunting. People learned how to make pots from clay, how to hollow out logs to make canoes, and how to use dogs for protection and to help them hunt.

Extension Activities