The earliest known hominids are members of the genus Australopithecus, the earliest of which date to more than 4 million years ago. Unlike other primates, but like all hominids, australopithecines were bipedal. Their crania, however, were small and apelike, with an average cranial capacity of about 450 cc in the gracile species and 600 cc in the robust forms. Australopithecines that have been considered ancestral in the lineage leading to the human genus Homo include A. afarensis (an important skeleton of which is popularly known as Lucy) and A. africanus. The exact position of these and other early species on the hominid family tree continues to be disputed.
The first member of the genus Homo, a small gracile species known as H. habilis, was present in east Africa at least 2 million years ago. H. habilis was the first hominid to exhibit the marked expansion of the brain (with an average cranial capacity of about 750 cc) that would become a hallmark of subsequent hominid evolutionary history. By about 1.6 million years ago, H. habilis had evolved into a larger, more robust, and larger-brained species known as Homo erectus. Cranial capacities ranged from about 900 cc in early specimens to 1050 cc in later ones. H. erectus persisted for well over a million years and migrated off the African continent into Asia, Indonesia, and Europe.
Between 500,000 and 250,000 years ago, H. erectus evolved into H. sapiens. Transitional forms between H. erectus and H. sapiens are referred to as archaic H. sapiens. With the exception of H. sapiens neandertalensis (see Neanderthal man), no additional subspecies are recognized. Indeed, some scientists consider Neanderthal a separate species. Archaic H. sapiens changed gradually, becoming somewhat larger, more gracile and larger-brained through time. Cranial capacity, for example, increased from about 1150 cc in early transitional forms to the current world average of just over 1350 cc. By 150,000 years ago in Africa and Asia and 28,000 years ago in Europe (see Cro-Magnon man), the transition to H. sapiens was complete, and fully modern humans became the single surviving hominid species (with the possible exception of the humans represented by the remains found on Flores, Indonesia, which may represent a dwarf hominid species that survived until 13,000 years ago).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.