From Habilis to Sapiens: The Role of Homo erectus in Human Evolution

Homo Erectus: The Upright Man

Homo erectus, also known as “upright man,” was an early human species that lived between 1.9 million and 143,000 years ago. In 1891, Dutch paleontologist Eugene Dubois discovered the first Homo erectus fossils in Java, Indonesia, and named the species Pithecanthropus erectus. However, American paleontologist Franz Weidenreich reclassified it as Homo erectus in 1950.

Homo erectus is thought to be a transitional species between earlier hominins like Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis and later Homo sapiens, or modern humans. It is the first hominin species with a more modern human-like anatomy, such as a larger brain, more upright posture, and a longer lifespan.

Modern Day Human vs Homo Erectus

Homo erectus had an intermediate brain size between earlier hominins and modern humans, with an average volume of around 1,000 cubic centimeters. This is significantly larger than the brain size of Homo habilis. However, it is still smaller than the average modern human brain, which has a volume of around 1,400 cubic centimeters. 

Homo erectus’s tall, slender body is one of its most distinguishing characteristics. This is assumed to have developed in response to the requirement for greater stamina and mobility in order to hunt and forage across vast distances. Another distinguishing feature of Homo erectus is its substantial, massive skull, which most likely functioned to shield the brain from predators.

Stone Tool Technology and Fire

The fossil record of Homo erectus shows improvement and innovation in the stone tool technology known as the Acheulian tool industry. A diverse range of teardrop hand axes dating back 1.78 million years have been discovered in Kenya. By 1.5 million years ago, these had improved quality and were commonly used; they were also shaped into multipurpose picks, cleavers, handaxes, and so forth. This more comprehensive set of tools would have aided Homo erectus in surviving climate change. This indicates the slow and very slight process of collective learning in Homo erectus.

The earliest evidence of fire use occurs during the time range of Homo erectus. Thus, they were the first human species to tame fire, but the exact time when they did so is unknown. The taming of fire would have helped to cook meat and vegetables, providing them with more energy to function and even develop more brain growth

From Trees to Ground

One of their most distinguishing characteristics is they had elongated legs and well-developed hands. These characteristics of Homo erectus indicate that they adapted to living on the ground, with the ability to walk and run long distances, indicating a loss of tree-climbing adaptation. From the time of Homo erectus, it is considered that homo began to move out of Africa and spread over two continents: Asia and Europe.

It co-existed with several other species at the start of its time period, around 1.9 million years ago: Homo rudolfensis, Homo habilis, and Australopithecus. Australopithecus and Homo habilis were wiped out by natural selection. At the end of its time period, around 143,000 years ago, it co-existed with Homo sapiens and possibly with Homo floresiensis in Indonesia.

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