The fundamental assumption that underpins studies of the earliest hominin colonisation of Asia is that it was accomplished by Homo erectus, but no other types of hominin. To outline briefly the “big picture” of early Asian prehistory: our own genus and the ability to make stone tools and butcher large animals are thought to have originated in East Africa shortly after 2.6 Ma at a time when grasslands were expanding under a cooler and drier climate. Homo erectus is thought to have emerged in East Africa ca. 1.9 Ma, and then shortly afterwards expanded its distribution into Southwest Asia ca. 1.8 Ma (Chapter 4) and reached Java and North China (on current estimates; see Chapter 5) by ca. 1.6 Ma. When viewed close up, however, the actual process of expansion is probably a great deal more complicated than this simple scenario, and alternative scenarios can be suggested (see Chapters 4 and 6). In this chapter, we examine the African fossil hominins and archaeological and climatic record that preceded the earliest evidence for hominins in Asia.
The fossil hominin record for Africa before ca. 1.0 Ma is a story of two types of hominin. (Box 2.1 discusses the meaning of the term “hominin”.) The first types were australopithecines, or australopiths: this “australopithecine world” was in place by ca. 4 Ma, and lasted until they finally became extinct ca. 1.2–1.4 Ma. The second type was our own genus Homo, which first appeared (on current evidence) shortly after 2.4 Ma.