Glossary of Terms

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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- A -

Acheulian click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced tool tradition
the most well known stone tool making tradition of Homo erectus and early archaic Homo sapiens.  It first appeared about 1.5 million years ago or somewhat earlier in East Africa and eventually spread throughout Africa, Southern Europe, and South Asia.  The most diagnostic Acheulian artifact is the hand ax.
adaptive radiation
the relatively rapid expansion and diversification of an evolving group of organisms as they adapt to new ecological niches.  Adaptive radiation is the process by which one species evolves into two or more species.  This occurs as a result of different populations becoming reproductively isolated from each other, usually by adapting to different environments.
archaic Homo sapiens   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the variety or species of humans that was intermediate between Homo erectus and modern people (Homo sapiens).  The first archaic Homo sapiens may have evolved as early as 650,000 years ago, but most  lived after 300,000 years ago.  The last and most well known of them were the Neandertals, who survived until nearly 28,000 years ago.  Archaic Homo sapiens have also been referred to as "archaic humans" and "early Homo sapiens."
artifact   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a thing that has been manufactured or intentionally modified for some use.  Stone tools such as hand axes are examples of artifacts.
australopithecines   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
members of any species of the genus Australopithecus.  They lived during the Pliocene and early Pleistocene geological Epochs in Africa (i.e., ca. 4.2-1.4 million years ago).  Australopithecines and humans are hominins.  One or more species of australopithecines probably were our ancestors
Australopithecus   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
see australopithecines

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Bergmann's Rule  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced

within the same species of warm-blooded animals, individuals from populations living in colder environments usually have greater body mass than do those from populations in warmer areas.  This is because of the selective advantage it provides.  A massive body produces more internal heat and radiates relatively less of it into the surrounding environment because the skin surface area is relatively smaller.  Subsequently, a massive body produces and retains more heat.    Bergmann's Rule was named after Carl Bergmann, a19th century naturalist.
biface   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a stone tool that is shaped on two faces or sides.  Hand axes are examples of bifaces.
big game hunting
a specialized subsistence pattern based primarily on hunting large animals, especially herbivorous herding mammals such as horses, reindeer, bison, and elephants.
biocultural click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced evolution
the pattern of human evolution beginning at least with Homo erectus in which the effects of natural selection are altered by cultural inventions.  Culture can alter the direction of evolution by creating non-biological adaptations to environmental challenges (e.g., wearing insulating clothes on very cold days).  This potentially reduces the need to evolve genetic responses to the challenges.
bipedal   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a two-footed, upright form of locomotion typical of hominins.  Human walking is an example of bipedalism.
bottleneck effect
a dramatic reduction in genetic diversity of a population or species resulting from an ecological crisis that wipes out most of its members.  The limited genetic diversity of the few survivors is the pool from which all future generations are based.

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carnivorous    click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
eating only meat.  Animals that have this sort of diet are carnivores.  See herbivorous and omnivorous.
core tool   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a tool made from a relatively large block of rock rather than from the flakes that are removed from it by percussion flaking in the manufacturing process.  Most hand axes are core tools.
cranial capacity
the volume displaced by the brain within a cranium click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, or skull case.  Cranial capacity is a simple measure of brain size but not necessarily of intelligence.

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developmental adjustment
 
a change in the normal growth patterns and development of an individual that occurs in childhood as a result of specific cultural practices (e.g., foot binding) or other environmental processes.  The anatomical and physiological changes that result are mostly irreversible by adulthood.  Example: stunted growth and mild mental retardation due to severe, prolonged undernourishment.  Developmental adjustment is also referred to as "developmental acclimatization."

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- E -

ecological niches   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
specific micro-habitats in nature to which populations or organisms adapt.   They are usually seen in terms of being food getting opportunities in the environment.
East Asian chopping tool tradition

a stone tool making tradition of late Homo erectus in East Asia.  It is most well known from the site of Zhoukoudian click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced near Beijing, China.  Unlike the Acheulian tradition that was in use elsewhere at the same time, stone hand axes apparently were not made or used.

evolution   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
genetic change in a population of organisms that occurs over time.  The term is also frequently used to refer to the appearance of a new species.  More specifically, it is change in the frequencies of alleles in a population's gene pool from one generation to the next.

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femur   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the scientific name of the upper leg bones.  In the case of 4 legged animals, the femurs are in the rear legs.
flake tool   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
an artifact made from a flake knocked off of a larger rock usually by percussion flakingHomo habilis and Homo erectus used flakes mostly as cutting and scraping tools.  Flakes may be intentionally produced for these purposes or they may be waste flakes produced in the process of making a core tool.
frontal
referring to the forehead region of the head.

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- G -

genera   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced

the plural of genus click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (the level of classification immediately above species in the Linnaean classification system).

glacial   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
A long period of time during which earth's climate cools, causing glaciers to expand out from the poles and mountains covering vast areas.  The glacials of the Pleistocene Epoch mostly occurred in the northern hemisphere.  See interglacial.
gracile   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
graceful, slender, and delicate.   This 17th century English term is used to describe the body characteristics (especially bones) of the early australopithecines and the earliest humans.

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- H -

hand ax
     photo of an Acheulean hand ax
a rock core or large flake that has been systematically worked by percussion flaking to an elongated oval biface shape with one pointed end and sharp edges on the sides.  In profile, hand axes usually have a teardrop or leaf shape.  Hand axes are diagnostic tools of the Acheulian tool tradition of Homo erectus after about 1.5 million years ago.  They continued to be made and used by early archaic Homo sapiens.  Very likely, they were multipurpose implements used for light chopping of wood, digging up roots and bulbs, butchering animals, and cracking bones.  
herbivorous   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
eating only vegetable foods.  Animals that have this sort of diet are herbivores or vegetarians. See carnivorous and omnivorous.
hominid   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
any species of the primate family Hominidae.   The gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos,  australopithecines, and humans are hominids.
Hominidae   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
see hominid.
hominin   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
any species of the primate tribe Hominini.   The australopithecines and humans are hominins
hominini   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
see hominin.
Homo   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the genus in which all humans are classified. 
Homo erectus   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
 
photo of a Homo erectus skull
photo of a Homo ergasgter skull

photo of a Homo habilis skull

the species of humans that followed Homo habilis and preceded Homo sapiens in our line of evolution.  Homo erectus evolved in East Africa nearly 2 million years ago.  They were the first humans to expand their range into Asia and Europe.  By at least 400,000 years ago, they were beginning a transitional evolutionary phase that would eventually lead to archaic Homo sapiens.  See Homo ergaster and Homo heidelbergensis.
Homo ergaster   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
An early form of the species Homo erectus from East AfricaIn an alternate interpretation, some researchers consider Homo ergaster to be the species that immediately preceded Homo erectus in our line of evolution.  Homo ergaster fossils date about 1.8-1.5 million years ago.
Homo habilis   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a transitional species between the australopithecines and Homo erectusHomo habilis may have first appeared by 2.4 million years ago and continued until about 1.6 million years ago.  They lived in East and possibly South Africa.
Homo heidelbergensis   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
A very early form of archaic Homo sapiens in Europe and North Africa that lived from about 800,000 to 200,000 years ago.  In an alternate interpretation, some researchers consider Homo heidelbergensis to be a separate species.  Homo heidelbergensis may have been the ancestor of the Neandertals. 
Homo rudolfensis   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
An early form of the species Homo habilisIn an alternate interpretation, some researchers consider Homo rudolfensis to be the species that immediately preceded Homo habilis in our line of evolution.  Homo rudolfensis fossils date 2.4-1.9 million years ago.
Homo sapiens   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
photo of a modern Homo sapiens skull
Our species of humans.  Homo sapiens evolved from Homo erectus over several hundred thousand years beginning by at least 400,000 years ago.  The first modern Homo sapiens most likely evolved from archaic Homo sapiens by about 200,000-100,000 years ago in Africa and/or Southwest Asia.
human
a member of the genus Homo.

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- I -

interglacial   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
A long period of warmer conditions between glacials when the earth's glaciers have shrunk to a smaller area.  Interglacials during the Pleistocene Epoch lasted 10's of thousands of years.  We are probably in an interglacial at present.
 

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- L -

Lake Turkana click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced Boy
a nearly complete Homo erectus skeleton of a 12 year old boy found by Richard Leakey's team on the western side of Lake Turkana , Kenya at the Nariokotome site.  "Lake Turkana Boy" dates to 1.6 million years ago.  This fossil is also called "Turkana Boy", "Nariokotome Boy", and "KNM-WT 15000."

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- M -

molar click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced teeth
the comparatively large grinding teeth at the back of the mouth in mammals.  In all hominids, apes, and Old World monkeys, there are normally 3 molars in each quadrant of the mouth.

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- N -

natural selection
an evolutionary mechanism that occurs when some individuals of a population are better able to adapt to their environment and, subsequently, produce more offspring.  Nature, in effect, selects which members of a population are fit to survive long enough to reproduce.  Differential productive success between individuals is the key.  Those who produce more offspring have a greater influence on the gene frequencies of the next generation.  This mechanism of evolutionary change was first articulated by Charles Darwin.
Neandertals   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the most well known late archaic humans.  They lived mostly in Europe and the Southwest Asia from at least 130,000 years ago until at sometime around 28,000 years ago.  Early evidence of Neandertal-like characteristics are seen in the fossil record of Spain beginning about 400,000 years ago.  There is an on-going debate as to whether they should be considered Homo sapiens or a distinct but related species.  If they were members of our species, they were a different variety or race (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis).  On the other hand, if they were different enough to be a distinct species, they should be considered to be Homo neanderthalensis.

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- O -

Oldowan click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced tool tradition
  photo of an Oldowan Tradition stone core tool
 
the earliest stone tool making tradition.  The first Oldowan artifacts were made in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago presumably by Homo habilis and continued to be made by early Homo erectus until about 1.5 million years ago.  They consisted of simple core (shown here) and flake tools only slightly modified from their natural state by percussion flaking.
omnivorous  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the ability to live by eating both meat and vegetable foods.   See carnivorous and herbivorous.
Osteodontokeratic click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced tool tradition
a hypothetical early human and possibly late australopithecine tool making tradition based on the use of bones, teeth, and horns.  This was proposed in the 1940's by Raymond Dart, but most paleoanthropologists reject it today.

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- P -

paranthropoids   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
members of any species of the hominin genus Paranthropus described by Robert Broom in the late 1930's.  Most paleoanthropologists today consider the paranthropoids to be robust australopithecines.  They lived during the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene geological Epochs in Africa (i.e., ca. 2.5-1.2 million years ago).
Peking Man   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a common name given to the Homo erectus skeletal remains from the limestone cave site at Zhoukoudian click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced near Beijing, China.  In the past, Peking Man was also referred to as Sinanthropus pekinensis click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (literally "Chinese man from Peking" or Beijing).
pelvis   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the bones of the hip region.  The pelvis is also referred to as the "pelvic girdle."
percussion flaking
a tool making technique in which a brittle rock (e.g., obsidian, flint, chert, and basalt) that will potentially be an artifact is struck with a heavy glancing blow from another dense rock (i.e., a hammerstone) in order to cause a flake to be removed.  An artifact can be shaped by carefully and systematically directing the percussion blows with the hammerstone.  Percussion flaking works when a sufficiently large shock wave is directed into the target rock so that the elastic limit of the material is exceeded.  This causes one or more flakes to be broken off.
Pithecanthropus erectus   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the original name given by Eugene Dubois to the Homo erectus skeletal remains from Java.  Literally, Pithecanthropus erectus means "ape-man who stands erect."  This scientific designation is no longer in use.
Pleistocene Epoch   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the sixth geological epoch of the Cenozoic Era.  The Pleistocene occurred approximately 1.81 million to 10,000 years ago.  This was mostly a time of world cooling punctuated by 3-4 major ice ages.  Most human evolution took place during the Pleistocene.
premolar click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced teeth    (bicuspids click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced)
the teeth with two-pointed crowns located between the molars and the canines.   In hominids, apes, and all Old World monkeys, there are two premolars in each quadrant of the mouth.  The premolars are also called bicuspids click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.

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- S -

Sinanthropus pekinensis   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the original name given to the Homo erectus skeletal remains from the limestone cave site at Zhoukoudian click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced near Beijing, China.  Sinanthropus pekinensis literally means "Chinese man from Peking" or Beijing.
subsistence pattern
referring to sources of food and the way they are obtained (e.g., scavenging and hunting).  "Subsistence base" and "subsistence strategy" also are used to mean essentially the same thing as subsistence pattern. 
subtropical
 
  photo of a Homo erectus skull with the supraorbital torus highlighted
referring to climatic regions in between tropical and temperate zones.  Subtropical areas rarely have winter snow and are warm enough to grow oranges and avocados.
supraorbital tori   pronounce word    (singular: supraorbital torus)
prominent projecting bony bars or brow ridges above the eyes.  This trait was characteristic of Homo erectus and some other early humans.

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- T -

temperate
referring to climatic regions in between subtropical and subarctic zones.  Temperate areas usually have winter snow and are too cold to grow oranges and avocados.
temporal
referring to the temple regions high on the sides towards the front of the head.
tropical
referring to the warmest climatic regions.  They are usually found within 20-30 latitude from the Equator.  All human evolution until relatively late Homo erectus occurred in the tropics, especially in Africa.  See subtropical and temperate.
tundra   click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
cold, treeless regions having permanently frozen subsoil (permafrost click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced) that only supports extremely hardy low-growing vegetation such as lichens, mosses, and stunted shrubs (in the summer).

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Copyright 1999-2014 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
illustration credits