Homo habilis

Homo habilis is a species of the Hominini tribe, during the Gelasian and early Calabrian stages of the Pleistocene period, between roughly 2.1 and 1.5 million years ago.[1]

Classification as Homo[edit]

There has been scholarly debate regarding its placement in the genus Homo rather than the genus Australopithecus.[2][3] The small size and rather primitive attributes have led some experts (Richard Leakey among them) to propose excluding H. habilis from the genus Homo, and renaming as "Australopithecus habilis".[4]

In its appearance and morphology, H. habilis is the least similar to modern humans of all species in the genus Homo (except the equally controversial H. rudolfensis), and its classification as Homo has been the subject of controversial debate since its first proposal in the 1960s. H. habilis was short and had disproportionately long arms compared to modern humans; however, it had a less protruding face than the australopithecines from which it is thought to have descended. H. habilis had a cranial capacity slightly less than half of the size of modern humans. Despite the ape-like morphology of the bodies, H. habilis remains are often accompanied by primitive stone tools (e.g. Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania and Lake Turkana, Kenya).

Homo habilis has often been thought to be the ancestor of the more gracile and sophisticated Homo ergaster, which in turn gave rise to the more human-appearing species, Homo erectus. Debates continue over whether all of the known fossils are properly attributed to the species, and some paleoanthropologists regard the taxon as invalid, made up of fossil specimens of Australopithecus and Homo.[5] New findings in 2007 seemed to confirm the view that H. habilis and H. erectus coexisted, representing separate lineages from a common ancestor instead of H. erectus being descended from H. habilis.[6] An alternative explanation would be that any ancestral relationship from H. habilis to H. erectus would have to have been cladogenetic rather than anagenetic (meaning that if an isolated subgroup population of H. habilis became the ancestor of H. erectus, other subgroups remained as unchanged H. habilis until their much later extinction).[7]

Its brain size has been shown to range from 550 cm3 to 687 cm3, rather than from 363 cm3 to 600 cm3 as formerly[year needed] thought.[3][8]

Newly published (as of 2015) virtual reconstruction estimated the endocranial volume at between 729 and 824 ml it is larger than any previously published value.[9]

Compared to australopithecines, H. habilis' brain capacity of around 640 cm³ was on average 50% larger than australopithecines, but considerably smaller than the 1350 to 1450 cm³ range of modern Homo sapiens. These hominins were smaller than modern humans, on average standing no more than 1.3 m (4 ft 3 in) tall.

A fragment of fossilized jawbone, dated to around 2.8 million years ago, was discovered in the Ledi-Geraru research area in Afar Regional State in 2013.[10] The fossil is considered the earliest evidence of the Homo genus known to date, and seems to be intermediate between Australopithecus and H. habilis. The individual in question lived just after a major climate shift in the region, when forests and waterways were rapidly replaced by arid savannah.[11]


Skull of Homo Habilis, Indian Museum-Paranthropus boisei to right

OH 62[edit]

One set of fossil remains (OH 62), discovered by Donald Johanson and Tim White in Olduvai Gorge in 1986, included the important upper and lower limbs.[12] Their finding stimulated some debate at the time.[13]

KNM ER 1813[edit]

KNM ER 1813 is a relatively complete cranium which dates to 1.9 million years old, discovered at Koobi Fora, Kenya by Kamoya Kimeu in 1973. The brain capacity is 510 cm³, not as impressive as other early specimen and forms of H. habilis discovered.

OH 24[edit]

OH 24 (Twiggy) is a roughly deformed cranium about 1.8 million years old discovered in October 1968 at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. The brain volume is just under 600 cm³; also a reduction in a protruding face is present compared to members of more primitive australopithecines.

OH 7[edit]

OH 7 dates to 1.75 million years old, and was discovered by Mary and Louis Leakey on November 4, 1960 at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. It is a lower jaw complete with teeth; due to the size of the small teeth, researchers estimate this juvenile individual had a brain volume of 363 cm³. Also found were more than 20 fragments of the left hand. Tobias and Napier assisted in classifying OH 7 as the type fossil.

KNM ER 1805[edit]

KNM ER 1805 is a specimen of an adult H. habilis made of three pieces of cranium dating to 1.74 million years old from Koobi Fora, Kenya. Previous assumptions were that this specimen belongs to H. erectus based on the degree of prognathism and overall cranial shape.


Reconstruction of Homo habilis at the Westfälisches Museum für Archäologie, Herne
Homo habilis - Forensic facial reconstruction/approximation

Homo habilis is thought to have mastered the Lower Paleolithic Olduwan tool set which used stone flakes. These stone flakes were more advanced than any tools previously used, and gave H. habilis the edge it needed to prosper in hostile environments previously too formidable for primates. Whether H. habilis was the first hominid to master stone tool technology remains controversial, as Australopithecus garhi, dated to 2.6 million years ago, has been found along with stone tool implements.

Most experts assume the intelligence and social organization of H. habilis were more sophisticated than typical australopithecines or chimpanzees. H. habilis used tools primarily for scavenging, such as cleaving meat off carrion, rather than defense or hunting. Yet despite tool usage, H. habilis was not the master hunter its sister species (or descendants) proved to be, as ample fossil evidence indicates H. habilis was a staple in the diet of large predatory animals, such as Dinofelis, a large scimitar-toothed predatory cat the size of a jaguar.[14]

Homo habilis coexisted with other Homo-like bipedal primates, such as Paranthropus boisei, some of which prospered for many millennia. However, H. habilis, possibly because of its early tool innovation and a less specialized diet, became the precursor of an entire line of new species, whereas Paranthropus boisei and its robust relatives disappeared from the fossil record. H. habilis may also have coexisted with H. erectus in Africa for a period of 500,000 years.[15]

Evolutionary biologist Jeremy Griffith has drawn parallels between H. habilis and the psychological developmental evolution of modern humans as a manifestation of Ernst Haeckel's theory of ontogeny being a summarised recapitulation of phylogeny, suggesting elements of the phenotype of H. habilis relate to early adolescence (12-13 years of age) in modern humans.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Friedemann Schrenk, Ottmar Kullmer, Timothy Bromage, "The Earliest Putative Homo Fossils", chapter 9 in: Winfried Henke, Ian Tattersall (eds.), Handbook of Paleoanthropology, 2007, pp 1611–1631, doi:10.1007/978-3-540-33761-4_52 This date range overlaps with the emergence of Homo erectus. New York Times article Fossils in Kenya Challenge Linear Evolution published August 9, 2007.
  2. ^ Wood and Richmond; Richmond, BG (2000). "Human evolution: taxonomy and paleobiology". Journal of Anatomy 197 (Pt 1): 19–60. doi:10.1046/j.1469-7580.2000.19710019.x. PMC 1468107. PMID 10999270.  p. 41: "A recent reassessment of cladistic and functional evidence concluded that there are few, if any, grounds for retaining H. habilis in Homo, and recommended that the material be transferred (or, for some, returned) to Australopithecus (Wood & Collard, 1999)."
  3. ^ a b Australian Museum:
  4. ^ Miller, J.M.A. (2000), "Craniofacial variation in Homo habilis: an analysis of the evidence for multiple species", American Journal of Physical Anthropology 112(1): p. 103–128.
  5. ^ Tattersall, I. & Schwartz, J.H., Extinct Humans, Westview Press, New York, 2001, p. 111.
  6. ^ F. Spoor, M. G. Leakey, P. N. Gathogo, F. H. Brown, S. C. Antón, I. McDougall, C. Kiarie, F. K. Manthi & L. N. Leakey (2007-08-09). "Implications of new early Homo fossils from Ileret, east of Lake Turkana, Kenya". Nature 448 (7154): 688–691. doi:10.1038/nature05986. PMID 17687323. 
  7. ^ F. Spoor, M. G. Leakey, P. N. Gathogo, F. H. Brown, S. C. Antón, I. McDougall, C. Kiarie, F. K. Manthi & L. N. Leakey (2007-08-09). "Implications of new early Homo fossils from Ileret, east of Lake Turkana, Kenya". Nature 448 (7154): 688–691. doi:10.1038/nature05986. PMID 17687323.  "A partial maxilla assigned to H. habilis reliably demonstrates that this species survived until later than previously recognized, making an anagenetic relationship with H. erectus unlikely" (Emphasis added).
  8. ^ Brown, Graham; Fairfax, Stephanie; Sarao, Nidhi. Tree of Life Web Project: Human Evolution. Link:
  9. ^ F. Spoor, P. Gunz, S. Neubauer, S. Stelzer, N. Scott, A. Kwekason & M. C. Dean (2015). "Reconstructed Homo habilis type OH 7 suggests deep-rooted species diversity in early Homo". Nature 519 (7541): 83–86. doi:10.1038/nature14224. 
  10. ^ "Oldest known member of human family found in Ethiopia". New Scientist. 4 March 2015. Retrieved 7 March 2015.  Ghosh, Pallab (4 March 2015). "'First human' discovered in Ethiopia". Retrieved 7 March 2015. 
  11. ^ "Vertebrate fossils record a faunal turnover indicative of more open and probable arid habitats than those reconstructed earlier in this region, in broad agreement with hypotheses addressing the role of environmental forcing in hominin evolution at this time." Erin N. DiMaggio EN, Campisano CJ, Rowan J, Dupont-Nivet G, Deino AL et al. "Late Pliocene fossiliferous sedimentary record and the environmental context of early Homo from Afar, Ethiopia". Science. doi:10.1126/science.aaa1415. 
  12. ^ Donald C. Johanson, Fidelis T. Masao, Gerald G. Eck, Tim D. White, Robert C. Walter, William H. Kimbel, Berhane Asfaw, Paul Manega, Prosper Ndessokia & Gen Suwa (21 May 1987). "New partial skeleton of Homo habilis from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania". Nature 327 (6119): 205–209. doi:10.1038/327205a0. PMID 3106831. 
  13. ^ Wood, Bernard (21 May 1987). "Who is the 'real' Homo habilis?". Nature 327 (6119): 187–188. doi:10.1038/327187a0. PMID 3106828. 
  14. ^ Hillary Mayell. "Killer Cats Hunted Human Ancestors". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2008-02-15. 
  15. ^ James Urquhart (August 8, 2007). Finds test human origins theory "Finds test human origins theory". BBC News. Retrieved July 27, 2007. 
  16. ^ Griffith, Jeremy (2011). Freedom. Part 3:11B. ISBN 978-1-74129-011-0. Retrieved March 28, 2013. 


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