Defining Homo erectus

  • Karen L. Baab
Living reference work entry


Pithecanthropus (now Homo) erectus was first recognized as a species by Eugène Dubois in the 1890s from fossils at the Indonesian site of Trinil. Additional finds from Indonesia and then China expanded the morphological, geographic, and temporal bounds of this species, but it was not until 1960 that H. erectus was recognized in Africa. Since that time, H. erectus has become among the best sampled species in human evolution and has also come to include fossils from Eurasia and possibly South Africa. These fossils are united by a shared neurocranial shape and the presence of a large number of discrete traits. Yet, there is considerable variation among and within fossil assemblages, which has been interpreted within the framework of a long-lived and polytypic species by some, and as indicative of multiple species by others. This chapter reviews the morphological features of the skull that serve to define H. erectus, as well as the extent and implications of variation across the fossil hypodigm. Sometimes the smaller and less derived African and Georgian fossils have been assigned to a separate species, H. ergaster. Yet, geometric morphometric analysis indicates that the degree of cranial shape variation for the entire sample (including African, Georgian, Indonesian, and Chinese fossils) is within the range of many single primate species, and the variation between Indonesian and Chinese fossils is of the same magnitude as that between African/Georgian and Asian fossils. Therefore, the single-species model for H. erectus cannot be rejected on the basis of cranial shape. However, not every fossil assigned to this species is a perfect fit, and some of the most recent additions to H. erectus expand the range of variation in directions that are unexpected based on established patterns of intraspecific variation. The analysis of shape has further confirmed that much of the cranial shape variation present within the species is partitioned among circumscribed temporo-geographic groups. Additional work is necessary to better understand the utility of discrete traits for systematic research and their distribution in the expanded Pleistocene Homo fossil record.


Cranial Vault Cranial Capacity Fossil Sample Early Homo Cranial Shape 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I gratefully acknowledge the Editors, Winfried Henke and Ian Tattersall, for the invitation to participate in this edition of the Handbook of Paleoanthropology. Thanks also to the following individuals and institutions for permission to study their collections: Ian Tattersall, Ken Mowbray, and Gisselle Garcia, American Museum of Natural History; Marta Lahr and Maggie Bellati, University of Cambridge; Teuku Jacob and Etty Indriati, Gadja Mada University; Dominique Grimaud-Hervé, Institut de Paleontologie Humaine; Philippe Mennecier, Musée de L’Homme; Mamitu Yilma, National Museums of Ethiopia; Emma Mbua and Idle Omar Farah, National Museums of Kenya; Rob Kruszynski and Louise Humphrey, Natural History Museum; Michele Morgan, Peabody Museum, Harvard University; Alan Morris, University of Cape Town. Grant support was provided by NSF (BCS 04-24262, DGE 03-33415, and DBI 96-02234), and the Leakey and Sigma Xi Foundations; this is NYCEP Morphometrics contribution 90. Would like to propose CR: Gerhard Weber Visual Anthropology and Biomechanics


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyStony Brook UniversityStony BrookUSA

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