Human Species Glossary
This is not a complete list, just the species commonly referred to in the blog, which are also the most well known human species. Australopithcines are in this list even though they’re not technically human.
The dates and some other details in these descriptions may not be totally accurate as I may have misremembered some details and my information may be out of date. Some details are subject to debate (sometimes intense debate) among academics. This glossary should be taken as a rough guide and as giving an overview and introduction. I fully encourage everyone to learn more and/or check up on the details from more academic sources.
If you want to make any corrections or suggestions please leave a comment, I greatly appreciate new information from good, academic sources.
Australopithecines (aka Lucy): Bipedal apes with brains of a similar size to chimpanzees that lived approx 4-2 million years ago. Lucy was an australopithecine (Australopithecus afarensis in fact). They have human-like pelvises and the way their skulls joined to their neck bones indicates that they walked fully upright. They are not considered to be human, but some species are believed to be ancestral to humans, on account of the fact that they walked just like us. Most of them did not make stone tools, although given that chimpanzees use stones and sticks as tools, it’s highly likely Australopithecines did too. One species of them, Australopithecus gahri, did make and use stone tools similar to Homo habilis and is believed to be the direct ancestor of Homo habilis.
Denisovan hominid: This is a species of hominid that was found in a cave in Denisova, in southern Siberia. DNA testing has revealed that they’re not like either modern humans or neanderthals. It has also shown that they interbred with modern humans, and some Asians have 1-6% Denisovan DNA. The cave where the remains were found was also inhabited by neanderthals, although not at the same time.
Homo erectus (aka Java man): A species of human who lived in Asia (and Africa too, if you consider them to be the same species as Homo ergaster), used fire and stone tools, and hunted. From the neck down they were like us but their heads were significantly different, and their brain capacity was smaller. Their stone tools were quite basic. When first discovered, they were called Homo erectus (upright man) because at the time they thought Neanderthals were not fully bipedal. They lived from about 1,800,000-300,000 years ago.
Homo ergaster (aka African Homo erectus): These were humans who were very similar to Homo erectus and believed by a lot of scientists to be the same species as Homo erectus in Asia, just an earlier variety or subspecies. Homo ergaster/erectus in Africa are believed to be ancestral to us, the Neanderthals, Homo erectus in Asia, the Denisovan hominid and possibly also Homo floresiensis. There is a lot of debate about the classification of Homo erectus/ergaster. A fairly complete skeleton of a boy of this species was found in Africa, showing that from the neck downwards they were very like us. Early Homo ergaster probably lived as a scavenger, but over time is believed to have hunted more and scavenged less. There is debate about whether Homo ergaster/African Homo erectus used fire in a controlled way or not. Homo ergaster (considered as distinct from Homo erectus) lived from about 1,800,000-1,300,000 years ago.
Homo floresiensis (aka “hobbit”): A very small human species found on an island in Indonesia, that lived until very recently, thought to have gone extinct around 12,000 or 13,000 years ago. They’re tiny compared to other humans, hence the nickname “hobbit”. They are small due to a phenonmenon called “island dwarfism” whereby small isolated populations become smaller over time. Some scientists believe they’re simply very small Homo sapiens (often said to be pathological, i.e. humans with a genetic condition that makes them and their skull small), but there is a lot of evidence that they in fact are descended from Homo erectus and may even have one or two traits similar to Australopithecines. Put their skulls next to Homo sapiens skulls and Homo erectus skulls, and you’ll see how much they look like Homo erectus.
Homo habilis: These are like Australopithecines but their brains are significantly bigger and they made stone tools. They are considered to be a species of human on the basis of their larger cranial capacity. Like australopithecines, they walked fully upright. Their arms and shoulders were still adapted for swinging from trees and would have looked very ape-like. They lived from approximately 2,300,000-1,400,000 years ago. They are one of the earliest species in the genus Homo, i.e. human, and might be the ancestors of Homo ergaster/erectus.
Homo heidelbergensis (aka archaic Homo sapiens, Homo sapiens heidelbergensis): These humans had bigger brains than Homo erectus and slightly more advanced stone tools than Homo erectus. They are usually considered to be the common ancestor of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Some researchers consider them to be early Homo sapiens, i.e. that they, we and the Neanderthals are all Homo sapiens, just different subspecies. They were tall and heavily built, i.e. someone you wouldn’t want to get into a fight with. They lived in Africa and Europe from about 600,000-300,000 years ago.
Homo neanderthalensis (aka Neanderthals, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis): The Neanderthals were a large brained, cold adapted species of human that lived in Europe and Western Asia from approximately 300,000-30,000 years ago, surviving the harsh ice age climate. They were shorter and a lot more heavily built than Homo sapiens sapiens and extremely strong. Although in common parlance “neanderthal” implies someone who’s primitive, brutish and unintelligent, the Neanderthals were actually very advanced. Their average brain size is slightly larger than our own (1400cc compared to 1350cc) and during the middle palaeolithic era, their culture was equally as advanced as that of Homo sapiens in Africa. They used fire, built hearths and processed animal skins most likely to make things like basic clothes, carrying bags and simple baby carriers. They very likely also made tools from wood, but wood does not survive in the fossil record. They made a range of different stone tools including spear heads, they buried their dead and recent research suggests that cave paintings in Europe may be much older than previously thought, which would mean they were painted by Neanderthals, not Cro-Magnons/Homo sapiens sapiens.
When Neanderthals were first discovered – shortly before Darwin published “Origin of Species” – some early archeologists interpreted their remains in a very ethnocentric light, wanting them to be the “missing link” so they were portrayed as ape-like, brutish, unintelligent and unable to walk fully upright. This inaccurate (and very unfair) image has persisted even until now, despite a ton of archaeological evidence to the contrary. They were a very advanced species of hominid, surpassed only by us. The Neanderthals did not develop or adopt the upper palaeolithic culture of Homo sapiens sapiens who they co-existed with in Europe from about 40,000-30,000 years ago, which included projectile weapons and stitched clothing. They continued to hunt with close range weapons and there’s no evidence of them making or using needles, arrow points etc, which are characterisitc of upper palaeolithic culture. This is possibly part of the reason why they died out and Homo sapiens sapiens survived. There is a lot of debate as to whether the Neanderthals interbred with Homo sapiens sapiens, seeing as they co-existed for about 10,000 years. The genetic evidence says non-African modern humans have up to 4% Neanderthal DNA, so the answer to that is probably (although there’s an alternative explanation that’s too complex for this snippet which was supposed to be short but is already far longer than I intended!) and also there is debate as to whether they’re a different subspecies of Homo sapiens, or another species in their own right.
Homo sapiens idaltu: An early Homo sapiens subspecies, thought to be the earliest Homo sapiens (if neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis are classified as separate species, and not subspecies of Homo sapiens). Homo sapiens idaltu was very like us but more heavily built and they had some archaic features like a heavier brow ridge. They lived in Africa around 160,000 years ago and are believed to be our ancestors. They are thought to have had a similar level of technology to the neanderthals. Idaltu means “first born” in the language of the people in the place in Africa where their fossil remains were discovered.
Homo sapiens sapiens (aka Cro-Magnons, anatomically modern humans): This species is us (give or take a few Neanderthal and Denisovan genes here and there). We came from Africa, spread all around the world, and now live pretty much everywhere other than Antarctica and the bottom of the ocean. The defining anatomical characteristics of our species are a more vertical forehead, pointy chin and a dome shaped cranium. We’re also more gracile (i.e. weaker and skinnier) than other species of human (i.e. we’d lose in a fight with them) but we are the most culturally adaptable, culturally varied and culturally advanced of all humans. Upper palaeolithic culture (which is more advanced than that of the Neanderthals or earlier Homo sapiens) first appeared in Africa around 50,000 years ago, although there is some debate about this and it may be earlier than that. Homo sapiens sapiens spread out of Africa around 40,000 years ago, meeting (and interbreeding with) Neanderthals and Denisovans. We are the only humans to have reached many parts of the world, for example the Americas. All humans alive today are Homo sapiens sapiens (although since the discovery of “Hobbits” (Homo floresiensis) it’s nice to imagine that on some remote island somewhere is another species of human, blissfully unaware of Homo sapiens sapiens and the havoc we have wreaked in the rest of the world.)
Australopithecus: public domain, reconstruction of Australopithecus afarensis
Homo erectus: wikimedia commons, museum reconstruction, photo by Tim Evanson
Homo heidelbergensis: wikimedia commons, reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis in a museum, photo by Jose Luis Martinez Alvarez
Homo neanderthalensis: wikimedia commons, neanderthal reconstruction from a museum in Germany, photo by Erich Ferdinand
Homo sapiens sapiens: Cro-Magnon artists painting in Font-de-Gaume, Charles R Knight, public domain