Natural history of Homo erectus


  • This article is a US Government work and, as such, is in the public domain in the United States of America.


Our view of H. erectus is vastly different today than when Pithecanthropus erectus was described in 1894. Since its synonimization into Homo, views of the species and its distribution have varied from a single, widely dispersed, polytypic species ultimately ancestral to all later Homo, to a derived, regional isolate ultimately marginal to later hominin evolution. A revised chronostratigraphic framework and recent work bearing either directly or indirectly on reconstructions of life-history patterns are reviewed here and, together with a review of the cranial and postcranial anatomy of H. erectus, are used to generate a natural history of the species. Here I argue that H. erectus is a hominin, notable for its increased body size, that originates in the latest Pliocene/earliest Pleistocene of Africa and quickly disperses into Western and Eastern Asia. It is also an increasingly derived hominin with several regional morphs sustained by intermittent isolation, particularly in Southeast Asia. This view differs from several current views, most especially that which recognizes only a single hominin species in the Pleistocene, H. sapiens, and those which would atomize H. erectus into a multiplicity of taxa. Following Jolly ([2001] Yrbk Phys Anthropol 44:177–204), the regional morphs of H. erectus may be productively viewed as geographically replacing allotaxa, rather than as the focus of unresolvable species debates. Such a view allows us to focus on the adaptations and biology of local groups, including questions of biogeographic isolation and local adaptation. A number of issues remain unresolved, including the significance of diversity in size and shape in the early African and Georgian records. Yrbk Phys Anthropol 46:126–170, 2003. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.