Who is the type of Homo sapiens?

by David Notton and Chris Stringer

In Linnaeus' 10th edition of Systema Naturae (Linnaeus, 1758) he named four geographical subspecies of Homo sapiens: europaeus, afer, asiaticus and americanus, introducing some anecdotal behavioural distinctions in line with then current European notions about their own superiority. For example while europaeus was, of course, 'governed by laws', americanus was governed 'by customs', asiaticus 'by opinions', and the African subspecies afer 'by impulse'.  While not wishing to revisit such dubious notions here, one continuing issue over Linnaeus' naming of Homo sapiens remains a topic of discussion: ­ the designation of a type specimen. What follows is our view of the nomenclatural issues, and the appropriate designation.

The type specimen of Homo sapiens is Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). In Linnaeus' 10th edition of Systema Naturae (Linnaeus, 1758) which is taken to be the starting point of zoological nomenclature, he described Homo sapiens including 6 named subgroups, i.e. ferus, americanus, europaeus, asiaticus, afer and monstrosus. Ferus and monstrosus are infrasubspecific because the content of the description shows that ferus is used for feral children, those found in the wild, differing only as a consequence of their upbringing, and monstrosus is used for a mix of unrelated forms (part a) and people with modifications of the body due to human artifice (part b). Consequently ferus and monstrosus are not available names and do not enter into zoological nomenclature. This leaves as available names americanus, europaeus, asiaticus, and afer, which are subspecific names of Homo sapiens (Article 45.6). Also from the principle of coordination there must be a subspecific name sapiens, and the type of Homo sapiens is by definition the type of the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens (Article 43).

Linnaeus did not designate a type for Homo sapiens or any of its nominal subspecies -  that was not the custom then. However, the type series consists of all the specimens he included (Article 72.4) according to the characters given in his descriptions. The description of Homo sapiens is drawn broadly; it spreads over five pages, starting ³1. H[omo] diurnus; varians cultura, loco.² Then describing the 6 subgroups, continuing with the general description from the end of the description of monstrosus to page 24, from ³Habitat inter TropicosŠ² to ³Pedes Talis incedentes². The description for Homo sapiens sapiens is all the parts of the description that do not include the named subgroups and similarly the type material is all those specimens included by Linnaeus, not including those referred to under the named subgroups (Article 72.4.1).

It is certain that Linnaeus was present when he wrote this description and that he regarded himself as included in Homo sapiens. That he is not part of any of his subgroups is clear from the descriptions, in particular he is certainly not part of  Homo sapiens europaeus since this subspecies is described as 'Pilis flavescentibus, prolixis. Oculis caeruleis' whereas Linnaeus has brown hair and eyes (Tullberg, 1907). He is therefore included in the type series of Homo sapiens sapiens (Article There was, however, no single person recognised as the type until 1959, when Professor William Stearn, in a passing remark in a paper on Linnaeus¹ contributions to nomenclature and systematics wrote that 'Linnaeus himself, must stand as the type of his Homo sapiens'. This was enough to designate Linnaeus as a lectotype (Article 74.5), the single name bearing type specimen for the species Homo sapiens and its subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens.

LinnaeusCarl Linnaeus (Carl von Linné), 23 May 1707 ­ 10 January 1778: The lectotype of Homo sapiens Linnaeus, 1758 designated by Professor William Stearn in 1959 (Swedish National Museum, Stockholm).

From a practical point of view the designation of Linnaeus as lectotype is of limited value, since there is no doubt over the identity of the species Homo sapiens. For the same reasons there is no exceptional need for the designation of a neotype. His remains are not lost (the tomb is in Uppsala Cathedral in Sweden), but it would be unethical to disturb them and anyway there is no need for them to be re-examined in order to establish the application of this name. However, it is symbolic that Linnaeus as the father of modern taxonomy should have been designated.

It is important to be clear about the type status of Linnaeus because there have been misapprehensions about who the type is, which cause confusion. For example, the story that Edward Cope is the type. This error deserves little attention except that it has been given credence on the internet and by some popular science journalists, so it is worth briefly explaining why it is wrong. In a book about dinosaurs published in 1994, Louie Psihoyos reported a proposal by Bob Bakker to designate Cope as a lectotype for Homo sapiens. The proposal was never actually published by Bakker, but was reported by Psihoyos in sufficient detail to serve as a designation in its own right. Psihoyos' designation was invalid because:

  • Cope was not eligible for selection as a lectotype because he wasn't among the specimens/people included by Linnaeus when he made his description (Article 74.1) - Homo sapiens was described in 1758 but Cope wasn’t born until 1840, almost 100 years later, so he definitely wasn’t included by Linnaeus.
  • Stearn’s valid designation in 1959 already existed before Psihoyos’ designation in 1994 and no designations after Stearn’s can be valid (Article 74.1.1).

So it’s absolutely clear Cope never could be a lectotype. For a more detailed explanation see the excellent paper by Spamer (1999).