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Homo erectus

Facts: first art by early hominins
Invented Acheulean tool culture

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Reconstruction of Homo erectus, the most widespread hominin after H. sapiens
Homo erectus, the most travelled and most enduring species of archaic humans. They existed for more than one million years and spread across Africa, Asia and Europe. Image by Werner Ustorf. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When Did Homo erectus Live?

Homo erectus is a species of early humans that lived during the Stone Age between 2 million years BC and 120,000 BC.

H. erectus: A Challenging Species

Homo erectus has the largest profile of any hominin during the Stone Age, in either Africa or Asia.

Its widespread geographic and temporal distribution has set paleoanthropologists a number of problems when it comes to understanding the evolution of mankind.

It has led, for instance, to a number of competing hypotheses concerning the origins and taxonomy of the species.

But before we get into this, we can say that most (not all) archaeologists agree on the following points:

Note: For information about the first prehistoric art, which emerged during the Lower Paleolithic, see: World's Oldest art (from 540,000 BC).

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Discovery

In Asia, fossils of Homo erectus - with their short and stocky bodies, distinctive skull shape and large brow ridges - have mostly been excavated in Java and China. In Africa, they have been found mainly in East Africa (Kenya) or South Africa.

Digging Up Hominins

For a short guide to how archaeologists find out about early humans, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient. For an explanation of archaeological terms, see: Archaeology Glossary.

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The H. erectus Debate

Although Homo erectus inhabited both Africa and Asia, some archaeologists now favour a narrower interpretation of the species.

Accordingly, they wish to redefine Homo erectus so that it includes only the east Asian component. As for the African component, it becomes redefined as a separate species, namely, Homo ergaster.

Under this theory, H. erectus is effectively downgraded to side-show status, while H. ergaster becomes one of our direct ancestors. Indeed, some scientists see the latter as ancestral to Homo erectus.

The appeal of this theory is that it sidesteps most dating and identification issues, allowing scientists to include whatever fossils they like within the Asian Homo erectus species, as it does not interfere with the mainline evolutionary route from H. ergaster to H. sapiens.

What's more, if necessary, it allows for two forms of Homo erectus in Asia, to reflect the different habitat and living conditions between the steppe grassland of East Asia and the warmer rain forests of SE Asia.

But other scientists favour a wider interpretation of Homo erectus. They insist that Homo erectus serve as a broad-based single species, which incorporates all Lower Paleolithic forms of Homo.

Some scientists even suggest redefining the ancestral species H. habilis as an early form of Homo erectus.

The appeal of this theory is that it obviates any need to classify the 'difficult fossils' - those specimens that are too similar to constitute a separate species yet sufficiently dissimilar to stretch the profile of the species to snapping point.

A case in point is brain size. Suppose fossil A (H. erectus) has a brain size of 600 cc, while fossil B (undefined) has a brain size of 750 cc. If B is accepted as being H. erectus, how do we treat a third fossil with a brain size of 850 cc?

To avoid this problem, say the single-species proponents, it's easier to have one very wide species.

Except of course this 'wide' species would then spawn numerous sub-species, such as: the Caucasian "Homo erectus georgicus"; the Chinese "Homo erectus lantianensis", "Homo erectus nankinensis", "Homo erectus pekinensis", and "Homo erectus yuanmouensis", the Indonesian "Homo erectus soloensis" and "Homo erectus erectus"; and the French "Homo erectus tautavelensis".

The whole issue of the evolutionary role of Homo erectus, compared to Homo ergaster, will likely remain undecided unless archaeogenetics DNA analysis can help to clarify the situation.

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Latest Dating of Homo erectus

Since skeletal remains of Homo erectus have been found in both Africa and China, dating to 2 million years ago, where did the species originate?

The issue is complicated by the discovery of Stone Age fossils in Dmanisi, Georgia (Caucasus, West Asia), dating to 1.8 mya, that are more primitive than H. erectus.

The answer, according to a 2011 study, goes like this:

Unfortunately, this doesn't account for the fossils found in China, dated to 2 million years ago. Also, the Dmanisi fossils are currently assigned by most scientists to H. ergaster.(!)

Furthermore, the study goes on to say that H. erectus returned to Africa and later moved to Europe - thus explaining the fossils found at Tautavel in southern France.

But how can we be sure that the H. erectus who returned to Africa, then went to France?

Isn't it more likely that the stay-at-home African H. erectus - meaning Homo ergaster - migrated to France?

How are Homo erectus Fossils Dated?

By using a mix of relative and absolute dating technologies. For details, see: Dating Methods in Archaeology.

Upright Man

Dubois believed his 'Java Man' fossil was that of a Stone Age human who could stand and walk with an upright or erect stance, and so christened the species Homo erectus.

Other scientists disagreed, focusing instead on its ape-like features. But Dubois was validated later, when a series of fossils resembling Java Man were found in China, during the late 1920s.

Facts About Homo erectus

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H. erectus Made More Advanced Tools

Homo erectus made better stone tools than earlier species.

Not long after the earliest H. erectus fossils, we see evidence in the archaeological record of several major innovations in lithic technology. They represent the species' most significant contribution to Stone Age culture around the world.

These innovations - which archaeologists call the Acheulean stone tool industry - featured large cutting tools like hand axes, choppers, cleavers and flakes, as well as improvements in flint-knapping techniques.

Comparatively few stone tools made by H. erectus have been discovered in east Asia compared with Africa, West Asia and Europe, but this is probably because many tools were fashioned out of more perishable materials such as bamboo or wood.

See also: History of Stone Tools.

An Early Prehistoric Artist

In terms of conventional rock art, the Lower Paleolithic prior to one million BC, was completely barren.

There was no cave painting or any sculpture.

The only possible exception is the category of strange man-made cup-like hollows found on rock surfaces around the world. Known as cupules, they are believed to have emerged from about 1.6 million BC, although no dates older than 300,000 BC have been recorded so far.

One feels that humans at this point in the Stone Age had little use for, or recognition of, the sort of cave art that would so energize modern humans in later years.

There were plenty of caves and rock shelters, many of which were occupied, but none that we know of were decorated, or used as sanctuaries for ceremony or ritual.

Nor is there any evidence of ochre pigment workshops or ochre use, which means even body painting would likely have been primitive and scarce.

Thus for most of its span, H. erectus focused on creating new styles of tools, which was a form of paleolithic art more suited to its needs.

First Art by H. erectus

The first conventional art created by Homo erectus was the set of mussel shells decorated with zigzags, found in Java, dating to 540,000 BC.

See: Trinil Shell Engravings.

Other Hominins

For more about the chronology of Stone Age painting, relief sculpture and wood carving, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (540,000 BC).

References

(1) "Longgudong, an Early Pleistocene site in Jianshi, South China, with stratigraphic association of human teeth and lithics". Hao L, Chao Rong L, Kuman K (2017). Science China Earth. 60 (3): 452–462.
(2) "Contemporaneity of Australopithecus, Paranthropus, and early Homo erectus in South Africa". Herries AI, Martin JM, Leece AB, Adams JW, Boschian G, Joannes-Boyau R, et al. (April 2020). Science. 368 (6486): 7293.
(3) "How "African" was the early human dispersal out of Africa?". Augusti J, Lordkipanidze D (June 2011). Quaternary Science Reviews. 30 (11–12): 1338–1342.
(4) Kaifu Y, Baba H, Aziz F, Indriati E, Schrenk F, Jacob T (December 2005). "Taxonomic affinities and evolutionary history of the Early Pleistocene hominids of Java: dentognathic evidence". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 128 (4): 709–726.
(5) "L'homme de Tautavel. Un Homo erectus européen évolué. Homo erectus tautavelensis" (Tautavel Man. An evolved European Homo erectus. Homo erectus tautavelensis). de Lumley, M.-A. (2015). L'Anthropologie. 119 (3): 303–348.
(6) "Biochronological framework of Homo erectus horizons in China". Dong, W. (2016). Quaternary International. 400: 47–57.
(7) "Earliest human occupations at Dmanisi (Georgian Caucasus) dated to 1.85-1.78 Ma". Ferring R, Oms O, Agustí J, Berna F, Nioradze M, Shelia T, et al. (June 2011). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108 (26): 10432–10436.
(8) "Early Homo: Who, When, and Where". Antón, S. C. (2012). Current Anthropology. 53 (6): 279.

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