Homo erectus

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Homo erectus

Homo erectus (hō´mō ērĕk´təs), extinct hominid living between 1.6 million and 250,000 years ago. Homo erectus is thought to have evolved in Africa from H. habilis, the first member of the genus Homo. African forms of H. erectus are classified by some scientists as H. ergaster. Anatomically and physiologically, H. erectus resembles contemporary humans except for a stouter bone structure. The size of its braincase (850–1000 cc), approaches that of H. sapiens, but the cranial bones are more massive than either those of H. habilis or modern humans.

The material culture of H. erectus was significantly more complex than that of its predecessors, including Achuelian stone tools (see Paleolithic), a variety of tools fashioned from wood and other perishable materials, the use of fire, and seasonally occupied, oval-shaped huts. Evidence of extensive cooperative behavior is abundant in a number of European habitation and hunting sites, including Terra Amata, France, and Terralba and Ambrona, Spain. H. erectus populations occupied these sites seasonally, while pursuing an annual subsistence cycle based on a combination of big-game hunting and the gathering of shellfish and plant foods.

H. erectus dispersed into Asia more than 1.3 million years ago, and into Europe by at least 400,000 years ago. Fossils of this species were first discovered in 1891 by French anatomist Eugene Dubois in Java. The specimen, which came to be known as "Java man," was at first classified as Pithecanthropus erectus.H. erectus remains, originally dubbed "Peking man" (Sinanthropus pekinensis), were also found in China at the Zhoukoudian cave near Beijing in the late 1920s. Heidelberg man (named after the 500,000-year-old remains first found near Heidelberg, Germany, in 1907) was classified by some scientists as H. erectus (and by others as archaic H. sapiens), but is now classified as H. heidelbergensis and considered to be the ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans.

See also human evolution.

See B. A. Sigmon and J. S. Cybulski, Homo erectus (1981); N. Eldredge and I. Tattersall, The Myths of Human Evolution (1982); M. H. Day, Guide to Fossil Man (4th ed. 1984); G. P. Rightmire, The Evolution of Homo Erectus (1990); D. Johanson, L. Johanson, and B. Edgar, Ancestors (1994); C. C. Swisher 3d et al., Java Man (2000); P. Shipman, The Man Who Found the Missing Link: Eugène Dubois and His Lifelong Quest to Prove Darwin Right (2001).

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