This early human species had a very large browridge, and a larger braincase and flatter face than older early human species. It was the first early human species to live in colder climates; their short, wide bodies were likely an adaptation to conserving heat. It lived at the time of the oldest definite control of fire and use of wooden spears, and it was the first early human species to routinely hunt large animals. This early human also broke new ground; it was the first species to build shelters, creating simple dwellings out of wood and rock.
History of Discovery:
In 1908 near Heidelberg, Germany, a workman found the type specimen of H. heidelbergensis in the Rösch sandpit just north of the village of Mauer. This mandible was nearly complete except for the missing premolars and first two left molars; it is heavily built and lacks a chin. German scientist Otto Schoentensack was the first to describe the specimen and proposed the species name Homo heidelbergensis.
Before the naming of this species, scientists referred to early human fossils showing traits similar to both Homo erectus and modern humans as ‘archaic’ Homo sapiens.
How They Survived:
There is evidence that H. heidelbergensis was capable of controlling fire by building hearths, or early fireplaces, by 790,000 years ago in the form of fire-altered tools and burnt wood at the site of Gesher Benot Ya-aqov in Israel. Why did they come together at these early hearths? Perhaps to socialize, to find comfort and warmth, to share food and information, and to find safety from predators.
H. heidelbergensis probably took advantage of natural shelters but this species was also the first to build simple shelters. Evidence for this comes from the site of Terra Amata, France.
H. heidelbergensis was also the first hunter of large game animals; remains of animals such as wild deer, horses, elephants, hippos, and rhinos with butchery marks on their bones have been found together at sites with H. heidelbergensis fossils. Evidence for this also comes from 400,000 year old wooden spears found at the site of Schöningen, Germany, which were found together with stone tools and the remains of more than 10 butchered horses.
One site in Atapuerca, northern Spain, dating to about 400,000 years ago, shows evidence of what may be human ritual. Scientists have found bones of roughly 30 H. heidelbergensis individuals deliberately thrown inside a pit. The pit has been named Sima de los Huesos (‘Pit of Bones’). Alongside the skeletal remains, scientists uncovered a single well-made symmetrical handaxe —illustrating the tool-making ability of H. heidelbergensis.
Evolutionary Tree Information:
This species may reach back to 1.3 million years ago, and include early humans from Spain (‘Homo antecessor’ fossils and archeological evidence from 800,000 to 1.3 million years old), England (archeological remains back to about 1 million years old), and Italy (from the site of Ceprano, possibly as old as 1 million years).
Comparison of Neanderthal and modern human DNA suggests that the two lineages diverged from a common ancestor, most likely Homo heidelbergensis, sometime between 350,000 and 400,000 years ago – with the European branch leading to H. neanderthalensis and the African branch (sometimes called Homo rhodesiensis) to H. sapiens.
We don’t know everything about early humans—but we keep learning more! Paleoanthropologists are constantly in the field, excavating new areas with groundbreaking technology, and continually filling in some of the gaps about our understanding of human evolution.
Below are some of the still unanswered questions about Homo heidelbergensis that may be answered with future discoveries:
- Did this early human species indeed range in time from 1.3 million to 200,000 years ago, and in geography from Africa to Europe to Asia? Or are there more than one species represented among the fossils that some scientists call H. heidelbergensis (including H. antecessor, H. cepranensis, and H. rhodesiensis)?
- Many scientists think this species was ancestral to our own, but which species was the ancestor of H. heidelbergensis?
- Did H. heidelbergensis have any cultural or behavioral adaptations that facilitated it living in colder climates?
- Did regional groups or populations of H. heidelbergensis exhibit any unique behaviors or anatomical adaptations?
Schoetensack, O., 1908. Der Unterkiefer des Homo heidelbergensis aus den Sanden von Mauer bei Heidelberg. Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann.
Other recommended readings:
Martinez, I., Rosa, L., Arsuaga, J.-L. Jarabo, P., Quam, R., Lorenzo, C., Gracia, A., Carretero, J.-M., Bermúdez de Castro, J.M., Carbonell, E., 2004. Auditory capacities in Middle Pleistocene humans from the Sierra de Atapuerca in Spain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101, 9976-9981.
Mounier, A., Marchal, F., Condemi, S. 2009. Is Homo heidelbergensis a distinct species? New insight on the Mauer mandible". Journal of Human Evolution 56, 219-246.
Rightmire, G.P., 1998. Human evolution in the Middle Pleistocene: the role of Homo heidelbergensis. Evolutionary Anthropology 6, 218-227.
Stringer, C.B., Trinkaus, E., Roberts, M.B., Parfitt, S.A., Macphail, R.I., 1998.The Middle Pleistocene human tibia from Boxgrove. Journal of Human Evolution 34, 509-547.