Is Homo Habilis Truly "The Handy Man"? A Brief Discussion

This article discusses the evidence to the contrary of the Leakey's earth shaking discovery naming Homo habilis as the earliest tool users and by extension, the earliest specimen of the Genus Homo.
The designation Homo habilis comes from the idea that these were the oldest remains found in association with the oldest stone tools. Before Jane Goodalls discovery of chimpanzee tool use in the wild, humans thought we were the only species that used tools to manipulate the environment.  Louis and Mary Leakey spent 28 years digging at Olduvia Gorge in Africa without finding any hominid bones. Louis Leakey predicted that they would find skeletal remains of our earliest ancestors based on the presence of primitive stone tools at the gorge. 28 years of toiling in the hot African sun and relative scientific obscurity, when they finally found something they immediately associated it with the tools they had found. The fossil came to be called Homo habilis almost reflexively, certainly intuitively. In one hand we have the oldest stone tools known to man and, in the other hand, skeletal remains from the same soils. The oldest known fossil hominid, the first in a long line of distinguished Homo ancestry. Job well done, the Leakey’s place in the annuals of Anthropology is sealed, everybody’s famous.

One small problem, it seems that the stone tools can be dated back approximately half a million years before the H. habilis fossils and could just as easily have been constructed and used by Australopithecines (Schick and Toth, 1993). These tools have been found in association with what look to be butcher sites but none have been found in direct association with the H. habilis fossils themselves. It seems that the Olduwan tool complex is not as straight forward as it once seemed. Mary Leakey categorized the broken cobbles into different groups and used this scheme thereafter for the rest of the finds. No disrespect to Mary Leakey but scientific inquiry has come a long way since then and focus has drifted from the study of the cores to study of the flakes. With dates spanning back to 2.4 million years, the division of tool typologies and who was or was not using them is not so cut dried anymore.

      The difference between H. habilis and Homo rudolfensis seems to be one of morphology related to bipedalism. Post cranial measurements on H. habilis suggest some very Australopithecine like features, such as shorter legs, longer arms, and condyles in all the wrong places (Conroy, 2005). H.habilis was probable just as good at climbing as it was at walking. Bottom line, H. habilis was probably not an obligate biped. H. rudolfensis on the other hand has measurements, while closely resembling H. habilis, show it to likely be an obligate biped (Conroy, 2005).

Conroy’s illustrations from chapter 9 of ER 1470 as compared to H.habilis lend support to the hypodigm model (2005). The hypodigm refers to all of the different specimens called H.habilis with all of their variations. I am in agreement with the idea that there is too much variation within the hypodigm for it to be an all inclusive species called H.habilis. This begs the question whether or not even H. sapien can be considered one species. We have maximum variation within our species, just look to the Pygmys and Masai of East Africa.

Fossil genera should not be based on the whims of the scientific community or on an ad hoc basis through loose associations. That being said, we should not analyze fossils over and over until they turn to dust. What is named is named. We can draw any number of inclusive of exclusive phylogenies and shift them back and forth but arguing over the taxa designation seems to be a waste of time. I do think that obligate bipedalism should be a determining factor for inclusion to the genus Homo but it is too late for that. It really is one of the very few actual defining factors of being human. Any future finds should probably be put through that kind of scrutiny. Access to these fossils presents its own problems, but those can be ironed out for the good of the discipline. This also serves as a cautionary tale to the effect that, just because we think we understand how something fits into the realm of evolution, doesn't mean it shouldn't be re-examined and continually discussed.

There is also some question as to whether or not Lucy was an obligate biped. See my article about this by clicking the link below:


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Kathleen Murphy
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Posted on Aug 24, 2010
Pamela Shirkey
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