Homo ergaster

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Homo ergaster
Temporal range: 1.8–1.3 Ma
Early Pleistocene
Homo ergaster.jpg
Skull KNM-ER 3733, discover: Bernard Ngeneo, 1975. (Kenya)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Family: Hominidae
Genus: Homo
Species: H. ergaster
Binomial name
Homo ergaster
Groves and Mazák, 1975

Homo ergaster (meaning "working man") or African Homo erectus is an extinct chronospecies of Homo that lived in eastern and southern Africa during the early Pleistocene, between 1.8 million and 1.3 million years ago.[1]

There is still disagreement on the subject of the classification, ancestry, and progeny of H. ergaster, but it is now widely accepted to be the direct ancestor of later hominins, such as Homo heidelbergensis, Homo sapiens, and Homo neanderthalensis and Asian Homo erectus.[2]

It is one of the earliest members of the genus Homo, possibly ancestral to, or sharing a common ancestor with, Homo erectus.[3] Some paleoanthropologists consider H. ergaster to be simply the African variety of H. erectus; this leads to the use of the term "Homo erectus sensu stricto" for the Asian H. erectus, and "Homo erectus sensu lato" for the larger species comprising both the early African populations (H. ergaster) and the Asian populations.[4] The latest discoveries go even further claiming that all five contemporary species of early Homo in Africa, including Homo habilis, H. rudolfensis, H. ergaster, and H. erectus, are representatives from the same species, best named H. erectus, which evolved about 2 million years ago in Africa and expanded through Eurasia, as far as China and Java, where it was first documented from about 1.2 million years ago.[5] The binomial name was published in 1975 by Groves and Mazák. The specific epithet, "ergaster", is derived from the Ancient Greek ἐργαστήρ "workman", in reference to the comparatively advanced lithic technology developed by the species, introducing the Acheulean industry.

Discovery and representative fossils[edit]

The South African palaeontologist John T. Robinson discovered a mandible of a new hominin in southern Africa in 1949; he named the species Telanthropus capensis, though it is now recognised as a member of H. ergaster.[6] The name was first applied by Colin Groves and Vratislav Mazák to KNM-ER 992, a mandible discovered near Lake Rudolf (now Lake Turkana), Kenya in 1975, which became the type-specimen of the species. The most complete skeleton of H. ergaster (and one of the most complete extinct hominins to date), KNM-WT 15000, was discovered at Lake Turkana, Kenya, in 1984 by paleoanthropologists Kamoya Kimeu and Alan Walker. They nicknamed the 1.6-million-year-old specimen "Turkana Boy".

Classification and special distinction[edit]

Many paleoanthropologists still debate the definition of H. ergaster with H. erectus as separate species. Some call H. ergaster the direct African ancestor at H. erectus, proposing that H. ergaster emigrated out of Africa and into Asia, branching into a distinct species.[7] Most dispense with the specific epithet ergaster, making no distinction between such fossils as the Turkana Boy and Peking Man. Though "Homo ergaster" has gained some acceptance as a valid taxon, H. ergaster and H. erectus are still usually defined as distinct African and Asian populations of larger species H. erectus. (For the remainder of this article, the name "Homo ergaster" will be used to describe a distinct species for the convenience of continuity in reading.)

H. ergaster may be distinguished from H. erectus by its thinner skull-bones and lack of an obvious supraorbital foramen. It may be distinguished from H. heidelbergensis by its thinner bones, more protrusive face, and lower forehead. Derived features separating it from earlier species include reduced sexual dimorphism,[8] a smaller, more orthognathous (less protrusive) face, a smaller dental arcade, and a larger cranial capacity (700–900 cm³ in earlier H. ergaster-specimens, and 900-1100 in later specimens).[1] Remains have been found in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa.


Homo ergaster skull reconstruction of the Turkana Boy/Nariokotome Boy from Lake Turkana, Kenya. Museum of Man, San Diego.

Homo habilis is generally accepted as the putative ancestor of the genus Homo,[6] and often of H. ergaster most directly. This taxon's status as a legitimate species within "Homo", however, is particularly contentious. H. habilis and H. ergaster coexisted for 200,000-300,000 years, possibly indicating that these species diverged from a common ancestor.[9] It is unclear what genetic influence H. ergaster had on later hominins. Recent genetic analysis has generally supported the Out-of-Africa hypothesis, and this may designate to H. ergaster the role of ancestor to all later hominins.[1]

Origin and extinction[edit]

H. ergaster is believed to have diverged from the lineage of H. habilis between 1.9 and 1.8 million years ago; the lineage that emigrated from Africa and fathered H. erectus diverged from the lineage of H. ergaster almost immediately after this. These early descendants of H. habilis may have been discovered in Dmanisi, Georgia.[10] H. ergaster remained stable for ca. 500,000 years in Africa before disappearing from the fossil record around 1.4 million years ago. No identifiable cause has been attributed to this disappearance; the later evolution of the similar H. heidelbergensis in Africa may indicate that this is simply a hole in the record, or that some intermediate species has not yet been discovered.

Use of tools[edit]

H. ergaster used more diverse and sophisticated stone tools than its predecessor, H. habilis. H. ergaster refined the inherited Oldowan, developing the first Acheulean bifacial axes:[11] while the use of Acheulean tools began ca. 1.6 million years ago, the line of H. erectus diverged some 200,000 years before the general innovation of Acheulean technology.


Sexual dimorphism in H. ergaster is greatly reduced from its australopithecine ancestors (around 20%),[8] but still greater than the dimorphism in modern humans. This diminished dimorphism is speculated to be a sign of reduced competition for mates between males.[12]

Not only was H. ergaster like modern humans in body, but also more in organisation and sociality than any earlier species. It is conceivable that H. ergaster was the first hominin to harness fire: whether as the containment of natural fire, or as the lighting of artificial fire, is still a matter of contention. It is now assumed, however, that H. erectus did have control of fire,[13] as well as each other hominin sharing a common ancestor with H. ergaster.

Use of language[edit]

It was thought for a long time that H. ergaster was restricted in the physical ability to regulate breathing and produce complex sounds. This was based on Turkana Boy's cervical vertebrae, which were far narrower than in later humans. However, later discoveries of cervical vertebrae in Dmanisi, Georgia, which were some 300,000 years older than those of Turkana Boy, were well within the normal range of human vertebrae.[14] It has been established, furthermore, that the Turkana Boy probably suffered from a disease of the spinal column that resulted in narrower cervical vertebrae than in modern humans[15] (as well as the older Dmanisi finds). While the Dmanisi finds have not been established definitively as H. ergaster, they are older than Turkana Boy (the only definite H. ergaster vertebrae on record), and thereby suggest kinship to H. ergaster.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c Hazarika, Manji (16–30 June 2007). "Homo erectus/ergaster and Out of Africa: Recent Developments in Paleoanthropology and Prehistoric Archaeology". 
  2. ^ G. Philip Rightmire (1998). "Human Evolution in the Middle Pleistocene: The Role of Homo heidelbergensis". Evolutionary Anthropology 6: 218–227. doi:10.1002/(sici)1520-6505(1998)6:6<218::aid-evan4>3.0.co;2-6. 
  3. ^ F. Spoor, M. G. Leakey, P. N. Gathogo, F. H. Brown, S. C. Antón, I. McDougall, C. Kiarie, F. K. Manthi & L. N. Leakey (9 August 2007). "Implications of new early Homo fossils from Ileret, east of Lake Turkana, Kenya". Nature 448 (7154): 688–691. Bibcode:2007Natur.448..688S. doi:10.1038/nature05986. PMID 17687323. 
  4. ^ Antón, S. C. (2003). "Natural history of Homo erectus". Am. J. Phys. Anthropol 122: 126–170. doi:10.1002/ajpa.10399.  "By the 1980s, the growing numbers of H. erectus specimens, particularly in Africa, led to the realization that Asian H. erectus (H. erectus sensu stricto), once thought so primitive, was in fact more derived than its African counterparts. These morphological differences were interpreted by some as evidence that more than one species might be included in H. erectus sensu lato (e.g., Stringer, 1984; Andrews, 1984; Tattersall, 1986; Wood, 1984, 1991a, b; Schwartz and Tattersall, 2000)." ... "Unlike the European lineage, in my opinion, the taxonomic issues surrounding Asian vs. African H. erectus are more intractable. The issue was most pointedly addressed with the naming of H. ergaster on the basis of the type mandible KNM-ER 992, but also including the partial skeleton and isolated teeth of KNM-ER 803 among other Koobi Fora remains (Groves and Mazak, 1975). Recently, this specific name was applied to most early African and Georgian H. erectus in recognition of the less-derived nature of these remains vis à vis conditions in Asian H. erectus (see Wood, 1991a, p. 268; Gabunia et al., 2000a). It should be noted, however, that at least portions of the paratype of H. ergaster (e.g., KNM-ER 1805) are not included in most current conceptions of that taxon. The H. ergaster question remains famously unresolved (e.g., Stringer, 1984; Tattersall, 1986; Wood, 1991a, 1994; Rightmire, 1998b; Gabunia et al., 2000a; Schwartz and Tattersall, 2000), in no small part because the original diagnosis provided no comparison with the Asian fossil record."
  5. ^ "Unique skull find rebuts theories on species diversity in early humans". 
  6. ^ a b Wood, Bernard, and Mark Collard (2001). "The Meaning of Homo". Ludus Vitalis 9 (15): 63–74. 
  7. ^ Tattersall, Ian and Jeffrey Schwartz (2001). Extinct Humans. Boulder, Colorado: Westview/Perseus. ISBN 0-8133-3482-9. 
  8. ^ a b McHenry, Henry M. (1994). "Behavioral ecological implications of early hominid body size". Academic Press Limited. 
  9. ^ Urquhart, James (8 August 2007). Finds Test Human Origins Theory. news.bbc.co.uk. 
  10. ^ Tattersall, Ian (2008). "An Evolutionary Frameworks for the Acquisition of Symbolic Cognition by Homo sapiens". 
  11. ^ Beck, Roger B.; Linda Black, Larry S. Krieger, Phillip C. Naylor, Dahia Ibo Shabaka, (1999). World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell. ISBN 0-395-87274-X. 
  12. ^ Gray, Peter B. (2010). "The Evolution and Endocrinology of Human Behavior: a Focus on Sex Differences and Reproduction". Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 277–292. ISBN 978-0-521-70510-3. 
  13. ^ Goren-Inbar, Naama; Alperson, N; Kislev, ME; Simchoni, O; Melamed, Y; Ben-Nun, A; Werker, E et al. (30 April 2004). "Evidence of Hominin Control of Fire at Gesher Benot Ya 'aqov, Israel". Science 304 (5671): 725–727. Bibcode:2004Sci...304..725G. doi:10.1126/science.1095443. PMID 15118160. 
  14. ^ Bruce Bower (6 May 2006). "Evolutionary Back Story: Thoroughly Modern Spine Supported Human Ancestor". Science News Online 169 (18): 275. doi:10.2307/4019325. 
  15. ^ Wong, Kate (November 2003). "Stranger in a new land". Scientific American 289 (5): 74–83. Bibcode:2003SciAm.289e..74W. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1103-74. PMID 14564816. 


  • Deacon, Terrence W. (1998). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-03838-6. 
  • Leakey, Richard (1992-09-01). Origins Reconsidered. ISBN 0-385-41264-9. 
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (1994). The origin of language: tracing the evolution of the mother tongue. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0-471-58426-6. 
  • Shreeve, James (1995). The Neandertal Enigma: Solving the Mystery of Modern Human Origins. Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-670-86638-5. 
  • Tattersall, Ian; Jeffrey Schwartz (2000). Extinct Humans. Boulder and Cumnor Hill: Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-3482-9. 
  • Wood, Bernard; Mark Collard (2001). "The Meaning of Homo". Ludus Vitalis 9. 

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