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Homo Erectus: Definition, Characteristics & Discovery

Homo Erectus: Definition, Characteristics & Discovery
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  • 0:01 Definition of Homo Erectus
  • 0:38 Human Family Tree
  • 1:33 Place in Out Family Tree
  • 2:44 Characteristics of…
  • 3:54 Discovery of Homo Erectus
  • 6:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nicholas Gauthier
Homo erectus is one of the most intriguing members of our family tree. Alive and walking the land a mere 150,000 years ago, H. erectus left his mark across two continents. Explore the nature of one of our closest of kin.

Definition of Homo Erectus

We humans call ourselves Homo sapiens. Homo erectus is a fellow member of our own genus. Alive from 1.89 million years ago to 143,000 years ago, he was the first to leave Africa and the first to master the use of fire. Known in Africa as Turkana Boy, in China as Peking Man, and in Indonesia as Java Man, H. erectus had a wide variety of forms.

We will take a look at the different forms of Homo erectus, but first we will locate his place on our family tree.

The Human Family Tree

Humans are just one ape on the primate family tree. We, along with the other apes, split off from chimps around six or seven million years ago. After that, various upright walking apes from several genera evolved. All of the upright walking species, including us, are called hominids, from family Hominidae.

We are Homo sapiens, belonging to the genus Homo. There are several extinct members of genus Homo. One is Homo neanderthalensis, with whom we have interbred, while another is Homo habilis, who was known for being one of the early stone tool users.

The hominids in the family tree shown here are grouped by genus, or by related genera in the case of the earliest grouping. The exact relationships between these species are not well understood.

The family tree of hominids. There are doubtless species that remain to be discovered.
Human Family Tree

Homo Erectus' Place in Our Family Tree

While we do not know for sure what all the relationships are between different members of the human family tree, what follows is reasonable conjecture.

Among the Australopithecines, Homo erectus' immediate ancestor seems to have been either Australopithecus africanus or a species very much like it. Africanus gave rise to genus Homo, most likely Homo habilis. Habilis is an early Homo species who was named for being a tool maker, or handyman. Habilis then gave rise to erectus. From there, Homo erectus migrated across Africa and then into Asia, going as far as China and even Indonesia.

Now here's where it gets really interesting. While Homo erectus continued to thrive in several populations until at about 143,000 years ago, at least one erectus population continued to evolve. That population gave rise to Homo heidelbergensis, which then gave rise to Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis separately.

Characteristics of Homo Erectus

So, what are some characteristics of Homo erectus?

Homo erectus had a brain size approaching that of modern humans. Averaging just under 1,000 cubic centimeters, this brain actually reached the lower limit of modern human brain size. Erectus was also the first human species to have a wide, fleshy nose. The face was flat and the skull had prominent ridges over the brow.

A reconstruction of a male Homo erectus.
Homo erectus male

Homo erectus had shorter arms, which were a departure from Homo habilis and Australopithecus, indicating that tree-climbing ability had finally been lost. The longer legs were better suited to running and walking long distances - a trait that doubtless helped Homo erectus migrate into Asia. Ranging from 4 foot 9 inches to 6 foot 1 inch and from 88 to 150 pounds, Homo erectus was the first ancestor to approximate modern humans in size. In fact, except for the brow ridges and smaller brain, Homo erectus was perhaps the first species that we might consider to be essentially human.

How Homo erectus might have looked.
Homo erectus

Discovery of Homo Erectus

Homo erectus was possibly the first hominid to use fire. This may have helped them migrate and adapt to different climates in parts of Asia. They also made complex stone tools, a technique which they passed on to succeeding generations for more than a million years.

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