Homo habilis vs. Homo erectus

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

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

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.

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

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

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).

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?

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blogger, Technology in Education featured blogger, and IMS tech expert. She is  the editor of a K-6 technology curriculumK-8 keyboard curriculumK-6 Digital Citizenship curriculum, creator of technology training books for middle school and ebooks on technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.


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Books I’m Reading

Great Science Books

Assembling California
Born On A Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant
The Forest People
Geology Underfoot in Southern California
The Land's Wild Music: Encounters with Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Terry Tempest William, and James Galvin
My Life with the Chimpanzees
Naked Earth: The New Geophysics
Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are
The Runaway Brain: The Evolution of Human Uniqueness
Sand Rivers
The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body
The Tree Where Man Was Born
The Wildlife of Southern Africa: A Field Guide to the Animal and Plants of the Region
The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior: An Autobiography

Jacqui's favorite books »
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RSS Fact and Fiction about Early Man

  • The Old Way: A Story of the First People October 4, 2017
    author: Elizabeth Marshall Thomas name: Jacqui average rating: 4.20 book published: 2006 rating: 5 read at: 2017/10/04 date added: 2017/10/04 shelves: history, early-man review: […]
    Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
  • Ki'ti's Story, 75,000 BC December 11, 2016
    author: Bonnye Matthews name: Jacqui average rating: 4.30 book published: 2012 rating: 5 read at: 2016/12/11 date added: 2016/12/11 shelves: early-man review: […]
    Bonnye Matthews
  • Meeting Prehistoric Man October 4, 2014
    author: GHR von Koenigswald name: Jacqui average rating: 4.00 book published: 1492 rating: 5 read at: 2014/10/04 date added: 2014/10/04 shelves: early-man review: Meeting Prehistoric Man by GHR Von Koenigswald is a journey throughout the world in discovery of early man as paleoanthropologists understood him during VonKoenigswald's time, circa 1950' […]
    GHR von Koenigswald
  • Letters from the Field, 1925-1975 September 13, 2014
    author: Margaret Mead name: Jacqui average rating: 4.10 book published: 1977 rating: 5 read at: 2014/09/13 date added: 2014/09/13 shelves: early-man review: If you didn't read my last week's post, you may wonder why I am so excited about Margaret Mead's eye-opening book, Letters From the Field. Even if you read me last week, you may wonder--I […]
    Margaret Mead
  • The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention January 12, 2014
    author: Guy Deutscher name: Jacqui average rating: 4.17 book published: 2005 rating: 3 read at: date added: 2014/01/12 shelves: early-man, research review: Dr. Deutscher has done a scholarly, thorough discussion on the roots of language, but I believe he started too late in time. I'm of the persuasion that language involves more than the spoken word. I […]
    Guy Deutscher
  • She Who remembers November 3, 2013
    author: Linda Lay Shuler name: Jacqui average rating: 4.09 book published: 1988 rating: 4 read at: date added: 2013/11/03 shelves: early-man review: […]
    Linda Lay Shuler
  • The Runaway Brain: The Evolution Of Human Uniqueness July 25, 2011
    author: Christopher Wills name: Jacqui average rating: 4.15 book published: 1993 rating: 5 read at: date added: 2011/07/24 shelves: science, early-man review: In my lifelong effort to understand what makes us human, I long ago arrived at the lynchpin to that discussion: our brain. Even though bipedalism preceded big brains, and we couldn't be who we are […]
    Christopher Wills
  • The Origin Of Humankind July 25, 2011
    author: Richard E. Leakey name: Jacqui average rating: 3.96 book published: 1981 rating: 5 read at: date added: 2011/07/24 shelves: early-man, history review: If you're interested in man's roots, there are several authors you must read: Birute Galdikas Dian Fosse Donald Johanson GHR Von Koenigsman Glen Isaacs Jared Diamond Ian Tattersell Lev Vygots […]
    Richard E. Leakey
  • Lucy: the beginnings of humankind July 24, 2011
    author: Donald C. Johanson name: Jacqui average rating: 4.11 book published: 1981 rating: 5 read at: date added: 2011/07/24 shelves: early-man, science review: I read this book when I was writing a paleo-historic drama of the life of earliest man. My characters were Homo habilines, but they cohabited Africa with Australopithecines, so to understand the co-st […]
    Donald C. Johanson
  • Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe July 24, 2011
    author: Jane Goodall name: Jacqui average rating: 4.25 book published: 1990 rating: 5 read at: date added: 2011/07/24 shelves: early-man, science review: I have read every book that Jane Goodall wrote. She has an easy-going writing style that shares scientific principals easily with the layman. Probably because when she started, she was little more than a no […]
    Jane Goodall
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