an imaginative look a palaeolithic life

Call to rename all species of human

Biology teachers: no-one cares about our sanity

Biology teachers: no-one cares about our sanity

It is very important to be traditional and true to the classical system of binomial nomenclature of species, and renaming of species should never be taken lightly. However, there’s clearly a problem with the names of human species if a high school biology teacher can’t even say some of them without her class erupting into gales of laughter. While Homo sapiens probably does deserve a ridiculous name, it’s really not fair that others such as poor Homo erectus have such utterly ludicrous names, when they’ve had no say in the matter whatsoever.

So let’s begin. Firstly, the genus name Homo. Well if you are a native English speaker and haven’t spotted the problem, then you must be a hermit or something. Homo is Latin for man, a perfectly reasonable name, were it not for the fact that the word “homo” is also slang in almost every dialect of English for a particular sexual preference that is probably only applicable for 3-10% of the species. A good genus name, however, should contain no sexual innuendo at all, if for no other reason than to preserve the sanity of high school biology teachers.

So it was onto Google Translate that I ventured in the search for a new genus name for humans. However, it transpires that Google translate seems to think that “Homo erectus” translates as “a seahorse”. Clearly whoever compiled the database for Latin was having a laugh at poor H. erectus’s expense. Is this really how we treat our fellow human species? Honestly? Giving them a name that couldn’t possibly contain any more homoerotic innuendo if all the gay comedians in the entire world had been the sole attendees at a conference on what to name them, and then accusing them of being seahorses?

Well anyway, with no other resources for translating between Latin and English, I was stuck with Google translate. The only human species it translated correctly was Homo habilis. Even Homo neanderthalensis it translated as “man neanderthalensis” and not “Neanderthal man” or “man from Neanderthal”. But it was all I had.

Alternative translations for man/human included “humana” and “vir”. Frankly they’re boring and the latter applies only to men and not women, so I decided to look at Greek instead. Greek for human/man is “anthropos”. This sounds much flashier and has the added advantage of being completely free from homoerotic innuendo. So, Anthropos it is then.

Now. Onto species names. Firstly, Homo sapiens, or as they would now be known: Anthropos sapiens. The issue I have with the species name is that it means “wise”. For a species that regularly craps in its own drinking water, destroys rainforests that provide it with oxygen to breathe and builds weapons powerful enough to wipe out the entire species and possibly all life on earth, they are the last species in the entire universe that deserves to be called “wise”. And to cap it all, they insist on using sapiens as their subspecies name as well, thus naming themselves “wise, wise man”, as if saying it once wasn’t quite enough to convey the desired illusion. What’s Latin for arrogant and pretentious? Anthropos arrogans maybe, or Anthropos ambitiosior.

It’s not really fair to give all of Homo sapiens a name like that though, because there’s Homo sapiens idaltu, an earlier subspecies who didn’t damage the environment or build nuclear weapons. So perhaps we’ll leave arrogans for our subspecies, and find another name for our species.

One of the hallmarks of our species, our evolutionary niche, is our ingenuity and adaptability. Our toolmaking ability outstripped the Neanderthals, because they were stuck in a cultural rut, unwilling or unable to get the hang of post-Mousterian culture and technology. So maybe our species should be called Anthropos ingeniosa: “ingenious humans”. We are ingenious; I mean it’s very clever and inventive to use radioactive elements to create weapons of mass destruction that could eradicate all life from the entire planet. Just that it’s not wise by any definition of the word.

So, our subspecies should be called Anthropos ingeniosa arrogans, and the subspecies formerly known as Homo sapiens idaltu, can now be called Anthropos ingeniosa idaltu. Idaltu, the word for “first born” in the language of the country where the fossil remains were found, for once is a fitting and good name which sounds good too.

Now, onto other species of humans. First, Homo habilis. Handy man. Well I can kind of see it but it’s a bit… weird. And a little on the innuendo side, especially for year 9 science classes, who will spot even the most subtle innuendo a mile off. I think, seeing as these dudes (H. habilis, not year 9 students) were pretty good at making flint knives (if you’ve never tried flint knapping, you don’t really understand how difficult Oldowan tools are to make. You may think of them as the epitome of primitive, but primitive does not mean you don’t have to put in a lot of practice to get it right.) As the first human species to be associated with stone tools, I can see the logic behind “handy man”, but I think to honour their skills at flintknapping by calling them Anthropos flintknapper would be better.

Now, onto Homo erectus. Poor Homo erectus with the most unfortunate, dubious, double-entendrous name of all, and no say whatsoever in their nomenclature. It means upright man, originally so-called because scientists believed that they were the first fully bipedal hominids; in fact they believed at the time of discovery of H. erectus that Neanderthals were not fully bipedal and walked on their knuckles or something. So the name erectus kind of makes sense in that context. However given what we know now, it makes no sense at all. Hominids had been walking fully bipedally for millions of years prior to the existence of H. erectus. Australopithecines were fully upright before any human species had appeared and before brains in the proto-human lineage were any bigger than the average chimp’s. So let’s instead look at what H. erectus really did do that was new and special. They had bigger brains, were believed to be the first hunter gatherers, and in my opinion the most striking thing about them was that they are believed to be the first to have controlled use of fire. Thus the name “firestarter” would be more appropriate. Anthropos firestarter. That’s a much, much better and more fitting name than Homo erectus. It’s also possible that they were the first humans to dance around campfires to the beat of sticks upon rocks or feet upon the ground, so they probably would rather like the Prodigy song that the uneducated would associate them with.

Homo ergaster next. Some say this is just a slightly earlier subspecies of H. erectus/A. Firestarter; others disagree, but as it currently has its own name it can have its own name in my new system too. Ergaster means “workman” – probably a name better suited to H. habilis/A. flintknapper, but to avoid confusion we won’t use it for A. flintknapper. It’s believed by some palaeoanthropologists that H. ergaster was the first one to have human-like speech, so Anthropos interlocutor would be a good name for this species. If indeed it’s merely a separate subspecies, then it can be Anthropos firestarter interlocutor, while the later, non-African subspecies can be Anthropos firestarter firestarter.

Onto Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis… their species names are far from stupid, being named after places where significant fossils were found. I’m inclined to keep the species name neanderthalensis, because everyone knows the Neanderthals, and it’s kind of a cool name, although it has been associated with all things primitive and outdated, and also with fanatical palaeo dieters who claim to want to eat and exercise like them despite their lack of access to woolly mammoths. So maybe they need an image revamp.

What was significant about the Neanderthals, was that they hunted huge animals with close range weapons. So much so that at least one palaeoanthropologist has done a study on how they have the same injury patterns as rodeo riders. Most male Neanderthal skeletons show evidence of broken bones and they generally didn’t live past age 35. It seems that they were the adrenaline junkies of human genus and it probably should not come as too much surprise that they died out. I think, therefore, that the name Anthropos temerarious would be quite appropriate. And if there are any palaeoanthropologists who feel that they are a subspecies of our own species rather than a separate species, then they can be Anthropos ingeniosa temerarious.

Homo heidelbergensis seems to have been the first species to bury their dead, or at least throw them in a big pit in a natural cave system. But there was some evidence of ritual disposal of the dead, not simply dumping them in a pit as a convenient way to not have corpses lying around. It’s highly likely that they had an awareness of life and death, and this may well mark the beginnings of religious consciousness and belief in an afterlife. So Anthropos psychopomp would be a great name for this species.

Next, the “Hobbit” or Homo floresiensis… this species is nicknamed “hobbit” after Tolkien’s race of people who are half the size of regular people. How this could possibly have been overlooked when naming the species, when there was this entire goldmine of Tolkienesque literary references to be plundered, and the fact that a boring, geographical was name chosen instead is beyond belief. Anthropos hobbit, Anthropos halfling, Anthropos shire-ensis, Anthropos frodo… so much potential that I’ll find it very, very hard to choose. I’m sure Tolkien would be gutted that he wasn’t alive to see the discovery of this species. It needs to be the name for a rougher, more hardy kind of hobbit, one that would be happy dwelling in the woods or in a cave. From the descriptions of all three main groups of hobbits; harfoots, fallohides and stoors, the harfoots dwelled in woods in holes in the ground, and are closest related to dwarves who lived underground. So for the Flores Island hobbit, maybe Anthropos harfoot would be the best name.

The Denisovans are such a recent discovery and so little is known about them. In fact all that is really known about them is that they lived in a cave in Densiova in southern Siberia, and that they had sex with Homo sapiens. Thus that it’s hard to think of a fitting name for them (or at least not one that is free from sexual innuendo), and apparently they don’t have a binomial name yet, as all they have is a few finger bones whose DNA matches neither modern humans nor Neanderthals (I mean Anthropos temerarious.) So until we know more about them, they can be known as Anthropos enigma.

So, here’s a summary of the new names:

Homo sapiens sapiens: Anthropos ingeniosa arrogans

Homo sapiens idaltu: Anthropos ingeniosa idaltu

Homo floresiensis: Anthropos harfoot

Denisovans: Anthropos enigma

Homo neanderthalensis: Anthropos temerarious (or Anthropos ingeniosa temerarious)

Homo heidelbergensis: Anthropos psychopomp

Homo erectus: Anthropos firestarter (or Anthropos firestarter firestarter)

Homo ergaster: Anthropos interlocutor (or Anthropos firestarter interlocutor)

Homo habilis: Anthropos flintknapper

Edit: ever since I wrote this, whenever I hear “Firestarter” by the Prodigy, I imagine Homo erectus dancing round a fire he or she just lit chanting “I am the firestarter! Clever firestarter!” (lyrics changed a little to reflect the fact that Homo erectus would likely have had a much simpler language than Homo sapiens.)


picture: image courtesy of Michel Marcol /


2 responses

  1. Henry Gomm

    Whilst I understand this from the point of view of a high school teacher, is it really fair to deprive future generations of school children the fun to be had learning names such as “Homo Erectus”? If this catches on, we will also need a new name for Uranus, for example – and my personal favourite, as a first year chemistry student, the Wayne Kerr Impedance analyser that measures conduction in Seimens!

    April 22, 2013 at 19:33

    • I can see your reasoning, however planets and impedance analysers are not sentient beings so can’t possibly object to having amusingly ridiculous names. Homo erectus people had feelings and might not have appreciated being called something like “Homo erectus”. (Although it’s possible, given that they were pretty much like Homo sapiens but with less cranial capacity, that they would have found it as amusing as school children do… but they are no longer around to be asked their opinion), plus they are our ancestors… is this really how a species that calls itself wise should pay homage to its ancestors…?

      April 30, 2013 at 17:55

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