Homo heidelbergensis

From New World Encyclopedia
Homo heidelbergensis
Fossil range: Pleistocene
Mandibel from Mauer.JPG
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Family: Hominidae
Genus: Homo
Species: H. heidelbergensis
Binomial name
Homo heidelbergensis
Schoetensack, 1908

Homo heidelbergensis ("Heidelberg Man") is the name given to what is generally, but not universally, considered to be an extinct species of the genus Homo, which lived from about 800,000 years ago until perhaps 300,000 years ago. It is considered a predecessor of both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens in Europe (Smithsonian 2007a).

There are many fossils found that appear to be intermediate between Homo ergaster/Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. Some feel that H. ergaster is the early phase or subspecies of H. erectus. Problematic specimens with mixtures of "erectus-like" traits and "modern" traits were placed for years in the category "archaic Homo sapiens" (Smithsonian 2007b). When H. ergaster/H. erectus disappeared in Africa, larger brained and more massively boned individuals appeared to have replaced them (Smithsonian 2007a). One such species separated from these archaic fossils was H. heidelbergensis.

The first H. heidelbergensis remains (a nearly complete mandible) were found near Heidelberg, Germany in 1907. A year later Otto Schoetensak named it Homo heidelbergensis. Subsequent fossils ascribed to this species were found in France and Greece in Europe, and at sites in Ethiopia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe in Africa (Kreger 2005a, Smithsonian 2007a).

The fluidity of the science of human origins is seen in the case of H. heidelbergensis, which some biological anthropologists are not even sure merits its own species, and which has been described on the basis of specimens that may consist only of a mandible or a cranium, though to be fair, this is not an uncommon paleontological practice.

There are at least three basic views regarding the fossils attributed to Homo heidelbergensis: (1) it is a species that gave rise to both Neanderthals in Europe and H. sapiens in Africa; (2) the European and African fossils are different and the African fossils belong in a different species and is the one that gave rise to H. sapiens; and (3) H. erectus was the direct ancestor of H. sapiens and the African fossils should remain in the category of "archaic H. sapiens" (Smithsonian 2007a).

Kreger (2005a) notes that "many researchers argue that heidelbergensis is invalid." Some consider it part of H. erectus (Kreger 2005b).

Findings and morphology

On October 21, 1907, a quarry worker found a nearly complete mandible at the Mauer sand pits near Heidelberg, Germany (Kreger 2005a). The jaw 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. Schoetensack's extensive monograph published the next year designated it Homo heidelbergensis, but without clear justification, since he did not describe a unique anatomical feature (Kreger 2005a).

This specimen, Mauer 1, is considered the type specimen. It has been dated to at least 400,000 years ago and possibly as much as 700,000 years ago, but generally an age of 500,000 years is accepted (Kreger 2005a).

Subsequent fossils ascribed to this species were found in Arago, France and Petralona, Greece in Europe, and at sites in Bodo, Ethiopia; Saldanha, South Africa; Ndutu, Tanzania; and Kabwe, Zimbabwe (Kreger 2005a, Smithsonian 2007a). The Bodo specimen is a cranium that "sports the biggest face known among hominid specimens," housing an approximately 1100cc brain as well (Kreger 2005a).

A finding in Atapuerca, Spain has also been attributed as possibly H. heidelbergensis, although H. erectus and H. antecessor have also been named as possible.

Overall, H. heidelbergensis was considered to be tall, 1.8 m (6 ft.) on average, and more muscular than modern humans.

Furthermore, the morphology of the outer and middle ear of Homo heidelbergensis suggests it had an auditory sensitivity similar to modern humans and very different from chimpanzees. Therefore, they were not only able to produce a wide range of sounds, they were also able to differentiate between these sounds (Martinez et al. 2004).

Many scientists believe Rhodesian Man, found in Africa, belongs within the group Homo heidelbergensis.


Cut marks found on wild deer, elephants, rhinos, and horses demonstrate that they were butchered, some of the animals weighed as much as 1,500lbs, possibly larger. During this era, now-extinct wild animals such as mammoths, European lions, and Irish elk roamed the European continent.

In theory, recent findings in Atapuerca, Spain also suggest that H. heidelbergensis may have been the first species of the Homo genus to bury their dead, but that is contested at this time. Some experts believe that H. heidelbergensis, like its descendant H. neanderthalensis, acquired a primitive form of language. No forms of art or sophisticated artifacts other than stone tools have been uncovered, although red ochre, a mineral that can be used to create a red pigment useful as a paint, has been found at Terra Amata excavations in the south of France.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Kreger, C. D. 2005a. Homo heidelbergensis: Introduction. Archaeology.info.
  • Kreger, C. D. 2005b. Homo erectus: Introduction. Archaeology.info.
  • Martinez, I., L. Rosa, J.-L. Arsuaga, P. Jarabo, R. Quam, C. Lorenzo, A. Gracia, J.-M. Carretero, J.M. Bermúdez de Castro, and E. Carbonell. 2004. Auditory capacities in Middle Pleistocene humans from the Sierra de Atapuerca in Spain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101(27): 9976-9981.
  • Schoetensack, O. 1908. Der Unterkiefer des Homo heidelbergensis aus den Sanden von Mauer bei Heidelberg. Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann
  • Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. 2007a. The origin of the genus Homo: Homo heidelbergensis. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved March 4, 2007.
  • Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. 2007a. Homo heidelbergensis. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved March 4, 2007.
  • Weinert, H. 1937. Dem Unterkiefer von Mauer zur 30-jährigen Wiederkehr seiner Entdeckung. Z. f. Morphol. u. Anthropol. Bd.XXXVII, Heft 1, S.102-113.


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