Hominids: Traits, Diet & Behavior

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  • 0:02 What's a Hominid?
  • 1:20 Traits
  • 2:51 Diet
  • 4:10 Behavior
  • 6:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jayne Yenko

Jayne has taught health/nutrition and education at the college level and has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will help you to better understand hominids. We'll discuss the characteristics, diet and behavior of hominids, in order to give you a better idea of what this species is like.

What's a Hominid?

Let's take a journey into the past! What do you think it would be like to be an ancient human? What would it be like to be the first person to use tools?

A hominid is any human-like species, who is Bipedal (walks on two legs) and is intelligent (has a large brain and uses tools). The only living species of hominids is modern man or homo sapiens. Homo means man; sapiens means relating to man, or wise man, in Latin. The extinct species of homo and the extinct genus Australopithecus are also part of the hominid family. We will focus on the Homo species of homo habilis, homo erectus, homo neanderthalensis and homo sapiens in this lesson.

Chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans are considered modern apes, but they are not bipedal, and their brains are not as large as ours, so they are not technically hominids. They do not make tools, although some may use them. Chimpanzees are closely related to hominids, however. Let's take a look at what makes hominids, hominids.


The two main characteristics of hominids are bipedalism and big brains. The brain case, or the skull, has increased in size over time to allow for the enlargement of the brain. It has also changed shape. The skull now has more forehead and a rounder shape. There is less separation between the brain and the face. The face has gotten flatter, the nose is less of a snout and humans have small teeth and jaws in comparison to the modern apes. Big brains allow for more learned behavior, such as using tools.

All hominids are able to walk upright. The human anatomy has had to adjust in a variety of different ways to accommodate walking up-right. The foramen magnum, which attaches the spinal cord to the brain, is at the bottom of the skull, rather than at the back. This allows hominids to see straight ahead.

The vertebrae of hominids vary in size from the top of the spine to the bottom. They are smaller at the top and larger at the bottom. The spine of hominids also curves, which helps to support the weight of the body, in an upright position.

The femur, which is the thigh bone in hominids, is angled towards the knee, which stabilizes the body in relation to gravity. Bipedalism can make it hard to balance and humans often fall, particularly when they're elderly. It can also cause back pain.


Hominids started out as herbivores, eating mostly coarse, tough food that needed a lot of chewing. As the diet began to include small animals and cooked food, the teeth and jaws became smaller and smaller over time. By the time Neanderthal man came on the scene, hominids had become omnivores, eating a variety of foods, such as fruit, leaves, seeds, nuts, grains and meat. The Neanderthals introduced cooking. Eating cooked foods does not require the large teeth and jaws to chew. Aren't you glad we have cooked food?

Hominids developed hunting skills for a broad range of prey. They chose to hunt small, medium and large size prey, in addition to fishing for fish and shellfish. homo habilis generally scavenged its food from carrion, meaning dead animals, and used tools to cut off hunks of meat. Unfortunately, home habilis didn't use tools for defense, and it was a favorite food of large predatory animals of the time, such as dinofelis (which means terrible cat), a cat the size of a jaguar. Homo erectus hunted his food in groups and was able to bring down large animals, such as the wooly mammoth.


There are four general areas of behavior that are common to hominids. These are:

  • The ability to use tools
  • Social dynamics
  • Capability for language
  • Aggression

Homo habilis, who lived from 2.33 to 1.44 million years ago, is called the handy man by anthropologists due to their use of tools, particularly stone flakes.

Homo erectus (meaning upright man), who lived from 1.9 million to 143,000 years ago, used tools extensively as well as fire. There is some evidence that homo erectus built rafts to travel over water. Anthropologists don't know if homo erectus cooked its food, although we do know that it ate meat. You can finally get warm now.

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