Turkana boy facial reconstruction

“Homo erectus” is a hominin that lived 2 million to 110,000 years ago. It had a considerably larger brain than “Homo habilis, its predecessor. It fashioned more advanced tools 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”

There are a number of homo erectus subspecies and many paleontologists believe that a number of hominins classified as separate species that during or near the time of homo erectus are in fact homo erectus. Noel T. Boaz and Russell L. Ciochon wrote in Natural History magazine, “The skullcaps discovered in eastern Asia tend to be more robust than the ones in Africa. Hence some paleoanthropologists have regarded the African fossils as a distinct species, which they call H. ergaster. But one African skullcap just as robust as any Asian specimen was discovered by Louis Leakey in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. It dates from about 1.4 million years ago. And even the strapping youth known as Turkana boy, the most complete H. erectus skeleton discovered so far, probably would have had a thick skull when fully grown. In any case, there is little doubt that H. erectus was on the line that ultimately led to the first modern humans. Whether that further evolution took place in Africa or was a more widespread phenomenon is a matter of debate, but one way or another we got bigger brains and thinner skulls.[Source: Noel T. Boaz and Russell L. Ciochon, Natural History magazine, February 2004]

Homo erectus subspecies or possibly closely related species include: 1) homo erectus erectus (Dubois 1891), the Javanese specimens labeled Java Man that were classified as a distinct subspecies in the 1970s; 2) homo erectus e. georgicus (Gabounia 1991, a hypothetical subspecific designation based on Dmanisi fossils from Georgia; 3) homo erectus pekinensis (Black and Zdansky 1927), originally assigned the type of Sinanthropus based on a single molar and popularly known as Peking Man; 4) homo erectus hexianensis (Huang 1982), based on the Hexian cranium found in Hexian, China; 5) homo erectus mauritanicus (Arambourg 1954), a subspecies that has received limited use as a descriptor for the cranial and mandibular material discovered at Tighenif, Algeria; 6) H. e. narmadensis (Sonakia 1984), the name given to the Narmada cranium found in India. [Source: Wikipedia]

There are a number of subspecies in Indonesia, many of them based on fossils found near Java Man (See Below). Homo erectus ergaster (Groves and Mazák 1975) is regarded by some as a separate species: Antón and Middleton (2023) suggested that ergaster should be disused based on poor diagnoses. The name Homo erectus ergaster georgicus was created to classify the Dmanisi population as a subspecies of homo erectus ergaster.

Ethiopian Skull Indicates Homo Erectus, Was Single, Widespread Species

20120202-Turkana Boy 2.JPG
Turkana boy
A million-year-old Homo erectus skull found in the Middle Awash region of the Afar Rift in eastern Ethiopia appears to indicate that this human ancestor was a single species scattered widely throughout Asia, Europe and Africa, not two separate species, according to an international group of scientists who discovered the skull in 1997.Some archaeologists and anthropologists have argued that African and European populations were a different species, Homo ergaster, distinct from the strictly Asian Homo erectus. UC Berkeley anthropologist J. Desmond Clark published an extensive monograph on the primitive stone tools, including hand axes and cleavers, found around the village of Bouri in the Middle Awash and used by the Homo erectus population associated with the new fossil finds. [Source: Bob Sanders, University of California, Berkely, 20 March 2002]

According to a University of California, Berkely press release: Henry Gilbert, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, discovered this Homo erectus skull. With a porcupine quill, and other tools intended not to scratch the fossil, he is carefully removing the silty matrix that entombed the specimen for a million years. It took University of California, Berkeley, researchers and their colleagues more than two years to clean and reassemble the crushed skull, which is described by the Ethiopian and American team in the March 21 issue of Nature. The fossil was described by Berhane Asfaw of the Rift Valley Research Service in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Berkeley paleoanthropologist Tim D. White, and Gilbert. "This fossil is a crucial piece of evidence showing that the splitting of Homo erectus into two species is not justified," said White. "This African fossil is so similar to its Asian contemporaries that it's clear Homo erectus was a truly successful, widespread species throughout the Old World."

The Ethiopian and American scientists also conclude in their paper that the onset of the Ice Ages about 950,000 years ago likely split the Homo erectus populations and led to their divergent evolution. The African population of Homo erectus probably gave rise to modern Homo sapiens, the European branch perhaps became the Neanderthals, or Homo neanderthalensis, while the Asian population went extinct. "What we are saying in this paper is that the anthropological splitting common today is giving the wrong impression about the biology of these early human ancestors," White said. "The different names indicate an apparent diversity that is not real. Homo erectus is a biologically successful organism, not a whole series of different human ancestors, all but one of which went extinct."

White was disappointed to find that the lower face was gone. Because of peculiar scratches on the skull, he thinks the individual may have been killed by a large lion or hyena, which probably ate the face and gnawed on the skull in an attempt to extract the brain. Despite the lack of the lower part of the skull and the teeth, the calvaria displayed obvious characteristics of Homo erectus: a shallow forehead sloping back from massive brow ridges, and an elongated, less spherical brain case.

Asfaw, White and Gilbert compared the specific size and shape of these features to those of other Homo erectus fossils and found them to share characteristics with contemporary Homo erectus fossils from Asia and Africa. "Before this time, we really haven't had a good comparison between African and Asian forms from the same time window," Gilbert said. "We've had early African forms and late Asian forms, and people have used the differences between them to generalize about all African and Asian specimens. Now that we have a later African form for comparison, we are finding that they are very similar in a lot of the features that people were formerly using to separate early African from late Asian ones.

H Rudolfensis, H Gautengensis, H Ergaster and H Habilis — All Homo Erectus?

Map of Homo Erectus sites

Homo rudolfensis, Homo gautengensis, Homo ergaster and Homo habilis are regarded separate species from homo erectus but some think they may all be the same species. Those that believe they may be the same species began by comparing the 1.8-million-year-old Dmanisi remains with those of supposedly different species of human ancestor that lived in Africa at the time.

Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: They concluded that the variation among them was no greater than that seen at Dmanisi. Rather than being separate species, the human ancestors found in Africa from the same period may simply be normal variants of H erectus. “"Everything that lived at the time of the Dmanisi was probably just Homo erectus," said Prof Zollikofer. "We are not saying that palaeoanthropologists did things wrong in Africa, but they didn't have the reference we have. Part of the community will like it, but for another part it will be shocking news." [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, October 17, 2013]

“David Lordkipanidze at the Georgian National Museum, who leads the Dmanisi excavations, said: "If you found the Dmanisi skulls at isolated sites in Africa, some people would give them different species names. But one population can have all this variation. We are using five or six names, but they could all be from one lineage." If the scientists are right, it would trim the base of the human evolutionary tree and spell the end for names such as H rudolfensis, H gautengensis, H ergaster and possibly H habilis. "Some palaeontologists see minor differences in fossils and give them labels, and that has resulted in the family tree accumulating a lot of branches," said White. "The Dmanisi fossils give us a new yardstick, and when you apply that yardstick to the African fossils, a lot of that extra wood in the tree is dead wood. It's arm-waving." |=|

“"I think they will be proved right that some of those early African fossils can reasonably join a variable Homo erectus species," said Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London. "But Africa is a huge continent with a deep record of the earliest stages of human evolution, and there certainly seems to have been species-level diversity there prior to two million years ago. So I still doubt that all of the 'early Homo' fossils can reasonably be lumped into an evolving Homo erectus lineage. We need similarly complete African fossils from two to 2.5 million years ago to test that idea properly." |=|

Turkana Boy

"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 hominin more than a million years old.

“Homo ergaster “ is a hominin species that lived between 1.8 million and 1.4 million years ago. Many scientists regard “Homo ergaster “ as a member of the “Homo erectus “ species. Skull Features: smaller jaws and a more projecting nose than earlier Homos. Body Features: Arm and leg proportions more similar to modern man. Discovery Site: Koobi Fora at Lake Turkana, Kenya.

1.8-Million-Year-Old Hominin Fossils in Georgia

The Dmanisi hominins refers to population of early hominins whose fossils were found at Dmanisi, Georgia. The fossils and stone tools found there range in age from 1.85 to 1.77 million years old, making them the earliest well-dated hominin fossils in Eurasia and the oldest undisputed hominin fossils found outside of Africa. The first of these fossils were unearthed in 1991 and big deal was made when the first skulls were unearthed in the late 1990s. Earlier fossils and artifacts have been found in Asia but they have not been as precisely dated and carefully excavated as the Dmanisi fossils Though the precise classification is still disputed, the Dmanisi fossils are highly significant for the insights they provide on early hominin migrations out of Africa. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Dmanisi fossils is the largest collection of “Homo erectus” bones ever found in one place and and the best preserved fossils of early Homo from a single site so early in time. They include over a hundred postcranial fossils and five famous well-preserved skulls, referred to as Dmanisi Skulls 1–5. The taxonomic classification of the Dmanisi hominins is somewhat unclear due to their small brain size, primitive skeletal features, and different morphologies of the five skulls. Dmanisi would have been reachable from Africa through the Levantine corridor. Stone tools found at the site are like those found in Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.

Some scientists say the Dmanisi fossils belong to “ Homo Erectus” . Others think they are closer to “Homo habilis”, the “H. erectus” predecessor. Many see them as a link between erectus and habilis. Yet others say they belonged to different species, “Homo ergaster” . Others still say they belong to a new species “Homo georgicus”.

Java Man

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 hominin 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.

There are a number of subspecies in Indonesia, many of them based on fossils found near Java Man. Homo erectus e. soloensis (Oppenoorth 1932) is the original name devised for Solo man, or the Ngandong crania, from Ngandong, Java. Homo erectus ngandongensis (Sartono 1976) was name used in the process of splitting homo erectus in Java into many subspecies. H. e. wadjakensis (Dubois 1921) was based on the Wajak skulls. Homo erectus trinilensis (Sartono 1976) is a tentative classification scheme based on Java Man area fossils. Homo erectus e. newyorkensis (Laitman and Tattersall 2001) is based on the Sambungmacan 3 cranium, discovered on Java in 1977 and was illegally removed from Indonesia in 1998 and appeared in New York City in early 1999.

Peking Man and Fire

"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 hominin species Homo erectus as is Java Man.

The Peking Man bones are the largest collection of hominin 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" 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.

right 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 and most of the fossils disappeared.

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 Sites in China

Finds at Zhoukoudian — where Peking Man was found — encouraged paleontologists to search for more hominin fossils in China. As of 2016, 14 other fossil-bearing sites have since been discovered across the country in the Yuanmou, Tiandong, Jianshi, Yunxian, Lantian, Luonan, Yiyuan, Nanzhao, Nanjing, Hexian, and Dongzhi counties. [Source: Wikipedia]

Yiyuan county in Shandong province is home to a number of paleontological and archaeological finds. One famous fossil, referred to as the "Yiyuan ape-man fossil" is estimated to be 400,000 to 500,000 years old. A skull found in Yunxian, China, believed to be at least 600,000 years old, has browridges like Homo erectus specimens found in Java and has the facial features that are more similar to younger skulls found in Europe. "This mix of characteristics tells us that there was more diversity within Homo erectus than we had thought," one scientist told National Geographic. Other scientist believe that skull is not from Homo erectus at all but from a species called Homo heidelbergensis that may have given birth to modern humans and Neanderthals.

Hualong Cave — in Pangwang village in Dongzhi County, Anhui Province, China, and situated on the southern bank of Yangtze on the side of Meiyuan Hill — has interested since 2004 when a farmer accidentally found bones that were later identified as mammalian fossils. Excavations started in 2006 by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences yielded many stone tools and over 30 human fossils, and animal bones including those of stegodons, giant tapirs, and giant pandas. A Homo erectus fossil (dubbed Dongzhi Man) was described in 2014; a 300,000-year-old archaic human was discovered in 2019. Paleolithic age tools include bone tools used for cutting animals but not for hunting. Of the more than 100 stone tools discovered, scrapers were the most abundant tools.

Dongzhi Man is considered as among the most well-preserved Homo erectus specimens. Discovered in 2006 along with stone artifacts and animal fossils, it consists of two skull fragments and one separated (lower molar) teeth. The skull fragments were believed to be from the same individual.It is different from other fossils of the same species including Peking Man found in China. The teeth surfaces (enamel-dentine junctions) are much simpler and the cusps are sharper.

Image Sources: All Posters com 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: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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