Unit 1 – Hominins


Hominins, of which only one species—Homo sapiens—currently exists, are members of the family Hominidae. In this unit, students will learn about extinct hominin species and gain a general understanding of what anthropologists have been able to discern about our ancestors and other hominin species.

SAPIENS Articles:


Professor Talking Points:

  • Some features that distinguish hominins from other primates include: upright posture, bipedal movement, larger and smarter brains, specialized tool use, and communication through language (in some cases).
  • As great apes, humans are part of the family Hominidae and part of the tribe Hominini, which includes modern humans, extinct human species, and our immediate ancestors. (NOTE: Students should be made aware that “tribe” is a taxonomic term that refers to a classification level of groups between subfamily and genus, not a social grouping of humans.)
  • Archaeological and biological anthropological research continue to identify different species of hominins and uncover new insights on evolutionary processes that tell us more about modern humans and the lives of our ancestors.

Academic Articles:

  • Pontzer, Herman. 2012. “Overview of Hominin Evolution.” Nature Education Knowledge 3 (10): 8.
  • Zollikofer, Christoph Peter Eduard, and Marcia Silvia Ponce De León. 2013. “Pandora’s Growing Box: Inferring the Evolution and Development of Hominin Brains From Endocasts.” Evolutionary Anthropology 22 (1): 20–33.

Student Discussion Questions:

  1. What does the discovery of Homo luzonensis and the hypothesis about its behavior tell us about hominin life and movement at the time of that species’s existence?
  2. Make a rough timeline of the appearance of the defining traits of hominins (using http://humanorigins.si.edu/human-characteristics and http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior). What evidence supports the order you have constructed?
  3. What is the significance of studying hominin brains? What can we learn from new findings about our ancestors and ourselves?
  4. What do Homo sapiens have in common with other hominins? What sets us apart as a species? Why might we know more about what makes us different than about what we share?


  • Find inspiration in the Smithsonian Institution’s lesson plans.

Additional Resources:


Unit by Eshe Lewis (2020)