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What is Homo Habilis?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Homo habilis is a now extinct species in the Homo genus, which has perhaps most famously produced the modern human, Homo sapiens. From the fossil record, it appears that this species lived around 1.5 million years ago in Africa, during the Pleistocene era. It wasn't alone; these early hominids coexisted with other bipedal primates, and there is some debate about the exact role of Homo habilis in human evolution.

A modern human would probably have difficulty relating to these early hominids. Homo habilis looked markedly different from modern humans, with longer arms, a short stature, and a protruding face, although it was one of the first hominid species to have a more flattened face like that of modern humans. These hominids had about half the brain capacity of Homo sapiens, although they used their brains for some incredible accomplishments, including the development of complex societies and the use of fine tools.

Credit for the discovery of Homo habilis goes to Louis Leaky, John Napier, and Philip Tobias, who found fossilized skeletal parts at their dig in Olduvai Gorge, Africa, in 1964. This unique location in Africa is part of the Great Rift Valley, and it housed several other early humans as well. Leaky made a number of important contributions to paleontology with his work in Olduvai Gorge, including the discovery of other early hominid species.

Scientists debate the classification of Homo habilis in the Homo genus. Some feel that this hominid should be included in the Australopithecus genus, placing it at an earlier stage in human evolution. However, Homo habilis is markedly different from earlier Australopithecines, and the use of tools by this species was quite novel. So novel, in fact, that the species was named for it; Homo habilis means “handy man” in Latin.

As of 2007, our current understanding of human evolution suggests that Homo habilis evolved into Homo ergaster and later Homo erectus, “upright man,” our closest ancestor. However, new information is being uncovered all the time at archaeological digs, and it is possible that this species lived at the same time that Homo ergaster did, and that one species simply supplanted the other, rather than evolving from it. It is also clear that several species in the Homo lived together until quite recently, in terms of paleontology. Homo neanderthalensis, for example, lived until around 30,000 years ago, and clearly coexisted with Homo sapiens.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By JimmyT — On Jun 04, 2012

@kentuckycat - You are right. Homo habilis was much shorter than average modern humans. Only about 4 feet tall. As far as what has been learned in the most recent years, I'm not completely sure about that. I do know there are quite a few intermediate species that are rarely mentioned in high school classes. Unless you're involved in anthropology courses, they are very rarely mentioned in books.

I think the main species people hear about - Homo habilis, erectus, and sapien - are common because they were around the longest and have the best fossil records.

When I was taking my anthropology class, what I thought was really interesting was that there was actually another genus called Paranthropus that was around while they Homo genus was evolving. They had the same Homo habilis features such as ape-like faces and appendages. Unfortunately, they did not develop the use of tools as quickly and efficiently as the Homo genus and they eventually went extinct.

By kentuckycat — On Jun 03, 2012

@Izzy78 - As I understand it, Homo neanderthalensis would have come right before Homo sapiens if they coexisted together.

I realized reading this article that a whole lot has changed in the way that we understand human evolution just in the years that I took these types of classes in high school. I don't think we ever even mentioned Homo ergaster when discussing the species. Is this a relatively new finding, or just something that got left out of the mix?

I always think it is interesting reading about how these other people compared to current humans. The article talks about the brain size and facial shape, but about what was the Homo habilis height? I would expect them to probably be shorter than current humans, especially since I think most scientists agree that the average human height is still increasing.

By Izzy78 — On Jun 03, 2012

@titans62 - Based on that point, does brain size directly equate to intelligence? If I remember correctly, weren't the skulls of Neanderthals much larger than our current skulls, but they were obviously not as mentally sophisticated? I could very well be wrong about that, though. I was never very good at those anthropology types of classes. Also the article says that Homo habilis had half of our current brain capacity. Does that mean that the Homo habilis skull was half the size, or they could just remember half of what we currently can?

Could someone also clear up for me the exact order that all of these earlier humanoid species arrived? If I understand correctly, there were the Australopithecus genus first. After that, the Homo species evolved. Those went habilis, ergaster, erectus, then sapien? Where does Homo neanderthalensis fit into the mix, then?

By titans62 — On Jun 02, 2012

@jholcomb - That is interesting about what the early scientists thought. Maybe I am just biased because I do know what the order actually was, but just thinking about it, I would have guessed that we would have become more advanced physically before we developed larger brains.

I think that is the typical order that most animals follow. The first key to survival is just that - survival. It doesn't matter how smart you are if you can't escape danger. Even the most basic animals understand (in some sense) that avoiding death is key.

The early Homo habilis people wouldn't have been any different. Once they used their relatively small brains to learn how to avoid getting eaten by other animals and how to make weapons to kill those animals, then they could start thinking more about other things. I guess that would have been what eventually caused them to develop larger brain capacity.

By jholcomb — On Jun 02, 2012
I looked up a picture of a reconstruction of H. habilis from its skull and it's fascinating -- it looks so much like an ape! The jaw really juts forward.

I've read that early scientists thought that large brains would have evolved first and that would have driven other aspects of evolution, but that turned out not to be true - first came walking upright and a more delicate skeleton, then came a larger brain, the ability to make tools, an even larger brain, and so on.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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