There are a lot of assumptions made about Homo erectus and, indeed, there is much confusion surrounding the species (see: various items in Human evolution and migrations logs for 2001, 2002, 2003 and several other years). For a start, the name derives from Eugene Dubois’s 1891 discovery of several hominin cranial fragments in sediments deposited by the Solo River in Java. Dubois was the first to recognise in ‘Java Man’ the human-ape ‘missing link’ about which Charles Darwin speculated in his The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Dubois named the beings Pithecanthropus (now Homo) erectus. Once the “multiregional” versus “out-of-Africa” debate about the origin of anatomically modern humans (AMH) emerged after a variety of H. erectus-like fossils had also turned up in Africa and Europe, as well as in East and SE Asia, ‘Java Man’ was adopted by the multiregionalists as ‘evidence’ for separate evolution of AMH in Asia. Such a view remains adhered to by a tenacious number of Chinese palaeoanthropologists, but by virtually no-one else.
The earliest of the African ‘erects’ were distinguished as H. ergaster, represented by the 1.6 Ma old, almost intact skeleton of Nariokotome Boy from the Turkana area of Kenya. In Africa the specific names ergaster and erectus often seem to be used as synonyms, whereas similar-looking fossils from Asia are almost always referred to as ‘Asian H. erectus’. Matters became even more confusing when the earliest human migrants from Africa to Eurasia were discovered at Dmanisi in Georgia (see; Human evolution and migrations logs for 2002, 2003, 2007, 2013). Anatomically they deviate substantially from both H. ergaster and Asian erectus – and from each other! – and at 1.8 Ma they are very old indeed. Perhaps as a palliative in the academic rows that broke out following their discovery, for the moment they are called Homo erectus georgicus; a sub-species. But, then, how can Asian H. erectus be regarded as their descendants. Yet anatomically erectus-like fossils are known in East and SE Asia from 1.5 Ma onwards.
There is another mystery. Homo ergaster/erectus in Africa made distinctive tools, typified by the bifacial Acheulian hand axe. Their tool kit remained substantially the same for more than a million years, and was inherited by all the descendants of H. erectus in Africa and Europe: by H. antecessor, heidelbergensis, Neanderthals and early AMH. Yet in Asia, such a technology has not been discovered at sites older than around 250 thousand years. Either no earlier human migrants into Asia made and carried such artefacts or stone tools were largely abandoned by early Asian humans in favour of those more easily made from woods, for instance bamboo.
In 1996 the youngest Solo River sediments that had yielded H. erectus remains in the 1930s were dated using electron-spin resonance and uranium-series methods. The results suggested occupation by ‘erects’ between 53 and 27 ka, triggering yet more astonishment, because fully modern humans had by then also arrived in Indonesia. Could anatomically modern humans have co-existed with a species whose origin went back to almost two million years beforehand? It has taken another two decades for this perplexing issue to be clarified – to some extent. The previous dates were checked using more precise versions of the original geochronological methods covering a wider range of sediment strata (Rizal, Y. et al. 2019. Last appearance of Homo erectus at Ngandong, Java, 117,000–108,000 years ago. Nature, published online; DOI:10.1038/s41586-019-1863-2). No AMH presence in Asia is known before about 80 ka, so can the astonishment be set aside? Possibly, but what is known for sure from modern and ancient DNA comparisons is that early modern human migrants interbred with a more ancient Asian group, the Denisovans. At present that group is only known from a site in Siberia and another in Tibet through a finger bone and a few molar teeth that yielded DNA significantly different from both living humans and ancient Neanderthals. So we have no tangible evidence of what the Denisovans looked like, unlike Asian H. erectus of whom there are many substantial fossils. Yet DNA has not been extracted from any of them. That is hardly surprising for the Indonesian specimens because hot and humid conditions cause DNA to break down quickly and completely. There is a much better chance of extracting genomes from the youngest H. erectus fossils from higher latitudes in China. Once that is achieved, we will know whether they are indeed erects or can be matched genetically with Denisovans.
See also: Price, M. 2019. Ancient human species made ‘last stand’ 100,000 years ago on Indonesian island (Science)