ape man

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ape man The term ‘ape man’ is usually applied to a creature that is a member of the human family, but shows in addition features which do not occur in modern humans but are common in apes (such as chimpanzees and gorillas). The overall effect is of a creature whose anatomy is a blend of ape-like and human-like features and, in some metrical traits, is intermediate between apes and humans. The opposite concept, that of man ape or anthropoid ape, is applied to apes which show some features, anatomical and behavioural, which incline them towards humans.

We encounter the term ‘ape man’ in its Greek version, Pithecanthropus, in the writings of Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), who was one of Charles Darwin's great supporters in Germany during the nineteenth century. Haeckel enthusiastically constructed genealogies of living things and posited the former existence of a primate which was intermediate in form between anthropoid apes and Homo sapiens (modern humans). To this hypothecated ‘missing link’ Haeckel in 1867 gave the name Pithecanthropus, years before such a creature was found. In the early 1890s, remains deemed to show such intermediate characteristics were recovered by Eugene Dubois at Trinil in Java (Indonesia); in 1894, with a nice historical sense, Dubois resurrected the old name and called the Javanese species Pithecanthropus erectus.

The anatomical traits shown by the Trinil specimen, and other examples subsequently found in Java, China, and north and east Africa, included a brain size (reflected in the capacity of the skull) which was intermediate between the small brains of apes and the large brains of modern humans; smaller cheek teeth than those of apes but not as small as in modern humans; and the absence of a bony chin, as in apes, in contrast with the chin at the front of the mandible in modern humans.

Thus, ‘ape man’ — or its Greek equivalent — was originally applied to a kind of hominid or member of the human family; some people use the term for members of that group to the present, whilst, for others, that species is now known as Homo erectus.

From 1925 onwards, a much more ape-like hominid came to light in Africa. These creatures had small brain-sizes like apes, and large premolar and molar teeth, yet their canine teeth were small and they walked bipedally. They are regarded as hominids. These African early hominids were called by Raymond Dart Australopithecus. It is to this group of ancient hominids that the term ‘ape man’ is most commonly applied today, but the term is informal or colloquial. Many would therefore dismiss it as being imprecise, while others continue to find it useful to dub these small-brained members of the human family. It certainly rolls off the tongue far more easily than the formal technical name, Australopithecus!

In evolutionary terms, ‘ape man’ refers to a stage in hominid development represented by a primate which is inferred to have arisen from an apeish origin and structure, and has acquired some critical features that align it with later hominids.

P. Tobias

See also bipedalism; evolution, human.