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Homo habilis

Invented Oldowan tool culture
First form of paleolithic art

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Reconstruction of Homo Habilis, an archaic human who may have been the first to develop stone tools
Facial reconstruction of Homo Habilis, the earliest known species of humans. They were commonly thought to have been the first hominin to use stone tools. Image by Cicero Moraes. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

When Did Homo habilis Live?

Homo habilis is a species of early humans that lived during the Stone Age between 2.8 million years BC and 1.6 million years BC.

Australopithecus Ancestors

The evolution of early humans is a story which is still being written and rewritten, as new fossils are unearthed and argued over.

Amazingly, much of the story remains unclear, or based on speculation, or is debated by differing schools of archaeological and paleoanthropological thought.

To begin with, there is no consensus on which is the first species of Homo.

This is because the evolution of Homo sapiens is commonly said to begin with the invention of stone tools - an event previously associated with the species Homo habilis and the Oldowan tool industry.

But recent finds suggest stone tools were in use as early as 3 million years ago, in the hands of Australopithecus afarensis a species of hominins that lived in Africa during the Late Pliocene between 5.3 and 2.5 million years ago. See History of Stone Tools.

On the other hand, some scientists believe Homo erectus (a later species) was the first Homo, and thus prefer to classify Homo habilis as Australopithecus habilis, due to its physical similarities with the australopithecines.

The matter is still being debated, so for the moment we will assume H. habilis remains the first species of humans, albeit with a little brain-wiring DNA help from the earlier Australopithecus genus.

Species of the Australopithecus genus include: A. garhi, A. africanus, A. sediba, A. afarensis, A. bahrelghazali and A. deyiremeda. They were hunter-gatherers and roamed the African continent from present-day South Africa, to as far north as Chad.

Digging Up Hominins

For a short guide to how archaeologists uncover early human species like Homo habilis, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient. For an explanation of archaeological terms, see: Archaeology Glossary.

Did Homo habilis Leave Africa?

Originally, scientists believed that the first human species to migrate out of Africa was H. erectus. Now they are not so sure. Some think H. habilis may have reached Georgia in the Caucasus. We await archaeogenetics test results of any fossil DNA.

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

Handy Man

Homo habilis (nicknamed 'Handy Man') was discovered in 1960-63 by a team of archaeologists led by Louis and Mary Leakey at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. The Leakeys had been digging in the gorge for early hominin remains, for 29 years.

Despite sharing some features with its predecessor, Homo habilis was declared a new species on the basis that it possessed several unique features (including a larger brain) that distinguished it from Australopithecus.

It was christened 'handy man' because it was assumed to be responsible for fashioning the large number of stone tools found in the vicinity of the site.

While well known, the species is poorly defined and sits uneasily with certain fossil finds, such as KNM-ER 1470 and KNM-ER 1813, which have larger and smaller brains than other Homo habilis fossils.

As a result, fossil remains originally classified as Homo habilis have been split into two cohorts.

One cohort retains the name Homo habilis (or Australopithecus habilis).

The other, which consists of fossils with larger-sized brains and larger teeth, has been reassigned to a different species, but there's a problem! Scientists can't agree whether it should be named Homo rudolfensis, Australopithecus rudolfensis or Kenyanthropus rudolfensis.

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Facts About Homo habilis

Homo habilis: Creator of Stone Tools

How are Homo habilis Remains Dated?

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

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The First Prehistoric Artist

There can be no doubt that H. habilis is among the earliest human artists. The creation of stone tools is an undeniable form of paleolithic art, even if it does not compare with conventional cave painting or rock engraving for which the Stone Age is best remembered.

In addition, the creation of hammerstones would eventually enable the creation of cupules, a unique type of rock art which scientists are still trying to understand.

But all this lay in the future. Cupule markings began during the middle period of the Lower Paleolithic, around 1.6 million years ago, so Homo habilis was not involved, except indirectly as a tool-maker.

There was also no tradition of cave art, despite the fact that human occupation of caves in Africa - such as Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa's Kalahari Desert - stretches back 2 million years ago.

Who Succeeded Homo habilis?

While archaeologists accept that H. habilis is the ancestor of Homo erectus, recent discoveries of a 1.4 million-year-old H. habilis fossil (KNM-ER 42703), and a 1.55 million-year-old H. erectus fossil (KNM-ER 42700), at Ileret, Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, show that prehistoric 'ancestry' is not a straightforward concept.

In this case, instead of evolving in sequence, one after the other, these two species co-existed in East Africa for almost half a million years.

Other Hominins

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

References

(1) "Evidence for stone-tool-assisted consumption of animal tissues before 3.39 million years ago at Dikika, Ethiopia". McPherron, S.P.; Alemseged, Z.; Marean, C.W.; Wynn, J.G.; Reed, D.; Geraads, D.; et al. (August 2010). Nature. 466 (7308): 857–860.
(2) "Did early Homo migrate "out of" or "in to" Africa?". Wood, Bernard (28 June 2011). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 108 (26): 10375–10376.
(3) "Magnetostratigraphy and cosmogenic dating of Wonderwerk Cave: New constraints for the chronology of the South African Earlier Stone Age." RonShaar, AriMatmon, Liora K.Horwitz, Yael Ebert, Michael Chazan. Quaternary Science Reviews. Volume 259, 1 May 2021, 106907.
(4) "Early Homo: Who, When, and Where". Antón, S. C. (2012). Current Anthropology. 53 (6): 279.

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