Temporal range: 0.6–0.3Ma Middle Pleistocene
Homo heidelbergensis—sometimes called Homo rhodesiensis—is an extinct species of the genus Homo which lived in Africa, Europe and western Asia between 600 and 200 thousand years ago. Its brain was nearly as large as that of a modern Homo sapiens. First discovered near Heidelberg in Germany in 1907, it was described and named by Otto Schoetensack.
Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans (H. s. sapiens) are all descended from H. heidelbergensis. Between 300,000 and 400,000 years ago, an ancestral group of H. heidelbergensis became independent of others shortly after they had left Africa. One group branched northwest into Europe and West Asia, and eventually evolved into Neanderthals. The other group ventured eastwards throughout Asia, eventually developing into Denisovans. H. heidelbergensis evolved into H. sapiens approximately 130,000 years ago.
Morphology and interpretations
Both H. antecessor and H. heidelbergensis are likely to be descended from the morphologically very similar Homo ergaster from Africa. But because H. heidelbergensis had a larger brain-case — with a typical cranial volume of 1100–1400 cm³ overlapping the 1350 cm³ average of modern humans — and had more advanced tools and behavior, it has been given a separate species classification. Male heidelbergensis averaged about 1.75 m (5 ft 9 in) tall and 62 kg (136 lb). Females averaged 1.57 m (5 ft 2 in) and 51 kg (112 lb). A reconstruction of 27 complete human limb bones found in Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain) has helped to determine the height of H. heidelbergensis compared to Homo neanderthalensis; the conclusion was that most H. heidelbergensis averaged about 170 cm (5 ft 7in) in height and were only slightly taller than Neanderthals. According to Lee R. Berger of the University of Witwatersrand, numerous fossil bones indicate some populations of heidelbergensis were "giants" routinely over 2.13 m (7 ft) tall and inhabited South Africa between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago.
Steven Mithen believes that H. heidelbergensis, like its descendant H. neanderthalensis, acquired a pre-linguistic system of communication. No forms of art or sophisticated artifacts other than stone tools have been uncovered, although red ochre, a mineral that can be used to mix a red pigment which is useful as a paint, has been found at Terra Amata excavations in the south of France.
The morphology of the outer and middle ear suggests they had an auditory sensitivity similar to modern humans and very different from chimpanzees. They were probably able to differentiate between many different sounds. Dental wear analysis suggests they were as likely to be right-handed as modern people.
H. heidelbergensis was a close relative (most probably a migratory descendant) of Homo ergaster. H. ergaster is thought to be the first hominid to vocalize, and that as H. heidelbergensis developed, more sophisticated culture proceeded from this point.
Evidence of hunting
500,000 year-old hafted stone points used for hunting are reported from Kathu Pan 1 in South Africa, tested by way of use-wear replication. This find could mean that modern humans and Neanderthals inherited the stone-tipped spear, rather than developing the technology independently.
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Because of the migration of H. heidelbergensis out of Africa and into Europe, the two populations were mostly isolated during the Wolstonian Stage and Ipswichian Stage, the last of the prolonged Quaternary glacial periods. Neanderthals diverged from H. heidelbergensis probably some 300,000 years ago in Europe, during the Wolstonian Stage; H. sapiens probably diverged between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago in Africa. Such fossils as the Atapuerca skull in Spain and the Kabwe skull in Rhodesia bear witness to the two branches of the H. heidelbergensis tree.
Homo neanderthalensis retained most of the features of H. heidelbergensis after its divergent evolution. Although shorter, Neanderthals were more robust, had large brow-ridges, a slightly protruding face, and lack of prominent chin. With a virtually identical cranial capacity to Cro-Magnon, they also had a larger brain than all other hominids. Homo sapiens, on the other hand, have the smallest brows of any known hominid, are taller and more gracile, and have a flat face with a protruding chin. H. sapiens have a larger brain than H. heidelbergensis, and a smaller brain than H. neanderthalensis, on average. To date, H. sapiens is the only known hominid with a high forehead, flat face, and thin, flat brows.
Some believe that H. heidelbergensis is a distinct species, and some that it is a cladistic ancestor to other Homo forms, sometimes improperly linked to distinct species in terms of populational genetics.[who?]
Some scenarios of survival include:
- H. heidelbergensis > H. neanderthalensis
- H. heidelbergensis > Homo sp. (Denisovans)
- H. heidelbergensis > Homo rhodesiensis > Homo sapiens idaltu > H. sapiens sapiens
The first fossil discovery of this species was made on October 21, 1907, and came from Mauer, Germany. Here, the workman Daniel Hartmann spotted a jaw in a sandpit. The jaw (Mauer 1) was in good condition except for the missing premolar teeth, which were eventually found near the jaw. The workman gave it to Professor Otto Schoetensack from the University of Heidelberg, who identified and named the fossil.
The next H. heidelbergensis remains were found in Steinheim an der Murr, Germany (the Steinheim Skull, 350kya); Arago, France (Arago 21); Petralona, Greece; Ciampate del Diavolo, Italy; Dali, Jinniushan and Maba, China. In 1925–1926 Francis Turville-Petre unearthed the "Galilee skull" at Mugharet el-Zuttiyeh in Israel, which was the first ancient hominid fossil found in Western Asia.
In 1994 British scientists unearthed a lower hominin tibia bone of Boxgrove Man a few miles away from the English Channel, along with hundreds of ancient hand axes, at the Boxgrove Quarry site. This partial leg bone is dated to between 478,000 and 524,000 years old. Several H. heidelbergensis teeth were also found in subsequent seasons. H. heidelbergensis was the early proto-human species that occupied both France and Great Britain at that time; these locales were connected by a landmass during that epoch.
The tibia had been gnawed by a large carnivore, suggesting that the man had been killed by a lion or wolf, or that his unburied corpse had been scavenged after death.
Sima de los Huesos
Beginning in 1992, a Spanish team has located more than 5,500 human bones dated to an age of at least 350,000 years in the Sima de los Huesos site in the Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain. The pit contains fossils of perhaps 32 individuals together with remains of Ursus deningeri and other carnivores and a biface called Excalibur. It is hypothesized that this Acheulean axe made of red quartzite was some kind of ritual offering for a funeral. If it is so, it would be the oldest evidence of known of funerary practices. Ninety percent of the known H. heidelbergensis remains have been obtained from this site. The fossil pit bones include:
- A complete cranium (skull 5), nicknamed Miguelón, and fragments of other crania, such as skull 4, nicknamed Agamemnón and skull 6, nicknamed Rui (from El Cid, a local hero).
- A complete pelvis (pelvis 1), nicknamed Elvis, in remembrance of Elvis Presley.
- Mandibles, teeth, and many postcranial bones (femurs, hand and foot bones, vertebrae, ribs, etc.)
Nearby sites contain the only known and controversial Homo antecessor fossils.
There is current debate among scholars whether the remains at Sima de los Huesos are those of H. heidelbergensis or early H. neanderthalensis.
In 2005 flint tools and teeth from the water vole Mimomys savini, a key dating species, were found in the cliffs at Pakefield near Lowestoft in Suffolk. This suggests that hominins can be dated in England to 700,000 years ago, potentially a cross between H. antecessor and H. heidelbergensis.
The Schöningen Spears are eight wooden throwing spears from the Palaeolithic Age, that were found under the management of Dr. Hartmut Thieme from the Lower Saxony State Service for Cultural Heritage (NLD) between 1994 and 1998 in the open-cast lignite mine, Schöningen, county Helmstedt, Germany, together with approx. 16,000 animal bones. More than 300,000 years old, they are the oldest completely preserved hunting weapons in the world and they are regarded as the first evidence of the active hunt by H. heidelbergensis. These discoveries have permanently changed the picture of the cultural and social development of early man.
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- Homo heidelbergensis – The Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Program