Homo erectus is a species on the hominin lineage that appears in the fossil records approximately 1.8 million years ago. Homo erectus is associated with a significant increase in brain size, developments in stone tool technology, and dispersal out of Africa.
The appearance of Homo erectus around 1.8 million years ago marks a significant shift in the hominin lineage (the lineage leading to modern humans after the divergence from the chimpanzee lineage). There is debate among paleoanthropologists as to the unity of Homo erectus as a species and some choose to designate early African fossils as a separate species Homo ergaster. The discovery of five complete skulls at the site of Dminisi, Georgia demonstrates remarkable anatomical variability within a Homo erectus group from a single time horizon leading some paleoanthropologists to identify a series of distinct species (Lordkipanidze et al. 2013). Setting aside debates about the anatomical variability within Homo erectus, the fossils attributed to this taxon possess an increased cranial capacity relative to body size in comparison to all proceeding members of the hominin lineage (Elton et al. 2001).
The first appearance of Homo erectus is dated to approximately 1.8 million years ago at sites in South Africa and East Africa (Antón et al. 2014). By approximately 500,000 years ago, populations of Homo erectus are replaced by derived taxa trending towards modern humans in Africa and Neanderthals in Europe, although the chronology for the end of Homo erectus in Africa remains poorly defined. Based on dates of fossils from Indonesia, it appears that remnant populations of Homo erectus might have persisted in East Asia as recently as 50,000 years ago (Swisher et al. 1996).
There are several major behavioral innovations associated with Homo erectus. The development of shaped tools known as handaxes and cleavers (also called bifaces or large cutting tools) formed by bifacial flake removals begins at about the time of the first appearance of Homo erectus. These tools become increasing refined over time (Chazan 2015). The initial use of fire is dated to ca. one million years ago based on archaeological evidence from Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa, although based on theoretical arguments there is a possibility that already 1.8 million years ago Homo erectus habitually used fire for cooking (Berna et al. 2012; Wrangham 2009). Homo erectus is associated with an expansion of the hominin range outside of Africa across Europe and Asia. The earliest site outside of Africa is Dmanisi, Georgia, dated to 1.8 million years ago (Ferring et al. 2011). Oddly, the dispersal of Homo erectus is not associated with use of handaxes and cleavers and the stone tools found on early sites outside of Africa are restricted to simple flakes and cores. The dispersal of Homo erectus provides evidence of the behavioral flexibility of this species and the ability to adapt to novel ecological contexts. However, there is a consistent tendency for archaeological sites associated with Homo erectus to be near sources of fresh water.
On archaeological sites, stone tools are often associated with accumulations of faunal remains including the bones of large animals such as elephants. There continues to be debate over the question of whether Homo erectus was a hunter or scavenger, although the current data strongly supports the position that Homo erectus was a hunter (Domínguez-Rodrigo 2002). One particularly interesting question is what types of weapons Homo erectus would have used for hunting as there is no surviving evidence for the use of spears before 500,000 years ago. There is also considerable debate about the role of social learning in Homo erectus with most archaeologists agreeing that the production of refined handaxes was a skill transmitted by some degree of learning (McNabb et al. 2004).
With Homo erectus the hominin radiation that saw the diversification of the hominin lineage into multiple contemporary genera comes to an end and genus Homo, represented by a limited number of species, becomes the only surviving genus in the hominin lineage. In a general sense, Homo erectus can be considered ancestral to modern humans, Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Homo floresiensis, although there is considerable question over whether modern humans and Neanderthals share a common ancestor derived from Homo erectus.
With Homo erectus, we see a narrowing of the diversity of the hominin lineage to a single genus, genus Homo, and the spread of this genus across much of the globe. Reconstructing the cognitive capacity and social organization of this unique and distinctive human ancestor is a key challenge in the study of human evolution. Based on the archaeological record, it is clear that Homo erectus was a species capable of both adaptive flexibility and technological innovation.
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