Was that a typo?

Leah Eisenstadt, January 4th, 2011 | Filed under
  • Skull of our fellow hominin, the Neandertal
    Image courtesy of Luna04, Wikimedia Commons

Last month, we announced results from an international study of DNA from an exceptionally well-preserved finger bone found in Denisova Cave in southern Siberia. The work, led by scientists at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology with contributions from several Broad researchers, provides evidence that a previously unknown class of human — dubbed the Denisovans — walked the earth at least 30,000 years ago alongside modern humans, Neandertals, and the “hobbit” of Flores. The results suggest that this archaic hominin even interbred with the ancestors of people living in Melanesia, leaving an impact on their genome today.

You may have wondered if “hominin” was a typo, and whether we meant to use the term “hominid.” The short answer is no, but the long answer requires a bit of taxonomic explanation. Until recently, scientists had referred to members of the human family as hominids, in reference to the family name, Hominidae. The term included our bipedal ancestors, such as the Neandertals, the Denisovans, and other extinct human forms like Australopithecus. This grouping fell under the superfamily, Hominoids, which included humans and all great apes. But the traditional classification did not reflect the true relationships among the hominoids— namely, that chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely related evolutionarily to modern Homo sapiens and our extinct bipedal ancestors than to the other great apes.

A revised classification has been proposed, though it has not been completely agreed upon by experts in the field of anthropology. In the new classification, hominid refers to the great apes and the human line, and hominin refers to the human line only. So this term, “hominin,” is not a typo, but an updated reference to modern humans and all our bipedal predecessors who are more closely related to us than to our other primate cousins.

Robert Jurmain, Lynn Kilgore, Wenda Trevathan. Essentials of Physical Anthropology. 2008.

Underdown, S. How the word ‘hominid’ evolved to include hominin. Nature. December 7, 2006. DOI: 10.1038/444680d