Homo habilis is a now extinct species in the Homo genus, which has perhaps most famously produced the modern human, Homo sapiens. From the fossil record, it appears that this species lived around 1.5 million years ago in Africa, during the Pleistocene era. It wasn't alone; these early hominids coexisted with other bipedal primates, and there is some debate about the exact role of Homo habilis in human evolution.
A modern human would probably have difficulty relating to these early hominids. Homo habilis looked markedly different from modern humans, with longer arms, a short stature, and a protruding face, although it was one of the first hominid species to have a more flattened face like that of modern humans. These hominids had about half the brain capacity of Homo sapiens, although they used their brains for some incredible accomplishments, including the development of complex societies and the use of fine tools.
Credit for the discovery of Homo habilis goes to Louis Leaky, John Napier, and Philip Tobias, who found fossilized skeletal parts at their dig in Olduvai Gorge, Africa, in 1964. This unique location in Africa is part of the Great Rift Valley, and it housed several other early humans as well. Leaky made a number of important contributions to paleontology with his work in Olduvai Gorge, including the discovery of other early hominid species.
Scientists debate the classification of Homo habilis in the Homo genus. Some feel that this hominid should be included in the Australopithecus genus, placing it at an earlier stage in human evolution. However, Homo habilis is markedly different from earlier Australopithecines, and the use of tools by this species was quite novel. So novel, in fact, that the species was named for it; Homo habilis means “handy man” in Latin.
As of 2007, our current understanding of human evolution suggests that Homo habilis evolved into Homo ergaster and later Homo erectus, “upright man,” our closest ancestor. However, new information is being uncovered all the time at archaeological digs, and it is possible that this species lived at the same time that Homo ergaster did, and that one species simply supplanted the other, rather than evolving from it. It is also clear that several species in the Homo lived together until quite recently, in terms of paleontology. Homo neanderthalensis, for example, lived until around 30,000 years ago, and clearly coexisted with Homo sapiens.