Week 11-Homo Habilis
whose work we use for todays activity.
Early Transitional Humans
Humans are members of the genus Homo . Modern people are Homo sapiens . However, we are not the only species of humans who have ever lived. There were earlier species of our genus that are now extinct. In the past, it was incorrectly assumed that human evolution was a relatively straight forward sequence of one species evolving into another. We now understand that there were times when several species of humans and even other hominins were alive. This complex pattern of evolution emerging from the fossil record has been aptly described as a luxuriantly branching bush on which all but one twig has died off. Modern humans are that last living twig.
The striking similarities in appearance between the human genus Homo and our distant ancestors, the genus Australopithecus , is sufficient reason to place us both into the same biological tribe (Hominini ). Both genera are bipedal and habitually upright in posture. Humans have been somewhat more efficient at this mode of locomotion. Like gracile australopithecines , early humans were light in frame and relatively short. The evolution of larger bodies occurred later in human evolution. The differences between australopithecines and early humans are most noticeable in the head. Humans developed significantly larger brains and relatively smaller faces with progressively smaller teeth and jaws. In addition, humans became ever more proficient in developing cultural technologies to aid in their survival, while the australopithecines did not.
The immediate ancestors of early humans were most likely late gracile australopithecines. At present, the leading contender for that ancestral species is Australopithecus garhi or possibly Australopithicus africanus.
There may have been one or possibly two species of the first humans living in East Africa–Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis (literally “able or skilled human”). The few rudolfensis fossils that have been found are somewhat earlier, dating about 2.4-1.6 million years ago, while the more common habilis remains are around 2.0-1.6 million years old. Rudolfensis apparently was a bit taller and relatively larger brained on average. However, many paleoanthropologists consider the differences to be too slight to warrant a separate species designation. Some have suggested that rudolfensis were males and habilis were females. As a result, they classify them both as a single species–Homo habilis. That is the approach taken in this tutorial.
The evolution of the genus Homo and the robust australopithecines beginning around 2.5 million years ago coincides with the beginning of a prolonged cooling climate trend in East Africa. It is likely that this significant environmental change was largely responsible for the rapid evolutionary changes among the hominins at that time.
Early transitional human fossils were first discovered in 1960 by Louis and Mary Leakey at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. The Leakeys named them Homo habilis (Latin for “handy or skilled human”) because they apparently made stone tools. Similar fossils were found at East Lake Turkana in Kenya by Richard Leakey’s team of fieldworkers that began searching there in 1969. These latter specimens were named Homo rudolfensis after Lake Rudolf (i.e., the former name for Lake Turkana).
So far, conclusive evidence of Homo habilis has been found only in the Great Rift Valley system of East Africa. However, their ultimate geographic and time ranges may have been somewhat larger. Early transitional human fossils also have been found in South Africa in the caves at Sterkfontein and Swartkrans in apparent association with australopithecines. However, not all paleoanthropologists agree that these fossils should be considered Homo habilis.
Early transitional humans had brains that on average were about 35% larger than those of Australopithecus africanus. In fact, it is beginning with Homo habilis that our ancestors finally had brains that were consistently bigger than those of the great apes. Ajit Varki and his team of geneticists at the University of California San Diego campus have discovered a small genetic difference between humans and apes that may account for the progressive increase in the size of human brains. People, but not apes, have a gene that stops the production of N-glycolylneuramine acid. Using “molecular clock analysis,” the U.C.S.D. researchers determined that this gene entered the human evolutionary line as a result of a mutation 2.7 million years ago. While it is presumed that the australopithecines lacked this gene, there is no direct evidence.
Adult cranial capacity
(range in cm3)
chimpanzees 300-500 australopithecines 390-545 early transitional humans 509-752 modern humans 900-1880
As the early human cranium, or brain case, began to enlarge in response to increased brain size, the mouth became smaller. In comparison to the australopithecines, the early humans had smaller teeth, especially the molars and premolars. This suggests that they were eating somewhat softer foods. However, the body size of Homo habilis was not significantly larger than the early hominins that preceded them. Likewise, the arms of habilis and their australopithecine ancestors were relatively long compared to ours. The modern human body size and limb proportions began to appear with the next species in our evolution–Homo erectus.