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9.8 Option - The Human Story: 1. Classification

Syllabus reference (October 2002 version)
1.Humans have characteristics that can be used to classify them with other organisms

Students learn to:


Extract from Biology Stage 6 Syllabus (Amended October 2002). © Board of Studies, NSW

Prior learning: HSC module 9.3 (subsection 5).

Science Stages 4–5 syllabus: Outcomes 4.8 (content 4.8.2 a), Outcome 5.8 (content 5.8.3 a, b).

Background: Humans are primates. Humans therefore share many features with the other members of this group.

outline the general classification hierarchy from phylum to species

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define the term species and outline criteria used to identify a species

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identify data sources, gather, process and analyse information from secondary sources to illustrate the classification process by identifying features of humans that classifies them as:

  • Animal
  • Chordate
  • Mammal
  • Primate
  • Hominid
  • Homo
  • Homo sapiens

Below is a table provided as a sample of a process to follow when addressing this dot point.


Classification level Name of group Human characteristic at this level



heterotrophic, no cell wall



have a notochord or dorsal nerve tube



hair, mammary glands, four chambered heart



opposable thumb, nails, binocular vision, forward directed eyes, 2 nipples



no tail, upright stance


bipedal gait, erect posture, S-shaped spine, foramen magnum centred under the skull


large brain, complex social system, protruding chin
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outline features that classify humans as:

  • mammal
  • primate
  • hominid
  • hominin
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discuss the use of the terms hominin and hominid in terms of the arbitrary nature of classification systems

An article dealing with hominin/hominid debate:

National Geographic (external website)Viewpoint: Is It Time to Revise the System of Scientific Naming? Lee R. Berger, National Geographic News, December 2001

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describe primate characteristics including:

  • hand/foot structure and function, including opposable thumb or toe
  • skull shape and function
  • brain size relative to body size
  • arrangement of the vertebral column to the degree of upright stance
  • vision, including degree of stereoscopic vision, colour vision
  • reproductive features, including single live young and relatively long gestation
  • parenting and group bonding


Primates have many characteristics but have no features that every member possesses. As you read through the general features of primates you will notice that you do not share all of the features (e.g. you have an opposable thumb but you do not have opposable toes).

The features of primates are more like a collection of similarities including the following.

Primates Overview (external website) Behavioral Sciences Department, Palomar College, San Marcos, California

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process information to summarise and analyse the similarities and differences between prosimians, monkeys, apes and humans

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describe primate characteristics in

  • prosimians
  • new and old world monkeys
  • apes
  • humans
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analyse information and use available evidence to identify technological advances and resulting new information that have changed scientists’ opinions about the classification of primates


Classification of the primates is difficult. The traditional classification is based on anatomical features while more recent classification is based on genetic differences. The main change in classification that has occurred is that African apes are no longer classified with Asian apes and are considered to be much closer to humans than Asian apes. As new technologies arise the classification system has changed. Traditionally apes were placed in the Pongidae family and humans were in the Hominidae. After molecular evidence (protein analysis) was analysed it was shown that the African apes should be in the Hominidae and the Asian apes (gibbons and orangutan) should be in the Pongidae. Further technological advances such as DNA-DNA hybridisation have shown that chimpanzees and humans are closer than gorillas. The traditional classification had chimpanzees and gorillas closer together. The latest development has removed the gibbons into their own family, the Hylobatidae.

Some useful websites:

Methods of classifying (external website) Taxonomy: Classifying Life Dr John Kimbell, Massachusetts, USA.
Primate taxonomy (external website) Dr Bill Sellers, Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds, UK

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