Primates, Hominids, & Hominins

Concept 1: General Primate Characteristics

Success Criteria & Vocabulary

Click this drop-down menu to see the Success Criteria.

  • I can describe traits common to all primates.

  • I can name and describe the different parts of the primate skull.

  • I can compare the physical traits involved in locomotion of modern humans to our primate ancestors.

Click this drop-down menu to see the list of Vocabulary.


Timeline of early hominins, including biological and cultural evolution (Recommended).

Ardipithecus, australopithicus, homo. Visual representation of biological evolution - skulls. (Recommended).

More in-depth with cultural evolution.

Concept 1: Support Notes

Characteristics of and Primates

General characteristics of order Primates

Mammals in the order Primate have the following characteristics:


  • Prehensile (grasping) hands and feet - allows them to grip/manipulate objects.

  • Sometimes a prehensile trail - used for balance.

  • Nails instead of claws, sensitive finger pads - helps with manipulating objects.

  • 5 functional digits on each foot

  • Forward facing eyes/overlapping visual field. Allows them to easily see the world in 3D

  • Good hand-eye coordination

  • Bony ridges to protect eyes

  • Tendency toward having an erect upper body - associated with sitting, standing, leaping, and in some, walking.


  • Oestrus/reproductive cycle of female, 2 nipples

  • Gestation (pregnancy period) is longer than most other mammals.

  • Typically have one young per pregnancy


  • Longer periods of infant dependency, and large parental investment. This nurturing increases survival rate and allows cultural development.

  • Highly sociable, greater dependency on highly flexible learned behaviour.

Methods of Primate Locomotion

Most primates are adapted to an arboreal (tree-living) niche. But some have adapted to move on the ground.

Arboreal (tree-dwelling)

  • Quadrupedalism (on all fours)

  • Leaping

  • Brachiation (arm swinging from tree to tree).


  • Quadrupedalism (on all fours)

  • Knuckle-walking (arms hold the fingers in a partially curled posture that allows body weight to press down on the ground through the knuckles).

  • Bipedalism - habitual (walking on two legs consistently).

Hominin Adaptations for Tree Climbing (Interest Only)

  • Long strong arms meaning that their forelimbs are longer than their hindlimbs. This is because tree climbing relies heavily on forelimbs for climbing and arm-hanging/swinging activities.

  • Curved long fingers, which enabled the hominin to grip.

  • Flexible ankles that allow the primate to hold its body close to the tree, reducing energy it takes to climb.

  • Scapulas (shoulder blades) on the side, with long horizontal clavicles which place the humerus facing forward. This forward facing humerus enhances the hominin's ability to climb in a posture with its forelimb above its head.

Primate Skull Features

Being able to identify and compare different parts of a primate skull can help to identify the type of primate and various aspects of its biology (e.g. diet).

Knowing the names of major skull bones, as well as the features associated with a modern human skull will help you identify some of the evolutionary 'landmarks' in the development of humans.

For each of the male gorilla and modern human skulls below, you will use the internet to label each feature.

Concept 2: Timeline of Hominin Evolution

Success Criteria & Vocabulary

Click this drop-down menu to see the Success Criteria.

  • I can distinguish between the terms hominin and hominid.

  • I can analyse selected fossils ranging in age from Ardipithecus ramidus to modern Homo sapiens

Click this drop-down menu to see the list of Vocabulary.


Do Now:

Do Now:

Your group has been given a picture of a hominin skull.

Use your SciPAD pg 276-275 to identify the species name of your skull.

Go around the room and find the species name and real-life skull that matches your picture.

(We don't have real-life skulls for some species, so don't worry if you can't find your one).

Concept 2: Support Notes

Classifying Modern Humans

Hominin: the group of modern humans, extinct human species, and all our immediate ancestors (including members of the genera Homo, Australopithecus, Paranthropus, and Ardipithecus.

Hominid: the group of all modern and extinct Great Apes (e.g. modern humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, plus all their immediate ancestors).

Bipedalism is the main trait that separates hominins from all other hominids.

You must be familiar with the following species involved in human phylogeny:

  • Australopithecus afarensis

  • Paranthropus sp.

  • Homo habilis

  • H. erectus

  • H.heidelbergensis

  • H. neanderthalensis

  • H. sapiens

  • H.floresiensis

  • Denisovans

Hominins include living humans, our ancestors (pre-humans) and the bipedal apes with whom we share our evolutionary history.

About 6-7 mya, the ancestor of living humans and chimpanzees diverged into two geographically isolated populations. One of those groups eventually evolved into us, the other evolved into chimps. Thus, we and the living chimps share a common evolutionary ancestor who lived about 6-7 mya in Africa. This is demonstrated by the fact that we share about 99% of our DNA.

The most defining characteristics of hominins is our bipedal (two footed) locomotion and upright posture. It is a form of locomotion found 6-7 Mya. The earliest hominins also show changes in tooth form that mark a change in diet and social organisation.

Dozens of hominin species lived on earth. Most of the evidence on hominin lineage is from fossils and as more and more fossils are found; the hominin lineage is refined.

Trends in Human Evolution: Overview

Zoom in on parts of the diagram below, which shows the trends in hominin evolution over time. Only the five species representative of the general trends are shown here.

  1. Australopithecus afarensis - The early australopithecines were ancestral to Homo habilis.

  2. Homo habilis - Ancestral to modern humans.

  3. Homo erectus - Some populations of Homo erectus migrated out of Africa, evantually giving rise to populations of Homo in the Middle East and Europe.

  4. Homo neanderthalensis - Eventually evolved in Western Europe

  5. Homo sapiens - Evolved in Africa

The hominin fossil record shows clear evolutionary trends towards bipedalism, increased brain size, increased height, and increased technical ability.