Hominid Species


The word "hominid" refers to members of the family of humans, Hominidae, which consists of all species on our side of the last common ancestor of humans and living apes. (Some scientists use a broader definition of Hominidae which includes the great apes.) Hominids are included in the superfamily of all apes, the Hominoidea, the members of which are called hominoids. Although the hominid fossil record is far from complete, and the evidence is often fragmentary, there is enough to give a good outline of the evolutionary history of humans.

The time of the split between humans and living apes used to be thought to have occurred 15 to 20 million years ago, or even up to 30 or 40 million years ago. Some apes occurring within that time period, such as Ramapithecus, used to be considered as hominids, and possible ancestors of humans. Later fossil finds indicated that Ramapithecus was more closely related to the orang-utan, and new biochemical evidence indicated that the last common ancestor of hominids and apes occurred between 5 and 10 million years ago, and probably in the lower end of that range (Lewin 1987). Ramapithecus therefore is no longer considered a hominid.

The field of science which studies the human fossil record is known as paleoanthropology. It is the intersection of the disciplines of paleontology (the study of ancient lifeforms) and anthropology (the study of humans).

Hominid Species

The species here are listed roughly in order of appearance in the fossil record (note that this ordering is not meant to represent an evolutionary sequence), except that the robust australopithecines are kept together. Each name consists of a genus name (e.g. Australopithecus, Homo) which is always capitalized, and a species name (e.g. africanus, erectus) which is always in lower case. Within the text, genus names are often omitted for brevity. Each species has a type specimen which was used to define it.

Ardipithecus ramidus

This species is a recent discovery, announced in September 1994 (White et al. 1994; Wood 1994). It is the oldest known hominid species, dated at 4.4 million years. Most remains are skull fragments. Indirect evidence suggests that it was possibly bipedal, and that some individuals were about 122 cm (4'0") tall. The teeth are intermediate between those of earlier apes and A. afarensis, but one baby tooth is very primitive, resembling a chimpanzee tooth more than any other known hominid tooth. Other fossils found with ramidus indicate that it may have been a forest dweller. This may cause modification of current theories about why hominids became bipedal, which often link bipedalism with a move to a savannah environment. (White et al. have since discovered a skeleton which is 45% complete, but have not yet published on it.)

Australopithecus anamensis

This species was named in August 1995 (Leakey et al. 1995). The material consists of 9 fossils, mostly found in 1994, from Kanapoi in Kenya, and 12 fossils, mostly teeth found in 1988, from Allia Bay in Kenya (Leakey et al. 1995). Anamensis existed between 4.2 and 3.9 million years ago, and has a mixture of primitive features in the skull, and advanced features in the body. The teeth and jaws are very similar to those of older fossil apes. A partial tibia (the larger of the two lower leg bones) is strong evidence of bipedality, and a lower humerus (the upper arm bone) is extremely humanlike. Note that although the skull and skeletal bones are thought to be from the same species, this is not confirmed.

Australopithecus afarensis

A. afarensis existed between 3.9 and 3.0 million years ago. Afarensis had an apelike face with a low forehead, a bony ridge over the eyes, a flat nose, and no chin. They had protruding jaws with large back teeth. Cranial capacity varied from about 375 to 550 cc. The skull is similar to that of a chimpanzee, except for the more humanlike teeth. The canine teeth are much smaller than those of modern apes, but larger and more pointed than those of humans, and shape of the jaw is between the rectangular shape of apes and the parabolic shape of humans. However their pelvis and leg bones far more closely resemble those of modern man, and leave no doubt that they were bipedal (although adapted to walking rather than running (Leakey 1994)). Their bones show that they were physically very strong. Females were substantially smaller than males, a condition known as sexual dimorphism. Height varied between about 107 cm (3'6") and 152 cm (5'0"). The finger and toe bones are curved and proportionally longer than in humans, but the hands are similar to humans in most other details (Johanson and Edey 1981). Most scientists consider this evidence that afarensis was still partially adapted to climbing in trees, others consider it evolutionary baggage.

Australopithecus africanus

A. africanus existed between 3 and 2 million years ago. It is similar to afarensis, and was also bipedal, but body size was slightly greater. Brain size may also have been slightly larger, ranging between 420 and 500 cc. This is a little larger than chimp brains (despite a similar body size), but still not advanced in the areas necessary for speech. The back teeth were a little bigger than in afarensis. Although the teeth and jaws of africanus are much larger than those of humans, they are far more similar to human teeth than to those of apes (Johanson and Edey 1981). The shape of the jaw is now fully parabolic, like that of humans, and the size of the canine teeth is further reduced compared to afarensis.

Australopithecus garhi

This species was named in April 1999 (Asfaw et al. 1999). It is known from a partial skull. The skull differs from previous australopithecine species in the combination of its features, notably the extremely large size of its teeth, especially the rear ones, and a primitive skull morphology. Some nearby skeletal remains may belong to the same species. They show a humanlike ratio of the humerus and femur, but an apelike ratio of the lower and upper arm.

Australopithecus afarensis and africanus, and the other species above, are known as gracile australopithecines, because of their relatively lighter build, especially in the skull and teeth. (Gracile means "slender", and in paleoanthropology is used as an antonym to "robust".) Despite this, they were still more robust than modern humans.

Australopithecus aethiopicus

A. aethiopicus existed between 2.6 and 2.3 million years ago. This species is known from one major specimen, the Black Skull discovered by Alan Walker, and a few other minor specimens which may belong to the same species. It may be an ancestor of robustus and boisei, but it has a baffling mixture of primitive and advanced traits. The brain size is very small, at 410 cc, and parts of the skull, particularly the hind portions, are very primitive, most resembling afarensis. Other characteristics, like the massiveness of the face, jaws and single tooth found, and the largest sagittal crest in any known hominid, are more reminiscent of A. boisei (Leakey and Lewin 1992). (A sagittal crest is a bony ridge on top of the skull to which chewing muscles attach.)

Australopithecus robustus

A. robustus had a body similar to that of africanus, but a larger and more robust skull and teeth. It existed between 2 and 1.5 million years ago. The massive face is flat or dished, with no forehead and large brow ridges. It has relatively small front teeth, but massive grinding teeth in a large lower jaw. Most specimens have sagittal crests. Its diet would have been mostly coarse, tough food that needed a lot of chewing. The average brain size is about 530 cc. Bones excavated with robustus skeletons indicate that they may have been used as digging tools.

Australopithecus boisei (was Zinjanthropus boisei)

A. boisei existed between 2.1 and 1.1 million years ago. It was similar to robustus, but the face and cheek teeth were even more massive, some molars being up to 2 cm across. The brain size is very similar to robustus, about 530 cc. A few experts consider boisei and robustus to be variants of the same species.

Australopithecus aethiopicus, robustus and boisei are known as robust australopithecines, because their skulls in particular are more heavily built.

Homo habilis

H. habilis, "handy man", was so called because of evidence of tools found with its remains. Habilis existed between 2.4 and 1.5 million years ago. It is very similar to australopithecines in many ways. The face is still primitive, but it projects less than in A. africanus. The back teeth are smaller, but still considerably larger than in modern humans. The average brain size, at 650 cc, is considerably larger than in australopithecines. Brain size varies between 500 and 800 cc, overlapping the australopithecines at the low end and H. erectus at the high end. The brain shape is also more humanlike. The bulge of Broca's area, essential for speech, is visible in one habilis brain cast, and indicates it was possibly capable of rudimentary speech. Habilis is thought to have been about 127 cm (5'0") tall, and about 45 kg (100 lb) in weight, although females may have been smaller.

Habilis has been a controversial species. Some scientists have not accepted it, believing that all habilis specimens should be assigned to either the australopithecines or Homo erectus. Many now believe that habilis combines specimens from at least two different Homo species.

Homo erectus

H. erectus existed between 1.8 million and 300,000 years ago. Like habilis, the face has protruding jaws with large molars, no chin, thick brow ridges, and a long low skull, with a brain size varying between 750 and 1225 cc. Early erectus specimens average about 900 cc, while late ones have an average of about 1100 cc (Leakey 1994). Some Asian erectus skulls have a sagittal crest. The skeleton is more robust than those of modern humans, implying greater strength. Body proportions vary; the Turkana Boy is tall and slender, like modern humans from the same area, while the few limb bones found of Peking Man indicate a shorter, sturdier build. Study of the Turkana Boy skeleton indicates that erectus may have been more efficient at walking than modern humans, whose skeletons have had to adapt to allow for the birth of larger-brained infants (Willis 1989). Homo habilis and all the australopithecines are found only in Africa, but erectus was wide-ranging, and has been found in Africa, Asia, and Europe. There is evidence that erectus probably used fire, and their stone tools are more sophisticated than those of habilis.

Homo sapiens (archaic)

Archaic forms of Homo sapiens first appear about 500,000 years ago. The term covers a diverse group of skulls which have features of both Homo erectus and modern humans. The brain size is larger than erectus and smaller than most modern humans, averaging about 1200 cc, and the skull is more rounded than in erectus. The skeleton and teeth are usually less robust than erectus, but more robust than modern humans. Many still have large brow ridges and receding foreheads and chins. There is no clear dividing line between late erectus and archaic sapiens, and many fossils between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago are difficult to classify as one or the other.

Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (was Homo neanderthalensis)

Neandertal man existed between 230,000 and 30,000 years ago. The average brain size is slightly larger than that of modern humans, about 1450 cc, but this is probably correlated with their greater bulk. The brain case however is longer and lower than that of modern humans, with a marked bulge at the back of the skull. Like erectus, they had a protruding jaw and receding forehead. The chin was usually weak. The midfacial area also protrudes, a feature that is not found in erectus or sapiens and may be an adaptation to cold. There are other minor anatomical differences from modern humans, the most unusual being some peculiarities of the shoulder blade, and of the pubic bone in the pelvis. Neandertals mostly lived in cold climates, and their body proportions are similar to those of modern cold-adapted peoples: short and solid, with short limbs. Men averaged about 168 cm (5'6") in height. Their bones are thick and heavy, and show signs of powerful muscle attachments. Neandertals would have been extraordinarily strong by modern standards, and their skeletons show that they endured brutally hard lives. A large number of tools and weapons have been found, more advanced than those of Homo erectus. Neandertals were formidable hunters, and are the first people known to have buried their dead, with the oldest known burial site being about 100,000 years old. They are found throughout Europe and the Middle East. Western European Neandertals usually have a more robust form, and are sometimes called "classic Neandertals". Neandertals found elsewhere tend to be less excessively robust. (Trinkaus and Shipman 1992; Trinkaus and Howells 1979; Gore 1996)

Homo sapiens sapiens (modern)

Modern forms of Homo sapiens first appear about 120,000 years ago. Modern humans have an average brain size of about 1350 cc. The forehead rises sharply, eyebrow ridges are very small or more usually absent, the chin is prominent, and the skeleton is very gracile. About 40,000 years ago, with the appearance of the Cro-Magnon culture, tool kits started becoming markedly more sophisticated, using a wider variety of raw materials such as bone and antler, and containing new implements for making clothing, engraving and sculpting. Fine artwork, in the form of decorated tools, beads, ivory carvings of humans and animals, clay figurines, musical instruments, and spectacular cave paintings appeared over the next 20,000 years. (Leakey 1994)

Even within the last 100,000 years, the long-term trends towards smaller molars and decreased robustness can be discerned. The face, jaw and teeth of Mesolithic humans (about 10,000 years ago) are about 10% more robust than ours. Upper Paleolithic humans (about 30,000 years ago) are about 20 to 30% more robust than the modern condition in Europe and Asia. These are considered modern humans, although they are sometimes termed "primitive". Interestingly, some modern humans (aboriginal Australians) have tooth sizes more typical of archaic sapiens. The smallest tooth sizes are found in those areas where food-processing techniques have been used for the longest time. This is a probable example of natural selection which has occurred within the last 10,000 years (Brace 1983).


This diagram shows roughly the times during which each hominid species lived. Ages are in millions of years, with each character position representing 100,000 years. This resolution is a little coarse to accurately represent the most modern species.

      5.0       4.0       3.0       2.0       1.0      .0


       |         |         |         |         |         |

       |         |        A.robustus ******    |         |

       |         |         A.boisei ***********|         |

       |         A.aethiopicus ****  |         |         |

       |         |         |         |         |         |

   A.ramidus *   |         |         |         |         |

   A.anamensis ****        |         |         |         |

      A.afarensis **********         |         |         |

       |       A.africanus ***********         |         |

       |         |A. garhi |    *    |         |         |

       |         |         |         |         |         |

       |         |     H.habilis **********    |         |

       |         |         | H.erectus ****************  |

       |         |         |      archaic H.sapiens *****|

       |         |         |         |     Neandertals **|

       |         |         |         | modern H.sapiens **

       |         |         |         |         |         |


This page is part of the Fossil Hominids FAQ at the talk.origins Archive.

http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/species.html, 04/28/97
Copyright © Jim Foley (habilis@talkorigins.org)