Paleoenvironments of Some Prominent Fossil Finds

Back to contents

Locality Paleoenvironment Fossil Description


Lake and associated flood plain with braided streams and rivers (Aronson and Taieb 1981; Gray 1980)
Although a general drying of the African continent continued throughout the Pliocene (5.3 - 1.8 Ma) the Hadar region and North East Africa remained relatively moist (Chandler, M)
Most famous for the discovery of "Lucy" and the "First Family" both Australopithecus afarensis
(D.Johanson 1974/75).
Lucy - 40 % complete skeleton including pelvis, femur, and tibia indicating bipedalism. 3.2 Ma
First Family - 13 individuals of all ages, and varying sizes (may be a mix of species).
3.2 Ma
Olduvai Gorge

Homo erectus

Salt lake with surroundig flood plains with seasonal streams and rivers and dry grasslands savannah; tectonic changes after 1.5 Ma ago resulted in the drying up of the lake (Hay 1976, 1981; Isaac 1984). Various Homo habilis remains, mostly teeth and skull fragments (Leakey et al. 1964 and P. Nzube 1968); 1.8 - 1.6 Ma

Homo erectus remains:

  • Louis Leakey 1961, , partial braincase, Brain size 1065 cc; 1.4 Ma
  • Margaret Cropper 1962; brain size 750 cc, about 600,000 - 800,000 BP.
Koobi Fora

Homo habilis

Before ~ 1.6 Ma fresh lake with flood-plains, gallery forests and dry thorn savannahs; During later times the lake fluctuated from fresh to brackish water. Homo habilis or rudolfensis, most complete habilis skull to date, discovered by B. Ngeneo 1972 (Leakely 1973); brain size 750 cc: 1.9 Ma.

Homo erectus discovered by B. Ngeneo 1975; almost complete cranium, large brain size about 850 cc. Found with A. boisei confirming presence of more that one hominid species existing at one time (Leakey and Walker 1976); 1.7 Ma.


Homo erectus

Before ~ 2.1 Ma, a large lake and gallery forests around rivers, many aquatic animals are found, with few terrestrial animals. Overall drying through time, reducing the forests to river/lake margins. (Bonnefille 1976, 1979; Brown 1981). Australpithecus aethiopicus discovered by Alan Walker in 1985, in West Turkana, Kenya. An almost complete cranium (The "Black Skull") with primitive and advanced features, ~ 410 cc. brain size, 2.4 Ma.

Australopithecus boisei

  • Leakey 1970, near lake Turkana 500 cc. brain size, about 1.7 Ma;
  • Suwa et al. 1997, skull and lower jaw ~ 1.4 Ma 545 cc brain size.
Homo erectus "Turkana Boy", discovered by Kamoya Kimeu in 1984, (Brown et al. 1985; Leakey and Lewin 1992; Walker and Leakey 1992; Walker and Shipman 1996) Most complete fossil of erectus, 880 cc. brain size, 5'3'' tall, found near Lake Turkana 1.6 Ma.
South Africa
Makapansgat, Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai, and Taung

Homo habilis

All locals were mosaic savannah environments with Makapansgat Member 3 and Sterkfontein Member 4 being less open (more bush/woodland) that Swartkrans Mb1 and Sterkfontwin Mb5 - this suggests a trend from wetter to drier conditions through time (Vrba 1975, 1976, 1985). Australopithecus africanus "Taung" Child, discovered by Raymond Dart in 1924, full face teeth and jaws, and endocranial cast of the brain. Thought to be a child of 3-5 years, 410 cc brain size, bipedal, 2 - 3 Ma.

Australopithecus africanus, Broom and Robinson 1947; Sterkfontien, nearly complete vertabral column, pelvis, some rib fragments. Pelvis more human than apelike, indicating bipedalism (Brace et al. 1979) 2.5 Ma

Homo habilis Sterkfontein; Discovered by Alan Hughes in 1976 (Hughes and Tobias 1977). Cranial fragmants and teeth, found together with stone tools. 1.5 - 2 Ma.

Africa and Beyond

Homo sapiens

Homo erectus
"Peking Man"

Homo sapiens sapiens

Various Paleoenvironments all with water present, lakes, coasts, rivers etc. Homo habilis "Java Man", discovered by Eugene Dubois 1891, Indonesia. Consists of flat thick skullcap, and a few teeth. brain size 940 cc, 700,000 BP.

Homo erectus "Peking Man", through 1929 to 1937; 14 partial craniums, 11 lower jaws, many teeth , bones and stone tools were found in in Peking Man site near Beijing China (Davidson Black prior to 1934; , Franz Weidenreich until 1941). Fossils lost during WW2, casts still available. Age is about 500,000 - 300,000 BP. Brain sizes range from 915 - 1225 cc.

Homo erectus Java, Sartono 1969, almost complete cranium; oldest erectus find on Java, 1.7 Ma (recent dating), 800K (old dating) brain size 1000 cc.

Homo sapiens (archaic)

  • "Heidelberg Man", 1907 Heidelberg Germany, 400,000 - 700,000 BP, lower jaw with receding chin and all teeth.
  • Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, Neander Valley Germany, 1856.
Homo sapiens sapiens Modern Humans, "Cro-Magnon Man", found at the Cro-Magnon site in France, skeletons of about 12 individuals, tools of bone, antler and stone, ivory jewelry and shells. 28,000 years.
Back to contents