Homo habilis vs. Homo erectus

My passion is studying early man, specifically how we became who we are. Is our violence an aberration or part and parcel of survival? No other mammal kills their own, but maybe–as the alpha on the planet–our greatest threat to our survival is our own species, so we’re forced to destroy each other.

What was lacking in H. Habilis that led to their extinction, to be replaced by the big-brained, scrawny Homo erectus? Habilis was preyed upon by species with bigger claws, sharper teeth and thicker skin. Habilis (and my friend Lyta) scavenged their left-overs, in between hiding from the imposing mammals that dominated the Plio-Pleistocene African savanna. But, eventually hiding wasn’t enough and H. erectus took over (we don’t know if they fought with each other or if habilis left ‘with a whimper’).

H. erectus, with his longer lower limbs for running and walking efficiency, his bigger brain especially in the areas for planning and forethought (and speech depending upon whose research you’re reading) was tall, thin, and barrel-chested, hardly daunting in a world of sabertooth cats, mammoth and giant sloths. Yet , it is he who spread from Africa to China, India, the Middle East, Java. It is he–not predator cats or alligators–who developed a highly adaptable culture allowing him to survive a wide range of climates and habitats.

That is the first of their firsts. Want more?

  • first appearance of systematic hunting.
  • first use of fire (though arguably no control of it)
  • first indication of extended childhood (thanks to the helplessness of their infants)
  • first indication of the ability to lead a more complex life (their Acheulian tools were sophisticated, their hunting was planned)
  • first to wear clothing (how else to survive Georgia and China)
  • first to create complex tools and weapons

Their faces were short but wide and the nose projected forward, hinting at the typical human external nose. They had a pronounced brow ridge. Their cranium was long and low and somewhat flattened at the front and back. The cranial bone was thicker than earlier hominids. Remnants show damage from being hit in the head by something like clubs or heavy rocks. Their arms and legs were also robust, with thicker bones and clear evidence of being heavily muscled. The suspicion is they were a more violent species than habilis. Is that why habilis disappeared? The tougher group survived and bred offspring with their thicker, more protective skulls.

You probably remember my friend Lyta is a Homo habilis (see her page). I’ve lived her life through Otto‘s ability to ‘see’ into the past. Where other primates rest when they have enough to eat, she thinks and shares information with her band. Where most mammals sleep when they aren’t hunting, playing or resting, Lyta worked–knapped tools, collected food for a cache, planned. I have come to believe that her survival depended not so much on her physique (which was sorely lacking in that physical time) as what was inside of her: her courage, ability to plan ahead, strength of her convictions, what we call ‘morals’. These are very human traits that can’t be preserved in bones and teeth. I wouldn’t know they existed if not for Otto. I’ve posted an excerpt from that research on Scribd.com (Born in a Treacherous Time).

Homo erectus (note the width of the skull)

Homo erectus--note the width of the skull and the less-protruding snout

Homo habilis skull--not the size of the skull cap (from brow to top)

Homo habilis skull--note the size of the skull cap (from brow to top)

My next project is to determine how man migrated throughout the world. Where did he get the courage? Was he forced out because he couldn’t defend his territory? Or was it wanderlust? Was he a seeker, wanting more for his life? Did he get bored and need to challenge his constantly-growing brain?

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9 Responses to “Homo habilis vs. Homo erectus”

  1. 1 Beth
    October 18, 2009 at 7:49 am


    I was searching for pictures of homo erectus brow ridges to use in my Biological Anthropology class and came across this blog. I feel compelled to note that other mammals do in fact “kill their own”. For starters, I recommend that you read Jane Goodall’s “In the Shadow of Man” for its compelling account of murder and infanticide among chimpanzees. In langurs, infanticide is quite often utilized by males to induce estrous in females following a harem takeover. Outside of primates, off of the top of my head I know that it occurs in lions, too. Based off of my knowledge of mammalian mating strategies, I imagine that it occurs in assorted other mammals, too.

    (Look: someone even wrote a book about it : http://www.amazon.com/Infanticide-Evolutionary-Perspectives-Glenn-Hausfater/dp/0202020223 )

    I understand that it’s easy to romanticise non-human animals and paint ourselves in a more “amoral” light. Alas; it is clear that the precedence for “killing our own” seems to lie very far back in our mammalian heritage.

    • October 18, 2009 at 8:01 am

      Thanks, Beth, for your comments. You of course are correct, though the genus Homo has taken it to new lengths. With our brain’s ability to plan ahead, solve complicated problems, use symbolic thought, comes other more nefarious solutions. I believe it to be the price we pay for being human. It becomes our responsibility to use these skills wisely. Hopefully, our phase of using extreme physical violence (if scientists hypothesize correctly that such aggressive behavior was responsible for the much-thickened cranium of Homo erectus) is over and our extremes will be more along the mental line.

  2. 3 Beth
    October 18, 2009 at 8:37 am

    Yeah, I understand what you were getting at. Langurs did not build the atomic bomb. Heh. I just think it is important to keep in mind that the capability for aggression is hard-wired as a primitive survival mechanism. (Primitive in the evolutionary sense, not in the Lewis Henry Morgan sense. ) Of course I could go into much more specific detail but this is not really the appropriate forum for that.

    On another note, in regards to the cranial thickening of H. erectus, I’m personally hesitant to ascribe “functional” explanations for morphological characters in fossil species. Being especially partial to behavioural/reproductive ecology, I don’t pretend to be an expert in the means of thickness of the cranium in H. erectus versus H. (or A.) habilis. Is it greatly thickened in the former case? I was under the impression that there was a general trend towards thinner crania, so perhaps its thickness is just an ancestral trait that was under “thinning” selection during the course of H. ergaster/erectus evolution.

    Paleontologists are always so divided on that sort of thing; I’m perpetually at a loss when students ask me questions like, “Why were neanderthals short and stocky?” (Another topic where the depth of detail is not appropriate for a blog comment…)

    • October 18, 2009 at 8:57 am

      Now I must pull out a few of my books. I believe I got the cranial thickening from G. Philip Rightmire’s Evolution of Homo Erectus, though his book addresses morphology and not the reasons so much. I believe that came from Noah Boaz and Russell Ciochon’s fascinating explanation in Dragon Bone Hill of Peking Man’s skull. It just made sense to me (especially his comparison with big horn sheep!).

      I agree with your comments on the divided opinions of paleontologists. They have so little to work with, they extrapolate from those few artifacts. That, I see as another so human trait–the ability to solve puzzles when we see such a small part of the big picture.

      • 5 Beth
        October 18, 2009 at 9:15 am

        Yeah; I will go out on a limb and say that I am loathe to place every new fossil find into its own species. Parsimony-wise, that is not the most reasonable way of assigning species names. NSF-wise, it is. ;] One of my professors showed me a cast he had made of a hominin with a very thick jaw and molars approximately the size of the low range of molars in A. afarensis and the high range of molars found in H. erectus.

        …it was a male who died in Philadelphia in approximately the year 1920. He said that he could very easily rebury the jawbone then claim that he found it in association with H. ergaster. Based off of its appearance and measurements, no one would challenge him.

        Interestingly, the same professor has noted that sometimes a bigger fossil sample size makes the answers even MORE elusive. In the case of the miocene apes, the diversity of the fossil record makes a definitive “great ape” family tree very difficult to reconstruct!

        I’ve also read the big horn sheep-esque argument for the cranial thickening, but as I recall there were a few other explanations for it floating around, too. (The longer a theory or hypothesis exists the more papers that are published challenging it, after all. ) There seem to be a dozen hypotheses about human body hairlessness alone. haha.

  3. 6 Gopal Krishan
    July 1, 2016 at 8:25 am

    I think the african and other black races of Homo sapiens were evolved from Homo habilis and Aryans and other white races of Homo sapiens were evolved from Homo erectus.

    • July 1, 2016 at 8:21 pm

      Interesting. I’ve never heard that before.

  4. 8 Ndumiso Sibisi
    July 27, 2017 at 10:36 am

    Is homo habilis a direct ancestor of homo erectus??

    • July 27, 2017 at 7:35 pm

      Yes. Hh is arguably the first in our genus, Homo. Pretty amazing creature.

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