Who's your favorite hominin?

2 minute read

Yes, I know, hominin is driving me crazy, too. It’s a taxonomic diktat of breathtaking doofery, but I think we’re stuck with it. So I’ve been writing it to get myself broken of the hominid habit.

Well, I was playing with Google Trends today, and thought I’d compare some hominins to see how they score on search volume. I started out with the three basics – Australopithecus, erectus and Neanderthal. Here are those three search terms, over the last six years:

Google Trends output comparing search volumes for Neanderthal, Australopithecus, erectus

The lettered flags represent a sample of news stories that influenced search volume for these terms. I won’t go into them; the Neandertal-related ones are pretty much all genome announcements, particularly in late 2006 and late 2008. The big spike in news volume for “erectus” in mid-2007 is the KNM-ER 42700 paper. It seems remarkable that it generated so much more news than any other story; either it was just the right timing, or the Leakey publicity machine.

Anyway, the five word version of that graph is: Neanderthals rock but erectus rules! Of course, it is the most porn-sounding of all the hominins.

The ebb and flow of Australopithecus is very characteristic of the academic paper-writing cycle: low in the summer and at Christmas break, peaking in March and October. The other two terms have that same cycle, but superimposed on them is the impact of news stories. For some reason, people continue to care about Neandertals in the summertime, while September-October are always big for Neandertals. Could it be Halloween?

Other hominin search terms don’t come close to these. Here’s a chart showing the search volume over the last 12 months, with Ardipithecus, floresiensis and heidelbergensis, compared to “Neanderthal” for scale. The hobbits got a bump earlier this year, and the big peak labeled “A” is the Neandertal genome on February 12.

Google Trends output comparing search volumes for Neanderthal, Ardipithecus, Sahelanthropus, floresiensis

The lower three have around a tenth the search volume. They’re low enough that the longer-term view is dominated by a few big spikes and most of the fluctuations are noise. The exception is “floresiensis” which has a colossal peak in 2004 with its discovery. Interestingly, all the press it has gotten since then barely registers compared to that initial burst. Continuing press coverage doesn’t seem to generate sustained interest.

How do these compare to other topics? Well, here’s an interesting comparison – interesting to me, at least:

Google Trends output comparing search volumes for John Hawks, Ardipithecus, floresiensis

Yes, that’s my name there with double the search volume of “floresiensis”. I’m not the only John Hawks in the world, but I figure this isn’t a great sign for interest in fossil hominins.