A105 Lectures 22-25 November 19-24 & Dec 1-3 1997:

Homo erectus and the Acheulian

Homo erectus

Early Homo would have needed a reliable source of both calories and protein to support the growth and development of their relatively large brains. The appearance of the first Homo erectus specimens in East Africa, at Lake Turkana, dated to 1.8 million years ago, makes this even more likely, since these guys had larger brains (850cc+) than previous Homo, as well as smaller , more gracile faces, smaller molars, and smaller chewing muscles, suggesting a soft, high-quality diet.
They were also big, and the Nariokotome skeleton from West Turkana (WT 15000) (often called Homo ergaster) was very strong, yet tall and thin, adapted for staying cool while walking long distances in hot, dry climates. The brain size of these early Homo erectus individuals was so large, and their hips so narrow, that they probably gave birth to very immature offspring, compared to earlier hominids. Note that apes and all other animals give birth to infants with 50% of adult brain weight, whereas modern human babies are born with brains only 25% their adult size. Nariokotome boy's girlfriend could not have given birth to an infant with a brain more than 30% its adult size... suggesting a very dependent offspring. Additionally, the sexual dimorphism in body size and skeletal morphology seems much reduced in these early H erectus individuals, suggesting that they were less involved in physical competition for mates... Perhaps they used their brains, rather than their brawn, to win over the opposite sex? Some anthropologists feel that this is evidence for pair bonding mating patterns in Homo erectus, which would fit neatly with the home base & food sharing interpretation of early sites proposed by Glynn Isaac.

New technologies of Homo erectus:

Between 1.8 and 1.5 million years ago, Homo erectus continued the Oldowan technology of its predecessors. But around 1.5 million years ago we find evidence for a new type of stone tool technology, called the Acheulian:

  • new stone tools called bifaces (cleavers and handaxes), which are large bifacially flaked core tools that could have served both as sources of small flakes, and as large cutting tools. They are very effective butchery tools, and continue to be made for over a million years. Sites with handaxes are called Acheulian technology sites, named after the site of St Acheul in France where handaxes were first described in the 19th century. We discussed, in class, the innovative technology and utility of handaxes.

Homo erectus is the first hominid to leave the African continent and colonize parts of southern Europe and Asia. Current evidence makes it likely that this had occurred before 1.5 million years ago (before Acheulian technology was invented), perhaps explaining why many early Eurasian sites contain only Oldowan-style core and flake tools, rather than handaxes. If you are interested, you can read an online article by Roy Larick and Russ Ciochon that discusses this evidence.

Some examples of early sites discussed in the book and/or highlighted in lecture include:

  • sites in Java (e.g. Sangiran) : Homo erectus skulls, dated to between 1.8 and 1.6 mya
  • sites in China (e.g. Longuopo): early Homo mandible fragment and pebble tools and flakes dated to between 1.8 - 1.5 mya
  • site in Georgian Republic (Dmanisi): Homo erectus mandible and flake and chopper tools dated to ~ 1.5 my

An interesting question: since australopithecines never made it out of Africa, what did H. erectus have that they didn't? Possible suggestions:

  • physiological advantages (e.g. stature, stamina)
  • greater intelligence (planning ahead?)
  • social advantages (e.g. cooperative social groups / foodsharing?)
  • ecological flexibility (e.g. could use tools to get wider range of foods?)

They clearly could get significant amounts of animal foods. Could they HUNT? What would archaeological evidence of hunting look like? Most early sites, with bits and pieces of animal remains, could just as easily have been scavenged.

  • Olorgesailie (Acheulian site in Kenya 1.0 - 0.5 my) ... a series of sites buried in lake margin and stream sediments at the foot of a volcano, preserve lots of handaxes, and also good evidence of butchery (e.g. smashed hippo bones associated with stone tools)... plus a site with the remains of over 50 giant gelada baboons associated with handaxes and other stone tools.... suggesting either that this was some type of mass kill site, where a troop was surprized and killed off (which would be evidence for cooperative hunting), or a site where baboons were regularly killed. (Remember that chimpanzees not only hunt, but they hunt cooperatively, using ambush techniques...)
  • Boxgrove site (Acheulian site on coast of southern England 0.5 million years old) with evidence of spear wounds and cutmarks in eyeballs... suggest killing and butchering complete carcasses (Read a synopsis by the excavator)
  • wooden spears recently recovered from Acheulian site in southern Germany 400,000 years old

Evolution and spread ofHomo erectus into "archaic" Homo

Between 1.8 million years ago and 200,000 years ago, we find fossil evidence of robust, large-brained descendents of early Homo erectus in many different regions of the Old World. The overall trend is similar on all the major continents, although there are some interesting differences between regions. Entire period is characterized by Acheulian technology.


Early fossils of Homo erectus (also known as H. ergaster), such as the Nariokotome Boy, are followed by fossil specimens that have larger brow ridges, robust face, long skulls with low foreheads, and brain sizes that average around 1200 cc (so they fall within the modern human brain size range). Some researchers refer to these specimens as "archaic" Homo , because of their large brain size but robust shape. Others now include them in a species called Homo heidelbergensis. Examples of these later fossils illustrated in lecture include:

    • a skull from Bodo, Ethiopia, dated to 600,000 bp, which is unique because cutmarks show that it's face was defleshed.
    • a skull from Kabwe Cave, Zambia, dated to around 250,000 b.p., which demonstrates that these robust populations lived in Africa for almost half a million years


Homo erectus fossils have been found at several early sites in Java, with dates between 1.6 and 1.8 million years ago. The first "Java Man" fossils were identified as Homo erectus by Eugene DuBois at the end of the 19th century. Recent arguments have been made that some of the Homo erectus fossils from Java date to only 30,000 years ago (which would mean that H. erectus survived on these islands long after modern humans had colonized the area), but this claim is still very controversial. H. erectus fossils have also been found at several sites in China, such as the "Peking Man" specimens from Zhoukoudien Cave, dating to close to 500,000 years ago. These specimens of H. erectus have smaller brains sizes (averaging 1100 cc) and longer, skulls that are narrower behind the brow ridges than the "archaic" fossils from Africa and Europe.

A good example of a larger-brained "archaic" Homo (or H. heidelbergensis) is the skull from the site of Dali, China, which has a prominent brow ridge, small face, more rounded skull, than the earlier H. erectus fossils (still has a small brain size of ~1100cc) and dates very late, to about 200,000 bp.

Current debate focuses on whether "Dali Man" was a direct descendent of earlier Asian H. erectus, or descended from western archaics who migrated into the area.


Classic H. erectus has never been found in Europe. The earliest human fossils come from the early levels of the Gran Dolina cave site from a fossil locality in Atapuerca, Spain, in levels with reversed paleomagnetism, and thus older than 780,000 years ago. These early Atapuerca specimens look like the archaic Homo populations of Africa, with very big brows and brain sizes averaging 1200cc. Other good examples of archaic Homo (H. heidelbergensis) populations in Middle Pleistocene Europe that were illustrated in lecture, or in your text, include

    • Petralona
    • Steinheim
    • Arago

Later levels from the "Pit of Bones" site at Atapuerca, Spain, dating to around 300,000 bp, contain over 30 individuals of archaic Homo populations with very large brains (ranging from 1100-1400cc), that also have features shared with later neanderthal populations in Europe. This suggests that populations of Homo that invaded Europe by 1 million years ago, stayed, adapted to the fluctuating Ice Age conditions of these northern areas, and eventually evolved into neanderthals, biologically adapted and specialized for life in the region. These were the folks who lived at sites like Boxgrove, England, discussed in the lecture before the second midterm exam.


The last of the archaic populations of Homo lived in W. Europe, E. Europe and Near East after 200,000bp, surviving until at least 35,000 bp (the youngest date associated with a neanderthal fossil). Examples of sites discussed in text and lecture/video: Gibralter, La Ferrassie, Shanidar, Tabun, Kebara. There is a current, unresolved debate about whether neanderthals were human enough to be included in our own species (Homo sapiens neandertalensis) or put into their own species (Homo neanderthalensis).

Anatomical traits:

  • robust, muscular bodies
  • thick bones (many show physical injuries)
  • distinct features on skull (brow ridge, occipital bun, overall shape)
  • prominent faces, large nose, heavily worn front teeth
  • vocal anatomy could only produce limited range of sounds
  • very big brains (1400-1750cc)

Genetic question:

  • recent DNA testing of a neanderthal bone has shown a large number of differences from modern humans, suggesting to the authors that neanderthals would have been a distinct species from moderns

Cultural context of neanderthals: more questions than answers!

  • deliberate burial of some dead (e.g. Kebara, Shanidar)
  • survival of crippled individuals suggests altruistic care (e.g. Shanidar)
  • adapted to tough environmental conditions in W Europe
  • associated with Mousterian technology
    • tools like scrapers and points made by retouching flakes
    • Levallois core technology... a "mental template" (design) to produce flakes
    • hafting flake tools onto handles or shafts
  • ritual? no art, but possible bone flute found (site in Yugoslavia)
  • evidence for hunting and land-use (discussed in video in lecture and sections)

Early Anatomically Modern Humans:

The earliest fossil evidence for humans that appear anatomically modern has been found in Africa and the Near East, at sites dating to around 120,000 years ago. Some of the African fossil "moderns" have questionable provenience, but recent finds at sites like Klasies River demonstrate that anatomically modern populations were present in sub-Saharan African before 120,000bp. More complete fossil specimens of moderns have been found in the Near East at sites like Skhul and Qafzeh (Israel). Thus, early moderns are contemporaries of the neanderthals, and their territories overlapped in the Near East for over 40,000 years... fossils of neanderthals and moderns are found in neighboring caves.

Anatomical distinction:

  • slender, "gracile" skeleton and thinner skull bones... an anatomy better adapted for warmer environments than the neanderthals
  • much smaller brow ridge, and high forehead
  • skull is short (front to back), with a high, domed appearance
  • face is smaller, tucked under skull
  • prominent chin
  • large brains (average 1400cc) but smaller than neanderthals
  • flexed basicranium creates modern vocal apparatus

Cultural context: Early moderns are associated with the same type of Middle Paleolithic, Levallois technology as neanderthals were. Some archaeologists have argued that archaeological sites suggest early moderns chose different locations for their sites, and used the landscape in different ways, but this is debateable for sites before 40,000 years ago.

The question remains... why did modern humans survive the Ice Ages, while neanderthals, with all their biological specializations for Ice Age climates, go extinct? Many authors think that the development of language by modern humans played a key role, and this is discussed extensively in your textbook.

WWW links to descriptions and images of early Hominid Fossils and Early Archaeology:

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