Homo sapiens are the only living member of the genus Homo. Although there is only one species of human now, this was not always the case.
We've grown accustomed to being the only ones around, so it's hard to believe that not long ago in our evolutionary history, multiple types of humans occupied various landscapes.
The habitats of the Paleolithic, or Stone Age, were volatile. At times, populations traveled, interacted, and even interbred. We will be able to see more detail in the lives of ancient human communities as archaeological approaches and accessible technologies progress, making the Paleolithic world more like a living tableau than a frozen museum exhibit.
So, how many human beings have existed? It's a big question, and anthropologists aren't sure how to answer it.
The fact that anthropologists have so few specimens to work with is a major point of contention. Imagine trying to recreate the entire spectrum of modern human body sizes and shapes using only the skeletons of a few random people. A total of 6,000 hominin fossils have been discovered by researchers. Only a few have produced genetic evidence.
Researchers try to figure out which ones are new species based on just a single skull or a single finger bone. Work is difficult and findings can be controversial.
Each scientific name begins with a genus name and ends with a species name. The genus Homo, which includes more than a dozen named hominin species, dates back about 3 million years in the human family tree (including modern humans, H. sapiens). The genus Ardipithecus belongs to the extended hominin family, which dates back 6 million years.
Here are five lesser-known hominins who contributed to the story of human evolution, demonstrating the diversity of the ancient human landscape.
1. HOMO RUDOLFENSIS
The pitfalls of describing a species based on limited fossil evidence are perfectly illustrated by Homo rudolfensis. The designation is based on a single specimen—a 1.9 million-year-old skull (also known as the less snappy KNM-ER 1470) from the Koobi Fora site in what is now Kenya.
The skull was originally thought to belong to Homo habilis, the earliest known member of the human genus. However, there were a few issues with this. To begin with, the skull's braincase was quite large. H. rudolfensis had a cranium that could have accommodated about 700 cubic centimeters of brain, while the other existing H. habilis specimens had brains around 500 cubic centimeters. In comparison to other H. habilis skulls, the H. rudolfensis specimen has larger teeth and a smaller brow ridge.
KNM-ER 1470 was given a separate species designation in 1986 after anthropologists concluded that variation within a single species, even accounting for possible differences between males and females, was unlikely to explain these physical differences.
Casts of two different-sized skulls are displayed side by side. Gray, white, and brown matter make up their structure.
Homo rudolfensis (left) and Homo habilis (right) casts show some variation in hominin skull shape and size, both discovered in Kenya. Wikimedia Commons/Gunnar Creutz
2. HOMO ANTECESSOR
The Gran Dolina Cave in Atapuerca, Spain, is a massive archaeological site with over half-a-million-year-old deposits that extend down nearly 20 meters. The oldest of these deposits date back to around 780,000 years ago, and they contain the remains of a hominin group known as Homo antecessor in 1997.
Some features resemble those of Neanderthals and Denisovans, while others resemble those of Homo sapiens. H. antecessor is a very closely related "sister lineage" to modern humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans, according to a recent study of ancient proteins extracted from the dental enamel of one of the Atapuerca fossils. All of these people descended from a common ancestor.
3. HOMO FLORESIENSIS
The only Homo floresiensis fossils have been discovered in Liang Bua Cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. Due to their small size, anthropologists affectionately refer to the species as "hobbits." They would have stood just over 3 feet tall. In 2003, the first H. floresiensis remains were discovered.
These human relatives had small brains (around 400 cubic centimeters), but they hunted prey on the island and made tools that were very similar to those of Homo erectus, a species with much larger brains. A condition known as insular dwarfism could explain the hobbits' diminutive stature.
Species that would normally have larger body and brain sizes tend to evolve toward smaller body mass and smaller brains in environments with limited resources, such as an island surrounded by open ocean. A pygmy elephant species that once shared the island of Flores with H. floresiensis went extinct as a result of the same process.
4. HOMO LUZONENSIS
Homo luzonensis, a newly discovered island-dwelling hominin population, lived around 50,000–60,000 years ago on the Philippine island of Luzon. Teeth, finger, and toe bones, as well as a femur, are the only 13 bones of this species that has been discovered.
Differences in tooth and toe bones can help distinguish two hominin species. Wikimedia Commons/Homo schollensis
These belonged to at least three different people.
For comparison, a gray and green set of teeth and toe bones are shown side by side.
Anthropologists determined in 2019 that these bones are distinct enough from H. erectus and H. floresiensis to merit a new species category. H. luzonensis has particularly interesting finger and toe bones.
They're slightly curved, which is a trait shared by all living tree-dwelling primates. This suggests that living in the trees was still a way of life for H. luzonensis.
5. HOMO LONGI (“DRAGON MAN”)
In June, the heavy-browed skull nicknamed "Dragon Man" was named as the most recently proposed hominin species from China. The skull was discovered in the 1930s, but scientists were only recently given access to it for analysis. It was dated to around 146,000 years ago and is described as a "long-lost sister lineage" of H. sapiens by its researchers.
The skull's eye sockets are big and blocky, the molars are big (much bigger than yours or mine), and the ridge over the eyes is massive. All of these characteristics are more "primitive." The brain size, on the other hand, is comparable to that of modern humans.
This new find highlights the difficulty of classifying a single specimen into a new species. There is no genetic evidence to suggest that the Dragon Man is a Denisovan at this time.
Whatever place this person occupies in the human family tree, it's an exciting reminder that the human past is complicated, and we still have a lot to learn.
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Guest blogger AnThony Legins is a life coach and mentor who enjoys writing on topics relating to mindset, money, real estate, finance and motivation. Read more articles and posts by AnThony at: www.themillionairemindset.net and follow on IG @moneymindsetnetwork
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