Let's go back in time. To Africa, to the beginning of the family of humans- Hominidae or the hominids. About 5-10 million years ago the split occurred between the apes and the hominids. Fossils discovered in Chad are dated at 6-7 million years old and are the oldest known hominid or near hominid species on record.
The story does not end here. Fossils were discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia of the famous "Lucy". The remains of this Australopithecus afarensis are dated at 3-3.9 million years old. These small bones show a skull similar to a chimpanzee with human-like teeth. The pelvis and leg bones closely resemble modern human, showing the bipedal adaptation. In 2000 a partial juvenile skeleton was found in the same area that may have been Lucy's child.
More fossils were found in the Olduvai Gorge ("The Cradle of Mankind") in the 1960s in Tanzania of Homo habilis. Dated at over 2 million years ago, this so called handy man was named because of the evidence of tools with the fossil remains. The skull showed a brain shape that is more human-like and had a bulge in the area of the brain essential for speech. This indicated that Homo habilis was possibly capable of rudimentary speech.
By about 1 million years ago early humans walked upright, thus the name Homo erectus. There have been several important discoveries of remains of this species. The earliest finding was the Java Man in the 1870s. In 1920s the Peking Man was discovered near Beijing. These remains were the oldest found outside of Africa. In the 1980s the nearly complete remains of a tall, slender juvenile named Turkana Boy were discovered in Kenya.
But what about the Neanderthals that were in Europe more than 300,000 years ago? Many believed that they were linked to humans. In June 2003 fossilized skulls of 2 adults and 1 child were discovered in Ethiopia. They were dated at 160,000 years old- the oldest known fossils of Homo sapiens, or modern humans. This fits with the time period in human evolution for the genetic "Eve" that was the mother of all modern humans. This gives strong support that modern humans evolved in Africa, then spread to Europe and Asia. This means that the Neanderthals were like cousins that split from the human family tree. They were never a stage in modern human evolution. The Neanderthals died out about 30,000 years ago, perhaps driven to extinction by the more advanced and sophisticated modern human.