Homo erectus Homo erectus had a considerably larger brain than Homo habilis, fashioned more advanced tools (double-edged, teardrop-shaped "hand axes" and "cleavers" ) and controlled fire (based on the discovery of charcoal with erectus fossils). Better foraging and hunting skills, allowed it to exploit its environment better than Homo habilis Nickname: Peking Man, Java Man.
Homo erectus lived for 1.3 million years and spread from Africa to Europe and Asia. Paleontologist Alan Walker told National Geographic, Homo erectus "was the velociraptor of its day. If you could look one in the eyes, you wouldn't want to. It might appear to be human, but you wouldn't connect. You'd be prey."
Geologic Age 1.7 million years to 250,000 years ago. Homo erectus lived at the same time as Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis and perhaps Neanderthals. Linkage to Modern Man: Regarded as a direct ancestor of modern man, May have had primitive language skills. Discovery Sites: Africa and Asia. Most Homo erectus fossils have been found in eastern Africa but specimens have also been found in southern Africa, Algeria, Morocco, China and Java.
Websites and Resources: Modern Human Origins modernhumanorigins.com ; Talk Origins Index talkorigins.org/origins ; Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History amnh.org/exhibitions ; Time Space Chart Hominid Fossils Pictures msu.edu/~heslips ; Smithsonian Human Origins Program humanorigins.si.edu ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site becominghuman.org ; Human Evolution Images evolution-textbook.org ;Hominid Species talkorigins.org ; Institute of Human Origins iho.asu.edu ; Paleoanthropology Link talkorigins.org ; Britannica Human Evolution britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/275670/human-evolution ;Modern Human Origins modernhumanorigins.com ; Human Evolution handprint.com ; Paleoanthropology and Evolution Links unipv.it/webbio/dfpaleoa ;National Geographic Atlas of the Human Journey genographic.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/atlas ; Yale Peabody Museum peabody.yale.edu/exhibits/fossils ; Humin Origins Washington State University wsu.edu/gened/learn-modules ; Book: The Human Evolution Source Book
Homo Erectus Size
Homo erectus Size: The tallest hominid species until modern man. The body looked almost like a modern human. males: 5 feet 10 inches tall, 139 pounds; females: 5 feet 3 inches tall, 117 pounds. Homo erectus was considerably larger than its forebears. Scientists speculate that the reason for this is that they ate more meat.
Brain Size: 800 to 1000 cubic centimeters. Enlarged over the years from the size of a one -year-old infant to that of a 14-year-old boy (about three-fourths the size of a modern adult human brain). A 1.2-million-year-old skull from Olduvai Gorge had a cranial capacity of 1,000 cubic centimeters, compared to 1,350 cubic centimeters for a modern human and 390 cubic centimeters for a chimp.
In an August 2007 article in Nature, Maeve Leakey of the Koobi Fora Research Project announced her team had found a well-preserved, 1.55-million-year-old skull of a young adult Homo erectus east of Lake Turkana in Kenya. The skull was the smallest ever found of the species which indicated that Homo erectus may not have been as advanced as had been previously thought. The finding does not challenge the theory that Homo erectus are the direct ancestors of modern humans. But does make one step back and wonder could such an advanced creature such a modern man evolved from such a diminutive, small-brained creature such as Homo erectus .
The finding shows that if nothing else there is great degree of variation in the size of Homo erectus specimens. The fossils were found several years before but extra care was taken identifying the species and dating the fossils, which was done from volcanic ash deposits.
Susan Anton, an anthropologist at New York University and one of the authors of the discovery, said that the variation in sizes is particularly noticeable between males and females and the finding seems to suggest that sexual dimorphism was present among Homo erectus . Daniel Leiberman, a Harvard anthropology professor, told the New York Times, “the small skull has got to be female, and my guess is all the previous erectus we have found turn out to be male.” If this turns out to be true then it could turn out that Homo erectus had a gorilla-like sex life like that of Australopithecus robustus (See Australopithecus robustus).
Homo Erectus Skull and Body Features
Homo erectus skull Skull Features: Thickest skull of all homonids: long and low and resembling a "partially deflated football." More similar to predecessors than modern man, no chin, protruding jaw, low and heavy braincase, thick browridges, and backward sloping forehead. Compared to its predecessors there was a reduced size and projection of the face, including much smaller teeth and jaws than those of Paranthropus and loss of the skull crest. A bony nasal bridge suggests a nose that projected like ours. Homo erectus was the first hominid to have asymmetrical brains like modern humans. The frontal lobe, where complex thinking takes place in modern humans, was relatively underdeveloped. The small hole in vertebrae probably meant that not enough information was transferred from the brain to the lungs, neck and mouth to make speech possible.
Body Features: Body similar to modern humans. It had long-limbed proportions common in tropical people. Tall, lean and slim hipped, it had a rib cage virtually identical to that of modern humans and strong bones able to withstand the wear and tear of a hard life on the savannah.
Homo erectus was about five to six feet tall. Its narrow pelvis, changes in the hips and arched foot meant that it could move more efficiently and quickly on two legs than even modern humans. The legs grew longer relative to the arms, indicating more efficient walking and perhaps running,It almost certainly could run like modern humans. It's large size meant it had a large surface area able to dissipate tropical heat through sweating.
Homo erectus's teeth and jaws were smaller and less powerful than its predecessors because meat, its main food source, is easier to chew than coarse vegetation and nuts eaten by its predecessors. It was most likely a hunter well adapted for the open grasslands of savannah Africa.
Homo erectus's skull was surprisingly thick— so thick in fact that some fossil hunters have mistaken it for a turtle shell. The top and sides of the cranium had thick, bony walls and a low, a wide profile, and in many ways resembled a bicycle helmet. Scientists have long wondered why the skull was so helmet-like: it didn’t offer much protection against predators that killed mostly by bites to the neck. Recently it has been suggested that a thick skull offered protection against other homo erectus, namely males who battled each other, perhaps by bashing each other with stone tools aimed at the head. On some erectus skulls there is evidence that suggests the head may have been struck with repeated heavy blows.
Homo Erectus Tools
tools found at
Konso-Gardula, Ethiopia Hand axes are usually associated with Homo erectus . Ones found at Konso-Gardula, Ethiopia are believed to be between 1.37 and 1.7 million year old. Describing a primitive 1.5- to 1.7-million-year-old ax, Ethiopian archaeologist Yonas Beyene told National Geographic, "You don't see much refinement here. They've only been knapped away a few flakes to make the edge sharp." After displaying a beautifully-crafted ax from a perhaps a 100,000 year later he said, "See how refined and straight the cutting edge has become. It was an artform for them. It wasn't just for cutting. Making these is time-consuming working."
Thousands of primitive hand 1.5-million- to 1.4-million-year-old hand axes have been Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania and Ubeidya, Israel. Carefully-crafted, sophisticated 780,000-year-old hand axes have been unearthed in Olorgesaile, near the Kenya and Tanzania border. Scientists believe they were used to butcher, dismember and deflesh large animals like elephants.
Sophisticated Homo erectus teardrop-shaped stone axes that fit snugly in the hand and had a sharp edged created by careful shearing of the rock on both sides. The tool could be used to cut, smash and beat.
Big symmetrical hand axes, known as Acheulan tools, endured for more than 1 million years little changed from the earliest versions found. Since few advances were made one anthropologists described the period in which Homo erectus lived as a time of “almost unimaginable monotony.” Acheulan tools are named after 300,000-year-old hand axes and other tools found in St. Acheul, France.
see HOME ERECTUS, TOOLS, FIRE, SHELTER AND CULTURE
Java Man Java man was discovered by Eugene DuBois, a young Dutch military doctor, who came to Java in 1887 with the sole purpose of finding the "missing link" between humans and apes after hearing about discoveries of ancient human bones (which later turned out to belong to modern man) near the Javanese village of Wajak, near Tulung Agung, in eastern Java.
With the help of 50 East Indian convict laborers, he discovered a skull cap and thighbone—that clearly didn't belong to an ape—along the banks of the Sunngai Bengawan Solo River in 1891. After measuring the cranial capacity of the skull with mustard seeds, Dubois realized that the creature was more of an "ape-like man" than a "man-like ape." Dubois dubbed the find Pithecanthropus erectus , or "upright ape-man,” which is now regarded as an example of Homo erectus .
The discovery of Java Man was the first major hominid find, and helped launch the study of early man. His finding created such a storm of controversy that Dubois felt compelled to re-bury the bones for 30 years to protect them.
DuBois was the student of Ernst Haeckel, a Charles Darwin disciple who wrote History of Natural Creation (1947), which advocated the Darwinian view of evolution and speculated about primitive human beings. Dubois came to Indonesia with the ambition of confirming Haekel’s theories. He died a bitter man because his discoveries he felt weren't taken seriously.
After Dubois other Homo erectus bones were unearthed in Java. In the 1930s, Ralph von Koenigswald found fossils, dated at be 1 million years old, near the village of Sangiran, along the Solo river, 15 kilometers north of Solo. Other fossils have been found along the Sungai Bengawan Solo in Central and East Java and near Pacitan in East Java’s south coast. In 1936 a skull of a child was found at Perning neat Mojokerto.
Book: Java Man by Carl Swisher, Garniss Curtis and Roger Lewis.
Redating Java Man
Java Man skull In 1994, Berkeley scientist Carl Swisher shook up the paleontology world when he redated the volcanic sediments of a Homo erectus Java man skull using a sophisticated mass spectrometer— that accurately measure the radioactive decay rates of potassium and argon found in volcanic sediments—and found that the skull was 1.8 million years old instead of 1 million years old as was previously reported. His discovery placed Homo erectus in Indonesia, some 800,000 years before it was thought to have left Africa.
Critics of Swisher's findings say that the skull may have been washed into older sediments. In response his critics Swisher has dated numerous sediment samples taken where hominid fossils were found in Indonesia and found that most of the sediments were 1.6 million years old or older.
In addition to that Homo erectus fossils found at site called Ngandong in Indonesia, previously thought to be between 100,000 and 300,000 years old, were dated in strata between 27,000 and 57,000 years old. This implies that Homo erectus live much longer than anyone thought and Homo erectus and Homo sapiens existed at the same time on Java. Many scientists are skeptical about the Ngandong dates.
Hominids Cross the Wallace Line
Stone flake tools, found near a stegodons (ancient elephant), dated to 840,000 years ago, were found in the Soa Basin on Indonesian island of Flores. The tools are thought to have belonged to Homo Erectus. They only way to get the island is by boat, through sometimes turbulent seas, which implies Homo erectus built seaworthy rafts or some other kind of vessel. This discovery is regarded with caution but may mean that early hominids may have cross the Wallace Line 650,000 years earlier than previously thought.
During several ice ages when sea levels dropped Indonesia was connected to the Asian continent. It is believed that Homo erectus arrived in Indonesia during one of the ice ages.
The Wallace Line is an invisible biological barrier described by and named after the British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace. Running along the water between the Indonesia islands of Bali and Lombok and between Borneo and Sulawesi, it separates the species found in Australia, New Guinea and the eastern islands of Indonesia from those found in western Indonesia, the Philippines and the Southeast Asia.
Because of the Wallace Line Asian animals such as elephants, orangutans and tigers never ventured further east than Bali, and Australian animals such as kangaroos, emus, cassowaries, wallabies and cockatoos never made it to Asia. Animals from both continents are found in some parts of Indonesia.
-Fossil teeth of Indonesian pigs at Java Man site
The first people to cross the Wallace line from Bali to Lombok, Indonesia, scientists speculate, arrived in a kind of paradise free of predators and competitors. Crustaceans and mollusks could be collected from tidal flats and pygmy elephants unafraid of man could be easily hunted. When food supplies ran low, the early inhabitants moved on to the next island, and the next until the finally reached Australia.
The discovery of the Hobbits in Flores is thought to confirm that Homo Erectus crossed the Wallace Line. See Hobbits.
"Peking Man" refers to a collection of six complete or nearly complete skulls, 14 cranial fragments, six facial fragments, 15 jawbones, 157 teeth, one collarbone, three upper arms, one wrist, seven thighbones, and one shinbone found in caves and a quarry outside of Peking (Beijing). It is believed the remains came from 40 individuals of both sexes that lived during a 200,000 year period. Peking Man is categorized as a member of the hominid species Homo erectus as is Java Man.
The Peking Man bones are the largest collection of hominid bones ever found at one site and were the first evidence that early man reached China. It was first thought the bones were between 200,000 and 300,000 years old. Now it is believed that they are 400,000 to 670,000 years old based on dating the sediments in which the fossils were found. No chemical tests or research were ever done on the bones before they mysteriously disappeared at the beginning of World War II.
Peking Man and Fire
The oldest largely accepted evidence of fire used by an ancestor of modern man is a group of burned animals bones found among remains of Homo erectus in the same caves in Zhoukoudian, China where Peking man was found. The burned bones have been dated to be about 500,000 years old. In Europe, there is evidence of fire that is 400,000 years old.
Homo erectus is believed to have learned to control fire about one million years ago. Some scientist speculate that early hominids gathered smoldering wood from lighting-ignited fires and used it to cook meat. Some scientists suggest that fire may have been tamed as early as 1.8 million years ago based on the theory that Homo erectus needed to cook food such as tough meat, tubers and roots to make them edible. Cooked food is more edible and easy to digest. It takes a chimpanzee about an hour to absorb 400 calories from eating raw meat. By contrast it takes a modern human only a couple minutes to wolf down the same amount of calories in a sandwich.
There is some evidence of ritual cannibalism in Peking man. Peking Man skulls had been smashed at the base, possibly by other Peking men to gain access to the brains, a practice common among cannibals.
Discovery of Peking Man
Peking Man cave "Peking Man" was found in quarry and some caves near the village of Zhoukoudian, 30 miles southwest of Beijing. The first fossils found in the quarry were dug up by villagers who sold them as "dragon bones" to a local folk medicine shop. In the 1920s, a Swedish geologist became fascinated with a human-like tooth believed to be two million years old in the collection of a German physician who hunted fossils in China. He began his own search for fossils, beginning in Beijing and was led by a local farmer to Zhoukoudian, which means Dragon Bone Hill.
Peking Man cave Foreign and Chinese archeologists launched a major excavation at Zhoukoudian. The digging intensified when a human molar was found. In December 1929 a complete skullcap was found imbedded in a rock face by a Chinese archeologist clinging to a rope. The skull was presented to the world as the "missing link" between man and monkeys.
Excavations continued through the 1930s and more bones were found along with stone tools and evidence of the use of fire. But before the bones had a chance to be carefully examined, the Japanese invaded China and World War II broke out.
Disappearance of Peking Man
Broken Hill skull from Zambia The Peking Man bones were hidden after the Japanese invaded China in 1937 and disappeared in 1941 when Chinese and American scientists decided to ship them to the United States for safekeeping.
Before they disappeared the fossils had been packed in crates at the Peking Union Medical College, an American Baptist teaching hospital, where research on the fossils was conducted by the Rockefeller Foundation. The plan was for the crates to be transferred by the Marine Corps to the port of Qinghuangdao, where they were to be loaded onto a ship called the President Harrison for the journey to America. The ship was scheduled to leave on December 8, 1941. But the day before it was to leave, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the Marines in charge of watching over the two crates with the bones were taken prisoner by the Japanese.
What happened to the bones remains a mystery. The Chinese have blamed the Americans for the disappearance and the Americans have blamed the Japanese. A Chinese professor told the New York Times, "I think the Japanese opened the boxes thinking they would find weapons or food and when they saw that it was only bones, I think they just kicked it over and threw them away." Fortunately casts were made of the bones.
According to one American military report the crates with the Peking Man bones were delivered to a Swiss warehouse for shipment, but there is no evidence that the crates ever arrived at the warehouse. In the 1970s, a woman appeared who claimed to be the widow of one of the Marines in charge of guarding the fossils. She met a Chicago businessman—who was offering a reward for information on the bones—at top of the Empire State Building, showed him some picture which she said were of a box with the missing fossils and then disappeared and was never heard from again. Most think she was part of a hoax.
Search for Peking Man
In 2005, the Chinese government announced it was launching an all out search to find the Peking Man bones and asked the governments in Japan, South Korea and the United States for help. A number scientists, philanthropists, farmers and con men have also announced their own searches and discoveries.
As of 2006, nearly 100 leads from e-mails, phone calls and letters have been checked out by Chinese investigators. A contract worker who worked at a U.S. military base in Tianjin claims he saw American stash the bones in a secret basement compartment before they fled China. A former Chinese serviceman in Taiwan said he saw them flown in a military cargo plane from Beijing to the Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung. A man in Henan Province said his grandfather told him a military truck with the bones arrived mysteriously in his village and buried the bones there.
Turkana boy A few Peking man bones remain but they are mixed with thousands of animal bones in boxes and rooms in Beijing and Zhoukoudian. The tags and numbering systems were destroyed during political upheaval during the pre-Communist and post-Communist eras. During the Cultural Revolution a Chinese scholar told the New York Times, "People moved the samples from place to place and they made a mess. In one place the samples were all over the floor and people could walk over them."
"Turkana Boy" is a nearly complete skeleton and skull from a 12-year-old boy that lived 1.54 million years ago and was discovered in 1984 near the shores of Lake Turkana not far from Nariokotome, Kenya. Some scientists think he is Homo erectus . Others regard him as distinctive enough to be regarded as a separate species— homo ergaster . Turkana Boy was about 5-foot, 3-inches tall when he died and probably would have reached a height of about six feet if he reached maturity. Turkana boy is the most complete skeleton of a hominid more than a million years old.
See Homo Ergaster
Image Sources: All Posters com http://www.allposters.com/?lang=1 Search Chinese Art
2) Peking Man skull, Wesleyan University ; 3) Peking Man cave, World Heritage Site website; 4) Peking Man bust, World Heritage Site website ; Others Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Mostly from National Geographic articles. I’ve gone through them all since around 1963 or so. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011