My favorite human


I’m doing a series on our fossil brethren in January. Without clicking on anything, no research, come up with a question you’d like answered about this particular one. Doesn’t matter if you’ve heard of them before or not – here’s this critter, ask me something.

It’s still Winter Break. Regular posting resumes January 4, 2016.



10 thoughts on “My favorite human

    • One of the fossil groups from Africa with a human-type body. Estimates place it (i.e. three known species, collectively) from 2.7 to 1.2 million years ago, which overlaps nicely with the near overlap between the latest known Australopithecus and the earliest known Homo. Therefore it’s possible that species from all three genera were present at the same time in southern and eastern Africa.

      Australopithecus had body and posture much like ours (overall size much smaller; slight differences in proportion), with a skull almost the same as a chimp’s, differing only in having a fully human toothrow and a slightly differently-placed foramen magnum (spine hole) reflecting its bipedalism. To get Homo from it, you put in a bicycle pump and inflate the cranium.

      Paranthropus, on the other hand, had the same body (overall size bigger, approaching ours), but its skull represents a very different spin on the Australopithecus version. The cranium is proportionately unchanged in size, i.e., just the same as if you had a bigger chimp. The jaw is outstandingly robust with immense chewing muscles including a sagittal (top) crest on the braincase. The toothrow is the same in terms of count, but the molars are 4 times the size of ours in grinding surace area.

      Again, like Homo, it’s a modified Australopithecus type skull, but its modifications are completely different from ours.


    • Like us, they stood upright and as far as the remains indicate, walked around pretty much like we do. As far as reconstructing their living appearance goes …

      1. If we take the chimp-like relationship of the face to the cranium as the guiding principle (and that is a big if), then their noses would have had the “catarrhine ape” look like chimps and gorillas, and not the “pointy-out human” look. Given that cranial shape, it’s likely that the ears looked a lot like a chimp’s.

      2. Regarding hair cover and consistency, no one knows a damn thing. The convention is to give all species of Homo hair distribution like ours, and to give Australopithecus and Paranthropus hair distribution like a chimp’s, but there’s no justification for or against any way you want to do it.

      3. One variable that’s often missed in discussion is the size of the iris. Homo sapiens has a very small iris, such that a lot of the sclera (“whites”) of the eye is visible. It yields a freaky, almost scary effect, including among other things a very obvious indicator of where we are looking to an observer. If you reconstruct one of these other species with this eye structure, this serves as a strong social signal to us that this guy is “one of us,” and if you don’t, i.e., if you give the reconstruction eyes like most mammals with almost no visible sclera, then an equally strong signal says “not one of us.”

      4. Breasts and many other sexual features are also all unknown. Teats/dugs like the other modern apes, or human boobs? And similarly, penis size: little teenies like the other modern apes or swingin’ human johnson?

      I’m saying your question is very significant because discussion of human evolution is shot through and through with the taint of exceptionalism. Therefore instead of merely doping out an interesting phylogeny of an interesting relictual mammal, people are relentlessly drawn to a more social (and misplaced) concern about inclusion and exclusion. Our reconstructive efforts display this misplaced concern as much as they represent scientific thinking, and in terms of the observer, considerably more so.


  1. I know they used to be the robust australopithecines before reclassification. Are they descended from that lineage or a common ancestor? Is there any evidence for them becoming smaller-brained as they became specialised herbivores with excellent chewing apparatus? Did any hominid lineage (other than H. floresiensis) evolve smaller cranial volume over time? I recall Paranthropus as being something of a curious sidenote in the hominid tree, yokel cousins, none of whom were likely to go to law school.


    • Hi, and welcome!

      The body and head structure for Australopithecus is considered plesiomorphic to both Paranthropus and Homo. That’s the technical way of saying that both of the latter genera are considered to be (separate) modifications of the first’s structure, without getting bogged down in whether this exact fossil was a literal ancestor of that other exact fossil.

      It’s easy to think that Paranthropus has decreased brain size, given the overwhelming jaw-support morphology, but it doesn’t. Its brain size is proportionate for its body size just as if it were an Australopithecus of that size, which also happens to be the same as for a chimp of those sizes. Best to say that non-Homo members of this clade didn’t “do” anything with brain size as inherited from a more-chimp-than-not ancestor.

      H. floresciensis aside, no, it doesn’t appear that any cranial capacity was reduced, and even in that case, it’s an open question whether its reduction is merely a function of overall size reduction, nothing to do with the brain as such.

      In my upcoming book, I have a whole section about the marginalizing of Paranthropus, who has unfortunately inherited the stumblebum, goofy-dumb stereotype formerly associated with the fictitious Eoanthropus (the Piltdown hoax). Let’s think about that for a minute …

      1. The genus lasted a million and a half years, which outdoes us and our immediate relatives (H. heidelbergensis, H. neanderthalensis) significantly, so let’s not get into some idea of a “failed branch” just yet.

      2. Speaking or not, tool use or not, we are talking, us included, about the great apes. Not a group noted, in its living members, for dullness. The too-casual narrative about human evolution has Australopithecus, Paranthropus, and early Homo all stuttering and stumbling around as if they somehow forgot their sophistication from being chimp-like creatures, and had to invent it all over again from scratch along the way to Homo sapiens. Which is obviously nonsense. Even if Paranthropus were at the very far end of non-human-like behavior in cognitive and social terms, as a great ape, that’s still pretty damn notably cognitive and social.


    • I guess you mean “way of life,” right? We really know very little. Social structure, favored habitat (beyond “wooded savanna,” which is kind of general), lairs or encampments or whatever … all merely speculation. Even discussions of tool use are confused by later Homo’s bad habit of littering, so we don’t know whether the tools near or with Paranthropus sites go with them or not (most think not). The teeth practically scream “chewing herbivore,” to the degree of being human cows, but that certainly doesn’t rule out the occasional tasty munchy critter mixed in, and micro-studies on the teeth suggest a more varied diet than plants alone.


  2. Pingback: Who you are | Man nor Beast

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