Introduction

Where did we come from? What were our ancestors like? Why do we differ from other animals? How do scientists trace and construct our evolutionary history? I have attempted to answer those questions and more.

The title of this book is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Primate taxonomy has changed immensely in recent years, and while the changes make the subject more difficult to master, the classification of great apes is much improved. Like it or not, we are great apes. We used to have our own family, Hominidae, as distinct from the other great apes, making us the hominids. All great apes are now hominids. At the level of the subfamily, the Asian great ape (the orangutan) splits off, leaving us and our fellow African great apes in the subfamily Homininae. We are hominines. The gorillas then come out at the tribal level (Gorillini), leaving humans and possibly chimps, depending on who is doing the lumping or splitting, as members of the tribe Hominini. We are hominins. When we refer to hominins, we mean humans and our extinct bipedal relatives. Of course, the title likely first conjures a cultural aspect of human social organization, that is, the tribe, because most people are not familiar with new and improved human taxonomy.

That brings up my sense of humor. I am a naturally silly person, and I hope my nonsense will not be off-putting to the reader.

I wrote this book to fill a perceived gap between basic texts in physical anthropology and advanced books that cover paleoanthropology and fossil hominins in great detail. I designed it with my 200-level Human Evolution course in mind. I wanted more than is available in an introductory text without overwhelming students with the jargon, complex anatomy, numerous fossil sites, etc. of an advanced text. I also tried to avoid the general tedium of textbooks, but I am not sure if I succeeded. The book can also serve as a supplemental text (since it’s free!) for any course that covers aspects of human evolution, such as Introduction to Anthropology, Introduction to Physical Anthropology, Human Ecology, Old World Prehistory, etc.

After presenting an overview of the discipline of paleoanthropology, I introduce nonhuman primates so as to show students where we fit and what we can learn from their ecology and behavior. I trace the evolutionary history of the primates, with a special emphasis on the ancestry of the hominins. An overview of human and hominin anatomy is presented so that students can understand how bodies changed over time as hominins came down from the trees, moved out of the forests, and began their globe-trotting adventures. The remainder of the book is dedicated to all of the extinct hominin species as well as the earliest members of our own species, Homo sapiens.

The hominins are organized chronologically, and this book includes the following information where available: (1) brief introduction; (2) phylogeny or evolutionary history; (3) discovery and geographic range wherein paleoanthropologists, sites, and famous discoveries are covered; (4) physical characteristics; and (5) environment and way of life, including relevant aspects of behavior and culture. I have tried to keep the hominin sections uniform and encyclopedic in nature so that students can quickly find what they need. Student aids and additional references are included.

And now, a little about why the crazy monkey lady (as students are wont to refer to me) wrote a book on human evolution. I am an anthropologist, physical anthropologist, anatomist, primatologist, and behavioral ecologist. I have thus been trained in both animal and human behavior, from a cultural and biological perspective. I have taught comparative primate and human anatomy. I have been teaching General Anthropology, Physical Anthropology, Human Evolution, Human Ecology, Human Osteology (skeletal anatomy), and primate courses for 18 years. I have approached the topic of human evolution from the perspective of my training and experience. Thus I have covered what I learned about the various species, in terms of fossils, paleoanthropologists, sites, anatomy, and cultural remains; I have also focused where possible on their ecology and environment, the adaptive significance of their morphology and behavior, and their behavioral ecology and socioecology, such as social organization, mating systems, male and female strategies, cognition and abilities, etc. My goal was to create a more holistic and enjoyable textbook by bringing the species to life. I have learned from the paleoanthropologists and strived to understand past species from my own perspective, founded in comparative primate anatomy, ecology, and behavior. My hope is that students will gain both an evolutionary perspective and a more synthetic understanding of hominins and themselves.

I hope readers will enjoy and benefit from the book. I have tried to keep it interesting, accessible, and uniformly organized. In proposing to write an open textbook, I wanted to provide students with a useful reference at no cost. While I think of some textbooks as expensive sleeping aids, at least mine is free!

License

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Introduction by Barbara Helm Welker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.