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Homo ergaster

African Species of Hominin
Creator of Acheulean tool culture

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Homo Ergaster, a controversial but important ancestor of modern H. sapiens
Reconstruction of Homo Ergaster, an important ancestor of modern humans. H. ergaster fossils have been found in Africa and Western Asia. Image by Werner Ustorf. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When Did Homo ergaster Live?

Homo ergaster was a species of hunter-gatherers that lived during the Stone Age between 2 million years BC and 600,000 BC.

Unique Species or African Homo erectus?

Homo ergaster is another species of early humans (now extinct) on which scientists cannot agree.

Some consider it a separate species of Homo who lived in Africa during the Early Pleistocene. Others say it is insufficiently distinct from H. erectus. They regard it as a sub-species, with the title "H. erectus ergaster".

Recent fossil data suggests that Homo ergaster is indeed a separate, cohesive Homo-species.

If this is true, then it would make H. ergaster the ancestor of the Asian H. erectus, and also the ancestor of another group of hominins that ultimately became our own species, H. sapiens.

Whichever classification is correct, the two species co-existed and inter-bred over a period of at least one million years, during the early Stone Age, although their precise relationship in Africa will only be disentangled with high quality fossil data.

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

When Did Homo ergaster Live?

Fossils show that the core group of this species lived during the Lower Paleolithic between 1.9 and 1.4 million years ago, although experts have detected anatomical continuity in fossils from 2 mya to 600,000 BC.

How are Homo ergaster Bones Dated?

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

Where Did Homo ergaster Live?

H. ergaster fossils have been unearthed across eastern and southern Africa, with a heavy concentration in Kenya, around Lake Turkana.

Other important archaeological sites involving H. ergaster include Koobi Fora, Nariokotome, Olorgesailie, Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, the area around Lake Victoria, and Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia.

Turkana Skeleton

It was near Lake Turkana that the famous skeleton (KNM-WT 15000) known as 'Turkana Boy' (or 'Nariokotome Boy') was discovered in 1984.

Approximately 1.5 million years old, the skeleton was 90 percent intact and revealed an 8-10 year old, already 1.62 metres in height (5 feet, 4 inches), whose tall, slender body seemed perfectly adapted for loping across the extensive grasslands of East Africa.

He had an enlarged braincase - the section of skull which encloses the brain, cranial nerves, and some cephalic sense organs - and a more modern-looking facial structure.

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Hunter Gatherer Lifestyle

H. ergaster's more athletic build and larger braincase suggests it performed better than H. erectus as a hunter gatherer and apex predator.

H. ergaster was also likely to have mastered the use of fire, and - as we shall see - introduced the more advanced Acheulean tool industry.

Discovery

The 'type-specimen' for H. ergaster is a lower-jaw (KNM-ER 992) found in 1971 by Bernard Ngeneo in East Turkana, Kenya. Although first classified as H. habilis, it was reclassified as H. ergaster in 1975, because of its lightly built jaw and relatively small size of teeth.

In addition, a number of bones found at Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia (in Eurasia) may be those of H. ergaster.

These Dmanisi fossils are important since they constitute the earliest evidence of Stone Age humans from Africa migrating into Eurasia, some 1.8 million years ago.

They include a skull (D2700) with a brain size of 600 cc; another skull (D2280) with a brain size of 780 cc; and features similar to 'Turkana Boy'.

However, one word of caution: there is no sign of any hand axes (a key characteristic of H. ergaster) at the Dmanisi site, which means that hominins might have dispersed out of Africa even earlier than we suppose.

Perhaps archaeogenetics can shed light on Homo ergaster's evolutionary role.

Digging Up Hominins

For a short guide to how archaeologists find out about human species like Homo ergaster, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient. For a short explanation of archaeological terms, see also: Archaeology Glossary.

The 'Workman' Species

The name Homo ergaster comes from the Greek for 'work', so it means ‘workman’. The species was given this name because of the stone tools recovered from the vicinity of the fossils.

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Facts About H. ergaster

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Homo ergaster & Acheulean Tool Culture

Like all early humans, H. ergaster practiced the type of paleolithic art that served them best - making stone tools.

They were the first human species to develop Mode 2 technology stone tools, around 1.75 mya.

They produced large bifacial cutting tools made from flakes and cores, including hand axes, straight-edged cleavers and pointed picks, using large stone flakes shaped on two sides to give sharp edges.

These stone tools - belonging to the Acheulean tool culture - were a major improvement on the simple stone choppers that Homo habilis had been using for 500,000 years, and represents an important contribution to Stone Age culture.

Microscopic tests show the tools were used in the butchering of large mammals, as well as the processing of animal hides, and woodwork.

See also: History of Stone Tools.

Art During the Lower Paleolithic

Did art exist in the Lower Paleolithic? Answer: absolutely.

Stone tool design is an undeniable form of rock art, even if it cannot be compared with the cave painting or rock engraving of the Upper Paleolithic.

After all, there's little difference in principle, between a young Renaissance painter who paints a portrait for 5 florins, and a Stone Age hunter gatherer who creates a valuable tool for others in his group.

Both learn the creative techniques of their craft before practicing their art for material reward.

Cup-Shaped Markings

Some archaeologists who specialize in extremely old 'art', believe it is almost certain that these markings - known as cupules - were first made around 1.6 million years ago.

Other Stone Age Hominins

For more about the chronology of cave painting and engraving, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (540,000 BC).

References

(1) Walker, Alan, and Richard E. Leakey. "The hominids of East Turkana." Scientific American 239.2 (1978): 54.
(2) Lovejoy CO (1981) "The origin of man". Science 211, 341-350.
(3) Tattersall, Ian (2013). "Homo ergaster and Its Contemporaries". In Henke, Winfried; Tattersall, Ian (eds.). Handbook of Paleoanthropology. Springer. ISBN 978-3-642-39978-7.
(4) Dennell, Robin; Roebroeks, Wil (2005). "An Asian perspective on early human dispersal from Africa". Nature. 438 (7071): 1099–1104.
(5) Blumenschine, Robert J., Ian G. Stanistreet, and Fidelis T. Masao. «Olduvai Gorge and the Olduvai Landscape Paleoanthropology Project.» Journal of Human Evolution 63.2 (2012): 247-250.

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