Subject Headings for Research on Human Origins

ANSS Subject and Bibliographic Access Committee

Question/Answer on Cataloging Issues – December 2019

Question: What subject headings are applied to works reporting the results of research into human origins?

By Wade Kotter, Stewart Library, Weber State University


Public interest in the results of research into human origins may well be at an all-time high especially when it comes to the discovery of new human or human-like fossils. Hardly a week goes by without the appearance of a sensationalized report on the Web and/or social media describing a new fossil discovery that is claimed to revolutionize our understanding of human origins by “rewriting” the story of human evolution or, more specifically, by being  designated the newest candidate for the ubiquitous “missing link.” As a result, popular names for newly discovered fossil hominid groups such as “Denisovans” and even “hobbits” are much more common in casual conversation than in scholarly discourse. Understanding how the Library of Congress deals with works on human origins can make it much easier for researchers to locate relevant information. The general subject heading for research on human origins is:

Paleoanthropolgy (may subdivide geographically) 

The online Library of Congress Subject Headings list for P does not currently list any subdivisions under Paleoanthropology but appropriate free-floating subdivisions can be applied, such as Paleoanthropology – Methodology. Human origins research in specific countries and places within countries are entered under geographic subdivisions of Paleoanthropology, such as:

            Paleoanthropology – Ethiopia – Middle Awash

The heading for individuals who engage in paleoanthropological research is:

Paleoanthropologists (may subdivide geographically) 

Paleoanthropolgy is listed as a narrower term under the following three topical headings:

Paleontology (may subdivide geographically)

Anthropology, Prehistoric (may subdivide geographically)

Physical Anthropology (may subdivide geographically) 

Although not listed as cross-references under Paleoanthropolgy, researchers should also be aware of the following related headings:

Human evolution (may subdivide geographically) 

Human beings – Origin (not subdivided geographically) 

Including one or more of these headings in one’s search vocabulary when searching for works on human origins can be very helpful, especially when looking for works that link research on fossil discoveries to broader questions regarding human evolution, such as cognition, language, tool-making, subsistence, and social interaction.

Paleoanthropology does not have any narrower headings listed in the online Library of Congress Subject Headings list for P but one very important related term is given:

Fossil hominids (may subdivide geographically) 

Fossil hominids is a narrower term under Primates, Fossils; it is not clear why the latter is inverted but the first one in not; the latter form is the one designated for fossil animals in section H1332 of the online Library of Congress Subject Heading Manual. It’s also important to note that the Library of Congress includes under the heading Hominids (the general term for living hominid species) not only Human beings but also Gorilla (Genus), Orangutans, and Pan (Mammals), the latter being the official heading for Chimpanzees. This extends to Fossil hominids, which includes fossil great apes (and closed related species) as well as fossil humans.

Freee-floating subdivisions appropriate for topical headings of this type can be applied to Fossil hominids, such as Fossil hominids – Research. However, the only topical subdivision listed in the online Library of Congress Subject Headings list for H is Fossil hominids – Craniology. While a few geographic subdivisions of Fossil hominids are listed in the online Library of Congress Subject Headings list for H, catalogers can, of course, create geographic subdivisions using the procedures described in section H 904 of the online Library of Congress Subject Headings Manual, such as the following heading which refers to the  general location where the so-called “hobbit” specimen (officially designated by the Library of Congress as Flores man) was discovered.

            Fossil hominids – Indonesia – Flores Island

Since fossil hominid remains are sometimes found together with archaeological remains, geographic subdivisions of the general term Human remains (Archaeology) have been established and being aware of them can also be helpful when searching, such as:

            Human remains (Archaeology) – Ethiopia – Awash River Valley

It’s important to keep in mind that there are specific procedures for establishing headings for archaeological sites. For a quick overview, check out this Q&A, and for more specific details check out section H 1225 of the online Library of Congress Subject Headings Manual. It appears that these procedures are also used to establish names of specific sites where only hominid fossils are found, such as the following:

            Laetoli Site (Tanzania)

It is as narrower terms under Fossil hominids or one of its geographic subdivisions listed in the online Library of Congress Subject Headings list for F that established headings for specific fossil groups and, occasionally, specific discoveries are most easily found. For species and higher level groupings, these may be either the official Latin scientific name or the name in common use, with the latter being preferred if it is believed to be unambiguous (see section H1332 of the online Library of Congress Subject Heading Manual, especially p. 7). The Library of Congress has also established a heading for the Australopithecus afarensis specimen popularly known as “Lucy” in the following form: Lucy (Prehistoric hominid); this appears to be the only such heading established by the Library of Congress at this time, but it provides a pattern if another specific fossil hominid find becomes widely known by a similar popular name.  At the present time, the entry for Fossil hominids in the online Library of Congress Subject Headings list for H gives the following narrower headings for different hominid groups and specific discoveries, some of which also have their own narrower terms for more specific categories and individual fossil discoveries:

Ardipithecus (may subdivide geographically) 

Ardipithecus kadabba (may subdivide geographically) 

Australopithecines (may subdivide geographically) 

Australopithecus afarensis (may subdivide geographically) 

Lucy (Prehistoric hominid)                      

Cro-Magnons (may subdivide geographically) 

Denisovans (may subdivide geographically) 

Homo erectus (may subdivide geographically) 

Flores man (may subdivide geographically) 

Homo naledi (may subdivide geographically) 

Java man(may subdivide geographically)   

Peking man (may subdivide geographically) 

Petralona man (may subdivide geographically) 

Solo man                                                                 

Homo ergaster                                                  

Homo habilis                                                             



In addition to the above fossil groups listed as narrower headings under Fossil hominids, there is a narrower heading Piltdown forgery that doesn’t really seem to fit with the other narrower headings. Be that as it may, the entry for Fossil hominids also lists the following as narrower terms under established geographic subdivisions of Fossil hominids:

            Fossil hominids – Asia


                                    Gigantopithecus blacki

            Fossil hominids – Chad

                       Sahelanthropus tchadensis

            Fossil hominids – Germany

                       Heidelberg man

            Fossil hominids – South Africa

                        Boskop man


            Fossil hominids – Tanzania


            Fossil hominids – Zambia

                       Rhodesian man

As new discoveries are made and new fossil groupings are named and reported in the literature, Library of Congress catalogers will, of course, establish new headings. Given that such discoveries are being made at an ever-increasing pace, it may well be that researchers will not find an established heading for the specific discovery they are interested in. In such cases they will need to be creative in their search strategy, such as looking for works on research in a specific location or by a specific researcher.

It should also be noted that some widely used names for fossil hominid species, such as Australopithecus africanus and Australopithecus robustus, are not currently established as subject headings by the Library of Congress but there is a pretty complete set of cross references from such names to the current approved heading. The same, unfortunately, is not always true of individual fossil discoveries originally associated with a place, such as the “Taung Child” or “Taung Baby.” Although Taung is a place name for the location in South Africa where this important specimen was found, the only established heading using the word Taung is Taung (African people). A researcher would have to know that the “Taung Child” was originally assigned by the discoverer to the species name Australopithecus africanus. Unfortunately, the Library of Congress has not, at this time, established “Australopithecus africanus” as an official subject heading as they have done with Australopithecus afarensis, nor do they provide a cross-reference from Australopithecus africanus to Australopithecines although there is, thankfully, a cross-reference from Australopithecus to Australopithecines. In summary, while the subject vocabulary for works on research into human origins is relatively rich and generally follows established rules, the variety of scientific and common names applied to hominid fossil groups and individual specimens by their discoverers, by other scientists, and by the general public can at times make searching for works on these groups quite difficult and confusing. In cases where a widely known popular name is used by the Library of Congress for a group or an individual discovery it can actually sometimes be easier for novice searchers to find relevant information using the popular name than for those who have a lot of background on the subject and thus are more familiar with both the historic and current scientific names. Consulting an up-to-day textbook or reference work on human origins before starting a search can thus be very beneficial; even Wikipedia can sometimes be helpful. Also, looking at the subject headings assigned to a known work can help researchers more quickly find the most appropriate search terms.