What is a Hominid? A Guide to the Great Apes
If you are interested in learning about the evolution of humans and their closest relatives, you might have come across the term “hominid”. But what does it mean exactly? And who are the hominids today?
In this article, we will explain the definition and history of the word “hominid”, as well as the characteristics and diversity of the hominid family. We will also explore some of the fascinating facts and discoveries about the hominids, both living and extinct.
Definition of Hominid
According to Merriam-Webster, a hominid is “any of a family (Hominidae) of erect bipedal primate mammals that includes recent humans together with extinct ancestral and related forms and in some recent classifications the great apes (the orangutan, gorilla, chimpanzee, and bonobo)”.
The word “hominid” comes from the Latin “homin-“, meaning “human”, and “-idae”, meaning “family”. It was first used in the late 19th century to refer to humans and their fossil ancestors. However, in the 1990s, the term was expanded to include all the great apes, based on genetic and molecular evidence that showed they are more closely related to humans than previously thought.
Today, there are eight extant (living) species of hominids in four genera (groups): Pongo (the Bornean, Sumatran and Tapanuli orangutan), Gorilla (the eastern and western gorilla), Pan (the chimpanzee and the bonobo), and Homo (of which only modern humans remain). All these species are native to Africa or Asia, and are endangered or critically endangered due to habitat loss, hunting, disease, and other threats.
Characteristics of Hominids
Hominids share some common features that distinguish them from other primates. These include:
- A large brain relative to body size, which enables high cognitive abilities such as language, tool use, culture, and self-awareness.
- A bipedal locomotion (walking on two legs), which frees the hands for manipulating objects and increases the efficiency of travel.
- An opposable thumb (and in some cases a big toe), which allows grasping and fine motor skills.
- A reduced or absent tail, which reflects a shift from arboreal (tree-dwelling) to terrestrial (ground-dwelling) lifestyle.
- A flat face with forward-facing eyes, which enhances binocular vision and depth perception.
- A complex social structure and communication system, which facilitates cooperation, learning, and bonding.
However, hominids also exhibit a remarkable diversity in their morphology (body shape and size), behavior, ecology, and genetics. For example:
- Orangutans are the largest arboreal animals in the world, spending most of their time in the trees. They are mostly solitary, except for mothers and their offspring. They have long arms and reddish-brown hair.
- Gorillas are the largest living primates, weighing up to 200 kg. They live in groups led by a dominant male (silverback). They are mainly herbivorous, feeding on leaves, stems, fruits, and occasionally insects.
- Chimpanzees are the most closely related to humans among the great apes, sharing about 98% of their DNA. They are highly intelligent and social animals, capable of using tools, hunting cooperatively, and expressing emotions. They have black hair and pinkish skin.
- Bonobos are similar to chimpanzees in appearance and genetics, but differ in their behavior and ecology. They are more peaceful and egalitarian than chimpanzees, resolving conflicts through sexual contact rather than violence. They are also more frugivorous (fruit-eating) than chimpanzees.
- Humans are the only living species of the genus Homo. They have evolved several adaptations that enable them to colonize diverse environments across the globe. These include a larger brain size, a smaller jaw and teeth, a reduced body hair, a longer lifespan,