Sorting out the 'muddle in the middle" requires us to take a fresh look at the cranial anatomy of Homo erectus. The most distinctive anatomical differences setting off Homo erectus from its ancestors and its descendants are undoubtedly in the skull. Modern humans and our recent ancestors have thin-walled and capacious bony globes that perch atop our spinal columns, holding an enormous, easily injured, semiliquid brain inside. In contrast, the skull that surrounded the Homo erectus brain had a massively thick bony wall, enclosing a smaller cranial capacity and exhibiting a low, wide profile. Without the facial skeleton, a skull of Homo erectus looks remarkably like a turtle carapace. In fact, field researchers have mistaken fragments of Homo erectus skull for turtle shell in fossil excavations. The skull reminds others of a cyclist's helmet-low and streamlined, designed to shield it from blows and to protect the brain, eyes, and ears.
When Dutch anatomist Eugene Dubois first discovered the skullcap that he named Pithecanthropus erectus in eastern Java, he was struck with its unusual anatomy. Because there was essentially no fossil record of homi-nids of any antiquity at the time of his discovery, Dubois and everyone else initially interpreted the skull's anatomy to be indicative of the primitive condition of humankind. As we have seen, Weidenreich interpreted the massive skull of Homo erectus as a record of the gigantic ancestry of Homo sapiens, believing that a massive skull had to go with a massive body. But as more fossils have been discovered, it is now clear that Homo erectus was not a giant; the species just had a very strange skull. And nobody to this day has figured out why.
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