Glossary of human evolution

This glossary is intended as a learning resource either for those taking one of my online courses on human evolution or for those otherwise interested in learning about evolution and human origins.


This glossary will amended and extended over time. I intend eventually to increase the scope of the glossary beyond human evolution into evolutionary studies in general. Please let me know if you have any suggestions as to where you think the glossary should be expanded.




A stone tool industry that was used by hominins from around 1.7 million to 200,000 years ago. The industry is characterised by handaxes, tools that were worked symmetrically on both sides, creating a teardrop shape. The are sometimes referred to as Mode 2 tools and represent a significant technological leap over the earlier Oldowan tool industry (also known as Mode 1 tools).



The "higher primates", including monkeys, apes and humans (who are really just a type of ape).



Walking habitually on two legs, such as in humans and birds. Regarded as one of the defining characteristics of hominins and one that evolved early in their evolution.



The domed casing of the upper skull bones. Also known as the cranium.



A member of the primate group Catarrhini comprising the Old World monkeys and apes.



All group of species that includes all of the descendants of a last common ancestor.



Grouping and classifying species based upon clades.



A bone found in the shoulder or pectoral region of mammals, birds, and some reptiles. Also known as the collar bone.



An archaeological artefact created when a block of raw material has been reduced by the removal of flakes by the process of knapping, usually carried out by a hammerstone.



See braincase.



Short for deoxyribonucleic acid, a very molecule made up of small individual units. It is found in the cells of all living organisms and the order of the units provides the genetic instructions (genes) of the organism.



The thigh bone, which links the pelvis (hip bone) to the lower leg at the knee.


Foramen magnum

The opening at the base of skull through which the spinal cord passes. A more central position under the base of the skull indicates that the skull was held erect on top of spine, which turn suggests bipedal locomotion. 



Certain segments on a molecule of DNA that carry information pertaining to a particular feature of a living organism. Inherited by offspring from parents.


Great ape

Living humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and their extinct ancestors. See hominid.



A large stone  used for knapping (or striking) flakes or pieces from a core.



A member of the primate group Haplorrhini that includes monkeys, apes and tarsiers.



The most recent epoch of the Quaternary period, from about 12,000 years ago to the present day, preceded by the Pleistocene epoch.



A member of the biological family Hominidae, the great apes and their ancestors. Previously, this term was used exclusively for humans and their ancestors, whereas the term hominin is now usually used for this purpose.



A member of the biological tribe Hominini that includes humans and their ancestors after the split from the last common ancestor with the chimpanzee around 7 million years ago.



A member of the biological superfamily Hominoidea, which includes hominids (great apes) and hylobatids (gibbons and siamangs).



The upper arm bone, which connects the shoulder bones to the lower arm at the elbow.



People who hunt wild animals and gather wild plant foods, in contrast to using farming methods. It can be safely assumed that all hominins and members of modern humans until about 10,000 years ago were hunter-gatherers.



Striking a piece of stone in order to obtain a desired shape, for example using a hammerstone to detach flakes from a core.



A method of quadrupedal (four-limbed) locomotion where the fingers of the hands are flexed and the middle finger bones provide support for the front of the body.



Lower jaw bone.



Upper jaw bone which is fixed to the rest of the skull.



The first epoch of the Neogene epoch, spanning from 23-5.3 million years ago.


Natural selection

The differential survival and reproduction of individuals due to differences in physical and behavioural characteristics. Those individuals that are better adapted to their environment are more likely to pass on their characteristics (and genes) to the next generation. One the most important processes of evolution.



The earliest well-defined stone tool industry, which was used by hominins from around 2.6-1.4 million years ago. It is characterised by simply worked cores and flakes, both of which were used as either tools or waste material, depending on the situation. It is the industry that came before the Acheulean (Mode 2) industry and is sometimes referred as Mode 1.



The study of human evolution, using evidence including fossils, archaeology such as from stone tools or the remains of living structures, and trace fossils such as footprints or tooth marks.



Also known as the Old Stone Age, and spans from the earliest known stone tools 3.3 million years ago to the start of the Mesolithic about 15-20,000 years ago (depending on the region).



The hip bone, which links the lower backbone to the femur (thigh bone).



A member of the primate group Platyrrhini, the New World monkeys.



The first epoch of the Quaternary period, lasting from about 2.6 million years ago to 12,000 years ago, and followed by the Holocene epoch.



The second epoch of the Neogene period, from 5.3-2.6 million years ago, following the Miocene and preceding the Pleistocene.



The biological order to which humans belong that is divided into the haplorrhines and the strepsirrhines.



The shoulder blade, which links the upper backbone to the humerus (upper arm bone).


Sexual dimorphism

The physical difference between adult males and females. Can affect overall body size, tooth size, facial features, and other aspects. Modern humans have lower sexual dimorphism than many of their extinct ancestors.



The formation of new species, such as when populations of the same species become isolated in different habitats and each adapt differently to the new conditions, eventually evolving to become separate species. 



A member of the primate group Strepsirrhini, which includes lemurs, lorises, and galagos.

Learn Online About human evolution

If you want to learn more about human evolution please consider taking one my online courses on human evolution. No prior knowledge is required, all that is required is an passion in learning about human origins!


There is a 30-day money back guarantee on all courses. Free samples are also available for all courses so you try them out and see if you like them before even paying.