Reconstruction of "Peking Man"

Homo Ergaster/Erectus: Down from the Trees

Living entirely on the ground and the first to venture out of Africa, Homo ergaster/erectus created the most successful tool ever invented by any hominid and may have been the first to live in bands of hunter gatherers and use fire to cook food.

Homo erectus or “upright/standing man” evolved from H. habilis. H. erectus became bipedal at least 3 to 4 million years ago, and first moved out of Africa about 1.8 million years ago.

H. erectus is what biologists call a chronospecies, a species that changes through time. Homo ergaster is the name given to its earlier phase, which lived mainly in Africa; the later Homo erectus lived mostly in Eurasia.

Homo erectus stood upright and had a larger brain than several of its forebears, averaging between 780 to 1225 cc, considerably larger than H. habilis, the first of the genus Homo. Our modern human brain is about 1500 cc. The adult H. erectus was roughly 5 feet tall, with heavy, dense big bones, a large nose and a long, flat skull.

H. erectus was the first early human to venture out of Africa, and spread throughout the Old World. Its body was well adapted for running, with long legs and long Achilles tendons. While earlier hominids spent considerable time in trees as well as on the ground, H. erectus appears to have been fully terrestrial. It travelled for long distances, along the African and Eurasian coasts. The ice age had caused sea levels to drop, which may well have made it easy for groups to obtain food, as they moved along the coasts. Shell fish, and other aquatic food sources, rich in omega-3, iron and other nutrients beneficial to brain development would have been plentiful. H. erectus reached as far as China in the East and Northern Europe in the West.

A recent 2004 study found that a variant of the MC1R gene, which is known to be important for darker skin color, was already present 1.2 million years ago.

This adaptation suggests that by this time our ancestors were well on the way to becoming hairless. The hair on our head remained, since it helped to combat overheating, by shielding the brain from the sun. The loss of body hair is associated with our propensity to sweat, which is an ideal way to regulate body temperature. This was important because, although being upright meant that our bodies were exposed to less direct sunlight, we needed to run long distances in order to hunt large game animals. Losing our body hair helped us lose heat by sweating, helping to enable a diet rich in the proteins needed to fuel our growing brains, which, in turn, set the stage for more and more complex tasks, such as symbolic thought and language.

H. erectus were most likely the first to live in bands organized as hunter-gatherers, which would mean that they were able to coordinate their hunting behavior and most likely had some capacity for language. They cared for their injured relatives; and, as far back as 1.7 million years ago, created the most successful tool ever invented by any hominid: the bifacial hand axe. Known as Acheulean, these stone tools are evidence of our longest-running industry, lasting well over a million years, with examples found from southern Africa to northern Europe and from western Europe to the Indian sub-continent. In a 400,000-year-year old site in Jaljulia, central Israel, archeologists also found flint tools  that were produced using the more complex Levallois technique. Rather than simply hammering until the required shape is achieved, this technique required the maker to accurately conceive the tool within the selected flint core before he began to create it. It indicates that H. erectus had more advanced cognitive abilities than was previously thought.

engraved shell

Engraved shell linked to Homo erectus

A large collection of shells, very similar to each other, dated about 500,000 years old appear to be H. erectus’ shell tools. Some of them have geometric engravings which are thought to have been made by H. erectus. These predate the earliest known engravings found at the Blombos Caves in South Africa by at least 300,000 years!

It is thought that H. erectus were the first to harness fire and cook food. Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, feels this may well have occurred with the earlier Homo habilis and gave rise to H. erectus. He bases his theory on its larger brain and body, smaller gut, jaws and teeth and weaker jaw muscles – changes consistent with a more tender and energetically rich diet of cooked food.

Acheulean stone tools

 

Evidence of our longest running industry lasting well over a million years.

H. erectus spread as far as China and Java. During this time, they shared the planet with other hominids: australopithecines and with two species of Paranthropus all of whom were tool-using, upright walking, big brained hominids.

H. erectus lived nine times as long as our own species, and we don’t known why they eventually became extinct – they were still in China until about 300,000 years ago and possibly, quite a bit more recently, to about 143,000 years ago.

A map of the journey of Homo erectus

Homo erectus began moving out of Africa about 2 million years ago and quickly populated Africa, Asia, and Europe. It’s hypothesized that the beginning of the ice ages about 950,000 years ago split the Homo erectus populations and contributed to their divergent evolution before they died out some 150,000 years ago.

Another hypothesis is that Homo erectus reached the Near East about 125 KYA and from there they moved across Asia and into Europe around 43 KYA in one direction, and east to South Asia, reaching Australia around 40 KYA in the other direction. East Asia was reached by 30 KYA.

hands exchanging an ancient tool

Prehistoric ‘Picnic Spot” From Half a Million Years Ago Found in Israel

Ariel David, Haaretz

Trove of advanced flint tools indicates hominids developed modern thought patterns well before they physically evolved into modern humans.

footprint

1.5 Million-Year-Old Footprints Reveal Human Ancestors Walked Like Us

Megan Gannon, Live Science

In 2009, paleontologists discovered fossilized tracks in Kenya attributed to Homo erectus suggesting similarities to modern human feet. Now, researchers think there were so many similarities: because Homo erectus may have walked like we do today.

etched clam shell

Zigzags on a Shell From Java Are the Oldest Human Engravings

Helen Thompson, Smithsonian.com

Oldest human geometric engraving, made by Erectus on shell tools, predates other examples by at least 300,000 years.

Featured Books

The Gap

The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals

Thomas Suddendorf

A leading research psychologist concludes that our abilities surpass those of animals because our minds evolved two overarching qualities.

Before the Dawn

Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

Nicholas Wade

New York Times science writer explores humanity’s origins as revealed by the latest genetic science.

Related:

Our Hominid Predecessors
Australopithecines
Homo Habilis
Homo Heidelbergensis
Homo Neanderthalensis
Denisovans
Homo Floresiensis
Homo Sapiens

Further Reading

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