The path to modern man starts 7 to 8 million years ago. That is the time of the split with the last common ancestor between man and chimpanzees. At that point the human legacy starts and all the species that followed, up to and including Homo sapiens, are called hominins.
The field of Paleoanthropology is the discipline within Anthropology that studies our hominin legacy via fossil remains and archaeological artifacts unearthed. These scientists have done extraordinary work in the field and in the lab to give us a compelling and rich story about our beginnings.
I am continually amazed and appreciative of the understanding these scientists have given to us about our past. Paleoanthropologists working with paleobiologists, paleobotanists, paleoclimatologists, and paleo this and paleo that have cooperated and provided and astoundingly clear image of life millions of years ago.
Not only do we have a clear understanding of the species that led to Homo sapiens but we have a clear picture of the total environment they lived in along the way, what they ate and the challenges they dealt with.
You might think that on the surface of it, because we are dealing with ancient fossils, that the record is set and the study of paleoanthropology is mostly an exercise in memory. Look at what has been found, you memorize it and move on. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Paleoanthropology and Archaeology are quite possibly the most dynamic of social/life sciences you can study. There have been three new hominin species discovered since 2003 alone. Everyday there are hundreds of Anthropologists out in the field on digs all over the world unearthing marvelous new finds.
New technologies in the lab are bringing us a greater understanding about the nature of evolution. This new knowledge sets theories on end and clarifies previously cloudy areas.
Through incredible expertise we are able to actually see what ancient man looked like.
You can google any hominin species and see a precise reconstruction of it. A really cool thing to do.
There are several milestone species along the way to modern man. Here are some short introductory guides, just click on the image of each species.