Temporal range: Early Pleistocene, 1.2–0.8 Ma
Bermúdez de Castro et al., 1997
Homo antecessor is an extinct human species (or subspecies) dating from 800,000 to 1.2 million years ago, that was discovered by Eudald Carbonell, Juan Luis Arsuaga and J. M. Bermúdez de Castro. H. antecessor is one of the earliest known human species in Europe.
Various archaeologists and anthropologists have debated how H. antecessor relates to other Homo species in Europe, with suggestions that it was an evolutionary link between H. ergaster and H. heidelbergensis, although Richard Klein thinks that it was instead a separate species that evolved from H. ergaster. Some scientists consider H. antecessor to be the same species as H. heidelbergensis, who inhabited Europe from 250,000 to 600,000 years ago in the Pleistocene.
The best-preserved fossil is a maxilla that belonged to a ten-year-old individual found in Spain. Based on palaeomagnetic measurements, it is thought to be older than 780–857 ka. In 1994 and 1995, 80 fossils of six individuals who may have belonged to the species were found in Atapuerca, Spain. At the site were numerous examples of cuts where the flesh had been flensed from the bones, which indicates that H. antecessor may have practiced cannibalism.
H. antecessor was about 1.6-1.8 m (5½-6 feet) tall, and males weighed roughly 90 kg (200 pounds). Their brain sizes were roughly 1,000–1,150 cm³, smaller than the 1,350 cm³ average of modern humans. Due to fossil scarcity, very little more is known about the physiology of H. antecessor, yet it was likely to have been more robust than H. heidelbergensis.
According to Juan Luis Arsuaga, one of the co-directors of the excavation in Burgos, H. antecessor might have been right-handed, a trait that makes the species different from the other apes. This hypothesis is based on tomography techniques. Arsuaga also claims that the frequency range of audition is similar to H. sapiens, which makes him suspect that H. antecessor used a symbolic language and was able to reason. Arsuaga's team is currently pursuing a DNA map of H. antecessor.
Based on teeth eruption pattern, the researchers think that H. antecessor had the same development stages as H. sapiens, though probably at a faster pace. Other significant features demonstrated by the species are a protruding occipital bun, a low forehead, and a lack of a strong chin. Some of the remains are almost indistinguishable from the fossil attributable to the 1.5 million year old Turkana Boy, belonging to H. ergaster.
The only known fossils of H. antecessor are from two sites in the Sierra de Atapuerca region of northern Spain (Gran Dolina and Sima del Elefante). Other sites yielding fossil evidence of this hominid have been discovered in the United Kingdom and France.
Archaeologist Eudald Carbonell i Roura of the Universidad Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, Spain and palaeoanthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga Ferreras of the Complutense University of Madrid discovered Homo antecessor remains at the Gran Dolina site in the Sierra de Atapuerca, east of Burgos in what now is Spain. The H. antecessor remains have been found in level 6 (TD6) of the Gran Dolina site.
More than 80 bone fragments from six individuals were uncovered in 1994 and 1995. The site also had included approximately 200 stone tools and 300 animal bones. Stone tools including a stone carved knife were found along with the ancient hominin remains. All these remains were dated at least 900,000 years old. The best-preserved remains are a maxilla (upper jawbone) and a frontal bone of an individual who died at the age of 10–11.
Sima del Elefante
On June 29, 2007, Spanish researchers working at the Sima del Elefante site in the Atapuerca Mountains of Spain announced that they had recovered a molar dated to 1.1–1.2 million years ago. The molar was described as "well worn" and from an individual between 20 and 25 years of age. Additional findings announced on 27 March 2008 included a mandible fragment, stone flakes, and evidence of animal bone processing.
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 existed in England 700,000 years ago, potentially a cross between Homo antecessor and Homo heidelbergensis.
In 2010, stone tool finds were reported in Happisburgh, Norfolk, England, thought to have been used by H. antecessor, suggesting that the early hominin species also lived in England about 950,000 years ago – the earliest known population of the genus Homo in Northern Europe.
In May 2013, sets of fossilized footprints were discovered in an estuary at Happisburgh. They are thought to date from 800,000 years ago and are theorized to have been left by a small group of people, including several children and one adult male. The tracks are considered the oldest human footprints outside Africa and the first direct evidence of humans in this time period in the UK or northern Europe, previously known only by their stone tools. Within two weeks, the tracks had been eroded by the tide, but scientists made 3D photogrammetric images of the prints, and attributed them to H. antecessor.
Twenty tools dating back to the Paleolithic (pebble culture, 1.6 million years ago) were found in 2008.
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