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Fossil range: Late Miocene to Present
Austrolopithecus africanus
Australopithecus africanus reconstruction.
Scientific classification














Gray, 1825


The Hominidae (anglicized Hominids, also known as great apes[notes 1]) form a taxonomic family, including four extant genera: chimpanzees, gorillas, humans and orangutans.

A number of known extinct genera are grouped with humans in the Hominina subtribe, others with orangutans in the Ponginae subtribe. The most recent common ancestor of the Hominidae lived some 13 million years ago, when the ancestors of the orangutans speciated from the ancestors of the other three genera.[citation needed] The ancestors of the Hominidae family in turn speciated from those of the Hylobatidae family some 15 million years ago.


On July 19, 2001, a 7 million year old fossil skull nicknamed "Toumaï" by its discoverers, and formally classified as Sahelanthropus tchadensis, was discovered in Chad and is possibly the earliest hominid fossil ever found. In addition to its age, Toumaï, unlike the 3 – 4 million year younger gracile australopithecine dubbed "Lucy", has a relatively flat face without the prominent snout seen on other pre-Homo hominids. Some researchers have made the suggestion that this previously unknown species may in fact be a direct ancestor of modern humans (or at least closely related to a direct ancestor). Others contend that one fossil is not enough to make such a claim because it would overturn the conclusions of over 100 years of anthropological study. A report on this finding was published in the journal Nature on July 11, 2002. While some scientists claim that it is merely the skull of a female gorilla ancestor, others have called it the most important hominin fossil since Australopithecus.

In addition to the Toumaï fossil, some experts use evidence from the genome to argue that the species associated with the chimpanzees and proto-humans split interbred over a long period of time, swapping genes, before making a final separation. A paper, whose authors include David Reich and Eric Lander (Harvard and MIT), was published in the journal Nature in May 2006.[1]

It is generally believed that the Pan/Homo split occurred about 6.5–7.4 million years ago, but the molecular clock (a method of calculating evolution based on the speed at which genes mutate) suggests the genera split 5.4–6.3 million years ago.[citation needed] Previous studies looked at average genetic differences between human and chimp. The new study compares the ages of key sequences of genes of modern humans and modern chimps. Some sequences are younger than others, indicating that chimps and humans gradually split apart over a period of 4 million years. The youngest human chromosome is the X chromosome which is about 1.2 million years more recent than the 22 autosomes.[citation needed] The X sex chromosome is known to be vulnerable to selective pressure. Its age suggests there was an initial split between the two species, followed by gradual divergence and interbreeding that resulted in younger genes, and then a final separation.

An alternative minority viewpoint is that Homo diverged from a common ancestor with Pongo perhaps as early as 13 million years ago while Pan is more closely related to Gorilla. This alternative is supported by characteristics uniquely shared between humans and orangutans such as dental structure, thick enamel, shoulder blade structure, thick posterior palate, single incisive foramen, high estriol production, and beard and mustache. There are at least 28 well corroborated such features compared with perhaps as little as one unique feature shared between humans and chimpanzees. It is widely believed that these physical features are misleading, but an alternative possibility is that orangutans have undergone more genetic change than humans and African apes have since their split from the common ancestor. If this had happened, then the apparent genetic similarity between humans and chimpanzees would not necessarily be due to a close evolutionary relationship.[2][3] This theory has been proposed as an explanation as to why early hominids such as the australopiths not only look more like orangutans than either African ape, but also share characters unique to orangutans and their close fossil relatives such as a thickened posteror palate and anterior zygomatic roots.[4]

Taxonomic history Edit

This classification of the great apes has been revised several times in the last few decades. Originally, the group was restricted to humans and their extinct relatives, with the other great apes being placed in a separate family, the Pongidae. This definition is still used by many anthropologists and by lay persons. However, that definition makes Pongidae paraphyletic because at least one great ape species appears to be more closely related to humans than other great apes. Most taxonomists nowadays encourage monophyletic groups so this would require the use of Pongidae to be restricted to one of the great ape groups only. Thus many biologists consider Hominidae to include Pongidae as the subfamily Ponginae, or restrict the latter to the orangutans and their extinct relatives like Gigantopithecus. The taxonomy shown here follows the monophyletic groupings according to the two theories of human and great ape relationships.

Especially close human relatives form a subfamily, the Homininae. Some researchers go so far as to include chimpanzees[5] and gorillas[6][7] in the genus Homo along with humans, but it is more commonly accepted to describe the relationships as shown here. Alternatively, those fossil relatives that are more closely related to humans than the nearest living great ape species represent members of Hominidae without necessarily assigning subfamily or tribal categories. If the orangutan is the closest living relative of humans, there would be a sister group relationship between Hominidae and Pongidae, with the African apes comprising a separate family (Panidae) according to the morphological evidence.[8][9]

Many extinct hominids have been studied to help understand the relationship between modern humans and the other extant hominids. Some of the extinct members of this family (as defined to encompass humans and chimpanzees) include Gigantopithecus, Orrorin, Ardipithecus, Kenyanthropus, and the australopithecines Australopithecus and Paranthropus. In the orangutan model of human origin the Hominidae would include the australopiths, and possibly Orrorin and Kenyanthropus, but not Ardipithecus and Sahelanthropus that lack features necessary to provide strong corroboration as hominids.[10]

The exact criteria for membership in the Homininae under the chimpanzee theory of human origins are not clear, but the subfamily generally includes those species that share more than 97% of their DNA with the modern human genome, and exhibit a capacity for language or for simple cultures beyond the family or band. The theory of mind including such faculties as mental state attribution, empathy and even empathetic deception is a controversial criterion distinguishing the adult human alone among the hominids. Humans acquire this capacity at about four and a half years of age, whereas it has neither been proven nor disproven that gorillas and chimpanzees develop a theory of mind.[11]

However, without the ability to test whether early members of the Homininae (such as Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, or even the australopithecines) had a theory of mind, it is difficult to ignore similarities seen in their living cousins. Orangutans have also been shown to have culture comparable to that of chimpanzees[12] and some say that the orangutan may also satisfy these criteria.

Classification Edit


Hominoid family tree

The seven living species of great ape are classified in four genera. The following classification is commonly accepted:

In addition to the extant species and subspecies above, archaeologists, paleontologists, and anthropologists have discovered numerous extinct great ape species. The list below are some of the genera of those discoveries.

See also Edit

Notes Edit

  1. ^ "Great ape" is a common name rather than a taxonomic label and there are differences in usage. Subtly, it may seem to exclude human beings ("humans and the great apes") or to include them ("humans and non-human great apes").

References Edit

  1. ^ Patterson, Nick; Richter, Daniel J.; Gnerre, Sante; Lander, Eric S.; Reich, David (2006), "Genetic evidence for complex speciation of humans and chimpanzees", Nature 441: 1103–1108, doi:10.1038/nature04789, 
  2. ^ Schwartz, J.H. (2005) The Red Ape. Westview Press.
  3. ^ Grehan, J.R. (2006) Mona Lisa Smile: The morphological enigma of human and great ape evolution. Anatomical Record 289B: 139-157.
  4. ^ Schwartz, J.H. (2004) Barking up the wrong ape - australopiths and the quest for chimpanzee characters in hominid fossils. Colloquim Antropologicum Supplement 28: 87-100.
  5. ^ Pickrell, John (2003-05-20). "Chimps Belong on Human Branch of Family Tree, Study Says". National Geographic. Retrieved on 2007-08-04. 
  6. ^ Relationship Humans-Gorillas.
  7. ^ Watson, E. E. et al. (2001). "Homo genus: a review of the classification of humans and the great apes". in eds. Tobias, P. V. et al.. Humanity from African Naissance to Coming Millennia. Florence: Firenze Univ. Press. pp. Pp. 311–323. 
  8. ^ Schwartz, J.H. (1986) Primate systematics and a classification of the order. Comparative primate biology volume 1: Systematics, evolution, and anatomy (ed. by D.R. Swindler, and J. Erwin), pp. 1-41, Alan R. Liss, New York.
  9. ^ Grehan, J.R. (2006) Mona Lisa Smile: The morphological enigma of human and great ape evolution. Anatomical Record 289B: 139-157.
  10. ^ Schwartz, J.H. (2004b) Issues in hominid systematics. Zona Arqueología 4, 360-371.
  11. ^ Heyes, C. M. (1998). "Theory of Mind in Nonhuman Primates". Behavioral and Brain Sciences 21. doi:10.1017/S0140525X98000703. bbs00000546. 
  12. ^ Van Schaik, C.P. et al. (2003) Orangutan cultures and the evolution of material culture. Science 299: 102-105.

External links Edit

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