What were the characteristics of Homo erectus? How did he behave? Let’s see.
The human being is an intellectual slave to the great questions that he has asked himself since he can remember: where do we come from? Where are we going? His search is, deep down, what motivates all the science that makes the planet we live on turn.
Perhaps one of the basic answers to such questions is hidden in the land we walk on, compacted under the sediments of time, eluding the naked gaze of those who wander over it without questioning who it is or why it is alive and breathing.
Fossils, stony bones that give silent testimony to what we once were, scream at us about the very nature that we harbor in our genetic code. For this article, a journey will be made many thousands of years ago, in order to meet someone closer than we think: Homo erectus.
Discovering Homo erectus
The erectus ( “standing man”) belongs to the genus Homo , which describes a subset of bipedal primates with bone and designed nervous system ambulation in an upright position, and including the current human (is located Homo sapiens ) . As for homo erectus, it is known that it lived until about 70,000 years ago, although its origin dates back a long time (about two million years).
His first fossil remains were found on the island of Java (Indonesia), and for that reason he was baptized as the “Java man”. At that time it was determined that it must be a species of primate without any connection to the current human being, since the perimeter of its cranial vault did not allow us to infer that the development of its cognitive abilities was even remotely close to ours. For this reason, it was labeled under the scientific nomenclature of anthropopitecus erectus, although as more details were discovered about it, its name was modified until it received the one by which it is known today.
With the passage of time it has been discovered that the fossil remains of Homo erectus can be found in many geographical regions of Asia and Africa, so it follows that it was the first to be able to move much beyond the place where rooted all their ancestors (East Africa). This evidence, along with others that will be detailed throughout the article, were the first to suggest that perhaps it was not just another ape: but that it could be one of the hominids closest to what we are today, an adventurer from prehistory.
What was its appearance?
It is important to note, firstly, that Homo erectus was a species that showed great anthropometric variability, reaching the point of confusing the scientific community for decades (considering that the remains found could really belong to two or more different animals) . All this also extends to the discrepancies between males and females (sexual dimorphism), as they were more pronounced than in the current human. For this reason, in this article we will talk about the average traits in the individuals of the species.
Today we know that the arrangement of its spinal column and its skull allowed it to move bipedally, being endowed with feet whose bony organization is suggestive of the ability to walk upright (for this reason precisely the name with which it was baptized) and even running long distances and hunting while maintaining the same posture. He lived on the ground, and not on trees, at least from what is deduced from his bones.
The remains found in Africa are undoubtedly much smaller than those found in East Asia; in fact, they even received a different name ( Homo ergaster ) that is still used today. This implies, of course, that their skulls were also very different. This enormous variability is undoubtedly one of the distinctive features of Homo erectus and one that has generated the greatest uncertainty for those who dedicated their lives to understanding it as a unified species.
Determining the size of the brain is essential for the knowledge of the intelligence of every living being, since the proportion determined for its relative weight (with respect to that of the body), is the most used and reliable index to make an estimate in this regard. In the specific case of this species of human, skulls with a volume between 700 and 1100 ml have been identified, which places them above the gorilla (600 ml) and close to the human (1200-1500 ml). The average estimated today is 940 ml, inserted in a very low cranial vault that gave it a remarkable capacity for development.
The Homo erectus was also a big, burly being, having agreed that their height could reach 1.80 meters, although it would depend on the conditions in which they lived (resources, climate, etc.) and the presence or absence of some natural predator. They had a strong jaw and no chin whatsoever, with teeth smaller than those of other hominids with which they came to live in African territory (such as Homo habilis or Homo rudolfensis ).
Both brain size and physical size have long been used to explain how they came to be dispersed across this planet, as they necessarily had to enter inhospitable terrain to reach East Asia from the African continent, which required force and intelligence. It has been estimated that their ability to adapt to the environment was very similar to that of the current human being, despite the fact that in this sense there are still many unknowns that remain without their answer.
What were their habits?
The Homo erectus was undoubtedly an animal with a tendency to gregariousness. It lived within small groups, which numbered around 30 individuals, and had a series of differentiated roles that gave the community a clear sense of hierarchy. Their social organization was much more rudimentary than that of today’s human being, which required the experience of a cognitive revolution to be able to support coexistence in large cities, but it is a valuable example of how communality was lived in primitive times.
A very interesting fact about this hominid is that it probably knew fire well, and even used it as a tool to prepare a diet based on meat (as inferred from the bone hypervitaminosis that is usually obtained in the mineral analysis of its femurs), something which contributed to his enormous brain and technological development. And it is that they could also use (lithic) weapons and various instruments, for which a growing sophistication is appreciated, and that allowed a survival that extended far beyond that of contemporary homo.
How could it be otherwise, they achieved access to meat through hunting, for which they organized raids in which a great capacity to collaborate in the achievement of a shared purpose was evidenced. It is also believed that they could prey on those who competed with them for vital resources, or in case of need, join forces with nearby tribes to prey on a larger animal (after which they tended to disperse again). They also acted as scavengers, feeding on the remains of carcasses that other animals left behind.
Although there is much doubt that this homo was capable of producing an articulated language with which to share “symbols” of a verbal nature, it is known that they used trade (without currency) with related tribes, exchanging the necessary resources for their survival.. It is also very likely that the females of each of the groups were involved in this process, which became commercial products in order to increase reproductive capacity and reduce the damage of inbreeding.
Why was it extinct?
The reasons why a species becomes extinct are always diverse, complex and even controversial. In the case that concerns us, it is evident that they had to go through a particularly difficult climatic period, in which the resources they had available to satisfy the most basic need of their bodies: food began to become scarce. And perhaps all this could have happened after the great volcanic eruption of Toba.
This event occurred in the same period for which the end of Homo erectus is estimated (about 70,000 years ago), north of Sumatra (an Indonesian island), and it was a severe volcanic winter that reduced the population of primates and hominids. This moment is considered, in numerous scientific publications, as the most relevant milestone to explain the extinction of many of the species that inhabited the earth at that time, as it entailed dramatic changes in the flora and fauna that they needed for their subsistence.
This incident caused the population of homo erectus (and other species) to be severely decimated, losing around 90% of the total of individuals and breeding pairs. Today it is known that the areas near the sea coasts suffered to a lesser extent the ravages of the volcanic winter (a dense layer of dust that prevented the growth of vegetation globally for about five or six years), since there are very close to those of such an incident that were affected, but in which homo erectus was able to continue its life with absolute normality (thanks to the abundance of fish).
There are also several recent studies that point to the hypothesis that, for reasons still unknown, Homo erectus could begin to neglect the processes through which it made its weapons and tools. This is deduced from the fact that they used precarious materials for them, by deciding not to travel to relatively close places where they could have provided a better raw material, settling for poor manufacturing that could reduce their efficiency in hunting and other activities.
These fundamentally theoretical and as yet uncorroborated models would suggest that “laziness” was a contributing factor to the extinction of a species that harbored the potential to survive the calamity that followed. In any case, on the day that the Lake Toba volcano erupted, human beings faced what was undoubtedly the most tragic page in their long natural history.
- Baab, K. (2015). Defining Homo erectus. 2189-2219. doi: 10.1007 / 978-3-642-39979-4_65.
- Carotenuto, F., Tsikaridze, N., Rook, L., Lordkipanidze, D., Longo, L., Condemi, S. and Raia, P. (2016). Venturing out safely: The biogeography of Homo erectus dispersal out of Africa. Journal of Human Evolution. 95. 1-12. doi: 10.1016 / j.jhevol.2016.02.005.