A Hominid Dictionary

Hominids have complicated names, but their scientific monikers are less mysterious when their Latin, Greek and African roots are decoded

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal, which was named after Germany’s Neander Valley
A reconstruction of a Neanderthal, which was named after Germany’s Neander Valley Image courtesy of Flickr user erix!

It’s hard to keep track of who’s who in the hominid family tree. It’s especially hard because the names sound so foreign—unless you happen to be well versed in ancient Greek and Latin as well as a variety of modern African languages. Here’s a quick guide to the meaning of some of the most common hominid names.

Ardipithecus: Discovered in Ethiopia in the 1990s, the genus Ardipithecus has two species: the 4.4-million-year-old Ar. ramidus and the 5.8-million-year old Ar. kadabba. Both forms were named using the local Afar language. “Ardi” means ground or floor; “ramid” means root; and “kadabba” means oldest ancestor.

Australopithecus: Raymond Dart found the first Australopithecus specimen, the Taung Child, in South Africa in 1924. To name the genus, he combined words from two classical languages: “Australis” is Latin for southern and “pithecus” is Greek for ape. Since the initial discovery, numerous species of Australopithecus have been unearthed, including Au. anamensis and Au. afarensis. In both names, “-ensis” is a Latin suffix that means originating in. The four-million-year-old Au. anamensis was first found near Lake Turkana in Kenya; in the Turkana language “anam” means lake. Like Ardipithecus, the three-million-year-old Au. afarensis was discovered in Ethiopia, with “afar” referring to the Afar region of that country.

Homo: The name Homo sapiens is Latin for “wise man.” H. habilis is the oldest known species of our genus, dated to more than two million years ago. It was originally found in 1960 in Olduvai Gorge, the site in Tanzania made famous by Louis and Mary Leakey. The name means “handy man,” referring to the Leakeys’ belief that this species made the stone tools found at Olduvai. H. erectus lived a little later than H. habilis, but was found earlier, in the 1890s on the island of Java. Its discoverer, Eugene Dubois, recognized that this ancient being walked upright, and named it Pithecanthropus erectus, or erect ape man. Later, scientists realized it belonged in our genus and changed the name. Another member of our genus that was discovered in the 19th century is H. neanderthalensis. The first Neanderthal fossil that was recognized as belonging to an ancient human was recovered from the Neander Valley of Germany. In German, “thal” means valley. (In the 20th century, the spelling of “thal” changed to “tal,” so today sometimes the “h” is dropped from the spelling of Neanderthal and the word is pronounced differently.)

Orrorin tugenensis: This species is one of the oldest hominids ever found, dating to six million years ago. In 2001, it was discovered in Kenya in the Tugen Hills region. In the local language, the name means “original man in the Tugen region.”

Paranthropus: First discovered in the 1930s by Robert Broom, this genus lived in southern and eastern Africa from about two million to one million years ago. The two species of ParanthropusP. robustus and P. boisei—are often called robust because of their adaptations related to chewing tough foods: large cheek teeth, big cheek bones and a large crest on the top of the head where powerful chewing muscles attached. In Greek, Paranthropus means beside man. These forms have undergone numerous name changes; at one time they were considered to be species of Australopithecus. P. boisei, discovered by the Leakeys in Olduvai Gorge, was orignally named Zinjanthropus boisei: “Zinj” referred to the East African region of Zanj and “boisei” stemmed from Charles Boise, the man funding the Leakeys’ excavations.

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