Homo erectus (from the Latin ērĭgĕre, "to put up, set upright") is an extinct species of hominid that originated in Africa—and spread as far as China and Java—from the end of the Pliocene epoch to the later Pleistocene, about 1.8 to 1.3 million years ago. There is still disagreement on the subject of the classification, ancestry, and progeny of H. erectus, with two major alternative hypotheses: erectus may be another name for Homo ergaster, and therefore the direct ancestor of later hominids such as Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens; or it may be an Asian species distinct from African ergaster.
H. erectus originally migrated from Africa during the Early Pleistocene, possibly as a result of the operation of the Saharan pump, around 2.0 million years ago, and dispersed throughout much of the Old World. Fossilized remains 1.8 and 1.0 million years old have been found in Africa (e.g., Lake Turkana and Olduvai Gorge), Europe (Georgia, Spain), Indonesia (e.g., Sangiran and Trinil), Vietnam, and China (e.g., Shaanxi).
Discovery and representative fossilsEdit
Dutch anatomist Eugene Dubois, who was fascinated especially by Darwin's theory of evolution as applied to man, set out to Asia (the place accepted then, despite Darwin, as the cradle of human evolution), to find a human ancestor in 1886. In 1891, his team discovered a human fossil on the island of Java, Indonesia; he described the species as Pithecanthropus erectus (from the Greek πίθηκος, "ape", and ἄνθρωπος, "man"), based on a calotte (skullcap) and a femur like that of H. sapiens found from the bank of the Solo River at Trinil, in East Java. (This species is now regarded as Homo erectus.)
The find became known as Java Man. Thanks to Canadian anatomist Davidson Black's (1921) initial description of a lower molar, which was dubbed Sinanthropus pekinensis, however, most of the early and spectacular discoveries of this taxon took place at Zhoukoudian in China. German anatomist Franz Weidenreich provided much of the detailed description of this material in several monographs published in the journal Palaeontologica Sinica (Series D).
Nearly all of the original specimens were lost during World War II, however; yet authentic Weidenreichian casts do exist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, and are considered to be reliable evidence.
Throughout much of the 20th century, anthropologists debated the role of H. erectus in human evolution. Early in the century, however, due to discoveries on Java and at Zhoukoudian, it was believed that modern humans first evolved in Asia. A few naturalists (Charles Darwin most prominent among them) predicted that humans' earliest ancestors were African: he pointed out that chimpanzees and gorillas, obviously human relatives, live only in Africa.
From 1950s to 1970s, however, numerous fossil finds from East Africa yielded evidence that the oldest hominins originated there. It is now believed that H. erectus is a descendant of earlier genera such as Ardipithecus and Australopithecus, or early Homo-species such as H. habilis or H. ergaster. H. habilis and H. erectus coexisted for several thousand years, and may represent separate lineages of a common ancestor.