Animation: Earliest human ancestor

By Jenny Manzer

It may be hard to see the family resemblance, but based on their discovery of Pikaia gracilens fossils, found only in British Columbia’s Burgess Shale, scientists recently determined that the earliest known human ancestor was a fish-like creature.

In this whimsical animation, award-winning illustrator Paul Zwolak shares his take on our evolution from marine life to modern human.

This video is also available on YouTube.


Meet your ancestor, Pikaia

  • 505 Approximate number of years, in millions, since the heyday of Pikaia gracilens, a primitive fish-like animal recently discovered to be the earliest known human ancestor. At that time, the only life on Earth was found in the oceans.
  • 1 Number of places Pikaia fossils are found—the Burgess Shale, part of Yoho National Park in the British Columbian Rockies.
  • 114 Total number of Pikaia fossils studied to determine that they had a notochord (which evolved into a backbone), a vascular system, and blocks of skeletal muscle tissue known as myomeres—characteristics of chordates.
  • 2 Number of primary research institutes involved in the study confirming the evolutionary link to humans: The Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Cambridge.
  • 1911 Date that the sea dweller was first identified in a monograph by American paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott. At that time, Pikaia was thought to be a relative of the modern earthworm.
  • 4-5 Average length, in centimetres, of the primitive chordate, a category including today’s birds, reptiles, and mammals—including humans.
  • 2,300 Height, in metres above sea level, where the fossils now sit exposed on a scree slope due to erosion—far from the tropical marine environment they once called home.

Info: Check out some of the Burgess Shale creatures from an amazing “virtual submarine” ( Plan your own visit to the site: Yoho National Park of Canada (

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