The Hominini include all members of the lineage that separates us from our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. The only surviving species of this lineage are we - Homo sapiens.

The family of the Hominini. Image source: Smithsonian Institution

Phylogenetic trees, evolutionary trees

Since we are the only surviving species of hominin, we can only find out from fossils and archaeological finds about our evolutionary past since the separation with the chimpanzees.

Using radiometric dating and geological methods (in which layer was the fossil found and what do we know about this layer?) scientists can find out about the approximate age of a fossil.

But it is difficult to find out how the individual fossils are related to each other. Are two finds of the same species or should they be classified into different species? This is easier to answer if the finds have very different characteristics (including genetic traits), seemingly lived very far apart in time, and were found in completely different regions of the earth.

But often it is not so easy to answer. It also depends on how one defines the term "species". Usually, individuals are considered to belong to a species if they can breed together and produce fertile offspring. But we do not know exactly who has been mating with whom throughout our evolutionary history, especially when "species" lived around the same time and in the same region. From DNA analysis, for example, we know that some of us have "Neanderthal DNA" in us. Apparently, some of our Homo sapiens ancestors have mated with Neanderthals - and yet a distinction is made between the species Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.

Therefore, the differentiation of species or subgroups in Hominini is more or less fluent, and sometimes it is difficult to put them into distinct categories. Also, there are different interpretations with each newly discovered fossil. Thus, the views of different scientists about the phylogenetic relationships between the Hominini differ.

And so there are also different evolutionary trees that depict relationships in different ways or indicate the degree of certainty that scientists have about relationships.

Compare the different representations of the family tree of hominins (see also illustrations in your respective textbook).

  • Which information is shown, which is not? (Time, species and / or genera, ancestry relationships, degree of certainty about information?)

  • For which information is there agreement between the figures (time periods, relationships between species / genera; point out the separation between the Paranthropus lineage and the Homo lineage)

  • Are there any different or contradictory information between the pictures on the assumed relationships between species ?

Noticing and measuring differences in hominin skulls

By observing and surveying the skulls of various hominins, we can understand the change in some of the physical features throughout our evolutionary history.

Hominid skulls can be used in different ways in the classroom, for example:

  • replicated fossils

  • 3D printed copies

  • suitable pictorial 2D or 3D representations

True-to-scale replicated fossils and 3D prints are particularly suitable for handling and oberving differences in morphological traits, and for physically measuring these traits.

2D pictorial representations are suitable for measuring features that are independent of scale (angles, proportions). 3D representations require a computer and with them all measurements can be performed digitally (see below).

About 2-4 lessons should be scheduled for measurement and evaluation.

The following skull measurements and materials are inspired and developed in collaboration with the project

Ancient Ancestors - Be a Paleoanthropologist for a Day

Position of the Foramen magnum

  • Gives us clues about the evolution of upright walking in the course of our evolutionary past

  • Opisthion-Index: A/B * 100


Cranial capacity

  • Gives us clues about the evolution of brain size in the course of our evolutionary past

Human Evolution Teaching Materials Project of the University of Florida

3D PDFs and 3D printable files of hominin skulls for your classroom!