When did it become extinct? Exactly when Homo erectus died out has divided scientists for years. Some paleontologists believe that isolated populations of this hominid may have survived in Southeast Asia until fewer than 100,000 years ago. Where did it live? Fossils of Homo erectus have been found in Africa, the Republic of Georgia, China, and Indonesia.
Eugène Dubois, a Dutch anatomist, set off for the Far East in the 1880s, intent on finding fossils of the missing link between apes and humans. He searched fruitlessly in New Zealand before shifting his attention to Java, one of the large Indonesian islands. Amazingly, and to the disbelief of the scientific community, his Javan expedition was a success, as he found the skullcap and femur of one of our ancient ancestors. Whether Dubois's find was due to excellent judgment and insight or plain luck is a source of some academic debate. Given that the bones of our very ancient ancestors are extremely rare, this find is actually more remarkable than finding a needle in a haystack (at least with a haystack, you can use a metal detector!). It later turned out that these bones were not from the so-called missing link, but Dubois's discovery was nonetheless a major breakthrough in the area of research that attempts to understand our origins.
The owner of the bones Dubois discovered was named Homo erectus (erect man), and up until 1984, all the known remains of this extinct hominid species would have fitted quite comfortably in a large shoe box—such was their rarity. This all changed with the discovery of an almost complete skeleton in East Africa that has become known as Turkana Boy. Turkana Boy gave the world its first glimpse of what an almost entire Homo erectus skeleton looked like, and it became clear that they were the first of our ancient ancestors to have a truly human look, with a very erect posture and long legs. The pelvis of Homo erectus is
narrow compared to a modern human, a feature that made them very accomplished runners. Apart from the skull, their skeleton is very similar to our own, and it would take an expert to tell them apart. Adult males were around 1.8 m tall and physically very strong. The skull of Homo erectus it what really sets this species apart from us. First, the brow ridges of the skull were very pronounced, and it also lacked a chin, but most important of all is the cranium and what it contained. The cranium of Homo erectus was smaller than our own and carried a brain that was only around 75 percent of the size of an average modern human's. Because the frontal lobes of Homo erectuss brain were very small compared to our own, its forehead was very sloping and shallow. As with other human ancestors, the lower jaw of
Homo erectus was robust and equipped with big teeth. This mandible was powered by large muscles and was undoubtedly suited to chewing tough food.
Using a complete skull of Homo erectus, anatomists and artists can build up a picture of the face of this extinct hominid. If you stare into the face of one of these reconstructions, you can see yourself, but the overall impression is of an animal that was barely human. The mental capabilities of Homo erectus can only be guessed. A frequent question is whether these hominids were able to express themselves with language, and detailed studies of Tur-kana Boy suggest that their power of speech was very minimal, perhaps limited to simple sounds—the precursors of complex speech. We do know that they made tools, as stone artifacts have been found at the same locations as their bones and from other locations around the world. The bones of Homo erectus are so rare that these tools give us a better picture of just how geographically widespread this hominid was.
In a short period of geologic time, this hominid dispersed from Africa to Eurasia in the north and China and Indonesia in the east (and possibly even farther). These movements suggest that Homo erectus was capable of solving complex practical problems as they were confronted by treacherous bodies of water and other seemingly insurmountable barriers. With narrow hips and long legs, Homo erectus was a natural athlete, and this may have been crucially important in allowing them to disperse far and wide from where they first evolved.
There is also some tantalizing evidence that Homo erectus harnessed and used fire, one of the major technological leaps in human evolution. Fire made food safer and more palatable and kept predators at bay as well as having a multitude of other uses. Homo erectus stone implements may be just a fraction of what these hominids were capable of creating. They could have produced a range of different tools using plants and various bits of animal, but if these have stood the tests of time anywhere and not rotted away completely, they have not yet come to light.
Homo erectus was undoubtedly a physically strong hominid, but was it an active predator or a scavenger on the kills made by predators such as big cats? Hunting requires a lot of time and energy, and it can also be very dangerous. Scavenging is less dangerous, but it is not easy, especially if you are planning on stealing a carcass from beneath the nose of a saber tooth cat. However, the risks of scavenging are outweighed by the rewards of a huge amount of fresh meat.
The oldest Homo erectus fossils are around 1.8 million years old, and the most recent remains could be fewer than 100,000 years old, so this was a very successful and widespread species. What happened to Homo erectus ? The likely cause of the extinction of Homo erectus was competition with modern humans, who treaded the same paths out of Africa, eventually colonizing almost the entire globe. Our species, Homo sapiens, was probably inferior to Homo erectus in terms of brute strength and stamina, but our unparalleled advantage was our brain and the language and ingenuity it gives us.
♦ As Homo erectus evolved on the hot, arid plains of equatorial Africa, it was adapted to cope with the powerful sun's rays. An upright stance presents less of the body's surface to the heat of the sun, and it was probably hairless, which allows the evaporation of sweat to cool the underlying blood. Its skin was darkened with melanin, a pigment that protects the skin cells from the damaging effects of the sun's ultraviolet radiation.
♦ Exactly how Homo erectus crossed from the mainland and reached many of the Indonesian islands is still a mystery. Low sea levels could have revealed land bridges, but there is also the possibility that Homo erectus was the earliest seafarer. This hominid species may have had sufficient mental ability to figure out a way of crossing open stretches of water to reach the island of Flores well over 800,000 years ago.
♦ In modern humans, the average difference in size between males and females is quite small, but adult Homo erectus males were 20 to 30 percent bigger than adult females
Further Reading: Brown, F., J. Harris, R. Leakey, and A. Walker. "Early Homo Erectus Skeleton from West Lake Turkana, Kenya." Nature 316 (1985): 788-92; Swisher, C. C. "Dating Hominid Sites in Indonesia." Science 266 (1994): 1727; Rukang, W., and L. Shenglong. "Peking Man." Scientific American 248 (1983): 86-94.
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