When talking about fossils, there are a lot of confusing words: Neanderthal, paleoanthropologist, homo erectus. First off, the scientists: paleoanthropologists study extinct ancestors of human beings. Paleo means old or ancient and anthro means relating to human beings.
Now let’s discuss the specimens themselves. Our very distant ancestors, who lived about 4 million years ago, were the australopithecus. That long confusing word means southern (australis) ape (pithecus). The fossils that have been recovered of this species have been found in southern Africa and are ape-like. They walked on two feet, had very small heads, and probably climbed trees. Lucy, the famous fossil, also belongs to that genus. This year a research team from University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg found a new species of australopithecus in South Africa.
To keep these names straight, it’s important to remember that some species are named for their attributes, and some species are named for where their remains were found. About 2.3 million years ago, the genus Homo evolved from the australopithecus. We modern-day humans are part of the species Homo sapiens (which literally means “knowing man”). There are multiple other specific species within the genus Homo, including Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo neanderthalis. Homo habilis literally means “handy man” because this species used tools. Homo erectus lived about 1.5 million years ago. The name erectus means “to stand upright.” Homo neanderthalis, or the Neanderthal as he’s most often known, is named for where he lived. Paleoanthropologists found fossils of the species in the Neander Valley in Germany.
Unlike these other terms, “Cro-Magnon” is actually not a technical scientific word. The word Cro-Magnon refers to the cave where the first remains of early humans were found in 1868 near Dordogne, France. They are also associated with the cave paintings at Lescaux. The term refers to early modern human beings who lived more than 10,000 years ago in Europe, but they are not a different species than modern humans.
What other fossil words confuse you?
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