Out of Africa

by Colin McIntosh​
out of africa
A recent discovery off the coast of the island of Taiwan, made by local fishermen, is causing scientists to re-examine their ideas about early humans. The skull of a male human, now nicknamed Penghu Man, was found to differ significantly from the skulls of the Homo Erectus species previously known in the area at the same time. Did the new jaw belong to a new species? Or was it the property of an individual of the species Homo sapiens, recently arrived in China from Africa? This is just one of the stream of news stories that appear regularly in the media, reflecting a natural human curiosity about where we come from. This area of popular science has a large literature and a growing readership.

Several new words from the terminology of palaeoanthropology have recently entered the Cambridge English Dictionary, reflecting this increased interest.

Some of these are derived from the Latin word homo, meaning ‘man’ or ‘human’. The word Homo itself is applied to the ​genus (a group of species) that ​includes ​modern ​humans and other ​extinct ​human ​species. Hominin and hominid have had an interesting change in meaning, now reflected in the Dictionary. Previously the word hominid was used to refer to a member of a human species; this meaning has now been taken over by hominin. Hominid is now used by scientists to include all of the great apes, including gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos (a new entry to the Dictionary, reflecting their acceptance as a separate species from chimpanzees), and orang-utan, as well as humans.

Learners of English will be interested to read that a non-standard use, common among native speakers, is to interpret Homo sapiens as a plural noun because of the final s. Google shows around 36,000 hits for “homo sapiens were”, more than the hits for ‘homo sapiens was’. In the online Cambridge English Dictionary, you’ll see that Homo sapiens has the label [S], which signifies that it is a singular noun, and should only be used in the singular.

Other terms related to the interest in human evolution include bipedal (nothing to do with bicycles); hunter-gatherer (is this the origin of the foraged food found on contemporary restaurant menus?); and mesolithic, to join the other -lithics, palaeolithic (paleolithic in American English) and neolithic.

Also added were the groupings Australopithecus, an early hominid, separate from Homo; and Cro-Magnon, the early modern humans of Europe. Neanderthals must have been a pretty unpopular bunch of hominins, judging by the secondary meanings now given to neanderthal, including old-fashioned, unwilling to change, rude, and offensive. Well, they say history is written by the victors, and there are no Neanderthals around today to complain about misrepresentation.