Homo erectus

Reconstruction of early Homo erectus

Reconstruction of early Homo erectus

Homo erectus was the first of our relatives to have human-like body proportions, with shorter arms and longer legs relative to its torso. 

H. erectus was also the first hominin known to have migrated out of Africa, and possibly the first to control fire and cook food.

Highly varied and by far the longest-lived of all the human species, H. erectus survived from about 1.8 million years ago in Africa and western Asia to possibly as late as 200,000 years ago in Indonesia.

Key fossils

Replica fossil skull of 'Turkana Boy'

Replica fossil skull of 'Turkana Boy', a male Homo erectus aged 9-12 years old.

Although evidence suggests that H. erectus originated in Africa, the first fossils were found in Asia, and it is in Asia where this species survived for so long.

The first H. erectus fossil was found in Java, Indonesia in 1891, and is commonly known as Java Man. By 1940 many more remains had been found there, and in China.

However, the find that has revealed most about this species is ‘Turkana Boy’ from Nariokotome, Kenya. Unearthed in 1984, the skeleton is around 1.5 million years old and represents the most complete ancient human specimen ever discovered

By studying his remains, scientists have concluded that H. erectus did not use trees for safety or as a food source like earlier hominins. Instead, they were a tall species that walked and ran in much the same way as we do.

Successful species?

In terms of species survival, H. erectus is a huge success story. Fossil evidence for H. erectus stretches over more than 1.5 million years, making it the longest surviving species of all our human relatives. Compare this to our own species, Homo sapiens, which has been around for perhaps 400,000 years so far, and we begin to appreciate the ability of this species to survive over a long period with many changes to the environment and climate.

Beyond Africa

Current evidence suggests all hominins before H. erectus lived in Africa. However, almost as soon as this species appears in the fossil record there is evidence it expanded out of Africa into western and eastern Asia and Indonesia.

Migration happens for many reasons but essentially H. erectus probably drifted across northern Africa, across the Sinai region into Asia, when suitable habitats and food sources stretched that far. Meat was an important part of their diet and carnivorous animals often range more widely than herbivores. This, together with their larger body size, helps explain the large geographic range of H. erectus.