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Homo heidelbergensis

Facts, early prehistoric art
Body painting, cupules, engraving

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Reconstruction of Homo Heidelbergensis, an important ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans
Facial reconstruction of Homo Heidelbergensis, a key species in the origin of Neanderthals and modern humans. Image by Emőke Dénes. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

When Did Homo heidelbergensis Live?

Homo heidelbergensis is a species of early humans that lived during the Stone Age between 600,000 and 300,000 BC.

It is believed to have originated in Africa, from where it also migrated into Europe.

However, fossil finds in 1994 at Gran Dolina Cave in northern Spain (dating to between 1.2 mya and 800,000 years ago) may be part of an early H. heidelbergensis population. Or they may be a different species, Homo antecessor.

If they are an archaic form of H. heidelbergensis, it would mean the species originated in Africa probably as early as 900,000 BC.

The original role of H. heidelbergensis in the evolution of mankind is also being questioned by paleontologists for another reason - heidelberg fossils discovered to date have failed to provide a uniform set of features that are sufficiently unique from other species.

Most fossils now assigned to H. heidelbergensis were previously identified as H. erectus, H. neanderthalensis or even an archaic version of H. sapiens.

Following the discovery of additional fossils over the past few decades, many paleontologists now accept H. heidelbergensis as a separate species although, on the whole, its fossils have failed to provide a uniform set of features that are sufficiently unique from other species.

What's more, there seems to be no DNA available for archaeogenetics testing.

Unfortunately, no other species of hominins has come to light, linking Homo ergaster (the African H. erectus) - a descendant of Homo habilis - with more recent hominins like Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.

So archaeology appears to be stuck with a series of fossils scattered about Europe and Africa with signs of gradual modernity, but no unambiguous lineage after Homo ergaster.

Even so, until the experts decide otherwise, we must assume H. heidelbergensis remains a key species in the origin of Neanderthals and modern humans.

How are Homo Heidelbergensis Fossils Dated?

By using a combination of relative and absolute dating techniques. For more, see: Dating Methods in Archaeology.

Note: For information about the earliest prehistoric art, which emerged during the Middle Stone Age, see: World's Oldest art (from 540,000 BC).

Where Did Homo heidelbergensis Live?

H. heidelbergensis originated in Africa about 600,000 BC, but by 500,000 BC some populations had left Africa and dispersed across Europe and parts of western and central Asia.

By about 300,000 BC, regional differences in physiology began to emerge as the populations adapted to their new habitats.

The development of these differing characteristics eventually gave rise to two species of humans: in Europe, Homo heidelbergensis evolved into H. neanderthalensis; in Africa, it evolved into our present species, H. sapiens.

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Discovery

In 1907 near Heidelberg, an ancient human jaw was discovered 24 metres (80 ft) below the surface, in the Rösch sandpit just north of the village of Mauer.

The German archaeologist Otto Schoentensack documented the specimen and named the species after the nearby city.

Other fossils assigned to the species have been discovered across Africa and in Europe, with isolated finds in Asia, such as the skull fragments unearthed in India's Narmada Valley in Madhya Pradesh. Important discoveries include:

Facts About Homo heidelbergensis

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Tools Made by Homo heidelbergensis

Tools (based on Mode 2 technology) remained the number one form of 'paleolithic art' for H. heidelbergensis.

Their stone tools were employed largely for hunting and butchery and were similar to those used previously by H. ergaster.

These included: large tools with flakes removed from front and back to produce bifacial hand axes, carvers and cleavers.

Some later cohorts also made tools from bone, wood and deer antler, such as scrapers, hammers and wooden throwing spears tipped with stone spearheads or 'points'.

Homo heidelbergensis hunted large animals for food, including bears, horses, rhinos, hippos and antelope.

These animals were hunted with some skill and then butchered with great efficiency, suggesting the hunters worked in close co-operation with other groups who processed the carcasses.

In 1995, archaeologists at the site of Schöningen in Germany recovered a number of well-preserved paleolithic tools made out of wood, bone, and stone, including a special hammering tool made from the humerus bone of a saber-toothed cat.

In addition, they found wooden thrusting spears (400,000 BC), which are believed to be the first weapons of their type discovered in the Stone Age.

See: History of Stone Tools.

Art Created by Homo heidelbergensis

Lower Paleolithic populations seem to have had little aptitude or use, for the cave painting that would distinguish modern humans (H. sapiens) during the era of Upper Paleolithic art (from 40,000 BC).

However, three types of rock art did emerge during the life span of H. heidelbergensis:

  1. Cupules
    Cupules are cup-shaped hollows found on rock surfaces in shelters and on open air boulders and other rock surfaces. According to experts, these strange markings were almost certainly created by hominins, as early as the beginning of the Acheulean tool culture, around 1.6 million BC, although no dates older than about 300,000 BC have been confirmed so far. Their meaning is not known.
  2. Body painting
    The discovery of of ochre pigments at a cluster of Stone Age sites in the Northern Cape, South Africa, suggests pigments were in use as early as 500,000 BC, most likely for bodily use, either as a decoration and/or as a sunscreen.
  3. Engravings
    The Bilzingsleben Engravings (350,000 BC) - engraved patterns of lines incised onto an elephant's shin bone - were created either by H. heidelbergensis or by Neanderthals. Whichever species was responsible it was a significant contribution to Stone Age culture of the period.

For more about the chronology of paleoart, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (540,000 BC).

Other Hominins

References

(1) "Origins of modern human ancestry." Anders Bergström, Chris Stringer, Mateja Hajdinjak, Eleanor M L Scerri, Pontus Skoglund. Nature. 2021 Feb;590(7845):229-237.
(2) "Homo antecessor: The state of the art eighteen years later". de Castro, J.-M. B. (2015). Quaternary International. 433: 22–31.
(3) "150,000-year palaeoclimate record from northern Ethiopia supports early, multiple dispersals of modern humans from Africa." Henry F. Lamb, C. Richard Bates, Charlotte L. Bryant, Sarah J. Davies, Dei G. Huws, Michael H. Marshall, Helen M. Roberts & Harry Toland. Scientific Reports volume 8, Article number: 1077 (2018).
(4) "Early Human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene". Marean, Curtis W.; Bar-Matthews, Miryam; Bernatchez, Jocelyn; Fisher, Erich; Goldberg, Paul; Herries, Andy I.R.; Jacobs, Zenobia; Jerardino, Antonieta; Karkanas, Panagiotis; Minichillo, Tom; Nilssen, Peter J.; Thompson, Erin; Watts, Ian; Williams, Hope M. (18 October 2007), Nature, 449 (7164): 905–908.
(5) "Pinnacle Point Cave 13B (Western Cape Province, South Africa) in context: The Cape Floral kingdom, shellfish, and modern human origins". Marean, Curtis W. (September–October 2010), Journal of Human Evolution, 59 (3–4): 425–443.
(6) "Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany." H. Hieme. Nature 385, 807–810.
(7) "The Oldest Known Rock art in the World." - Robert G. Bednarik. Anthropologie - Vol. 39, No. 2/3 (2001), pp. 89-98.

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