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Prehistoric World

Hominid Chronology

by Peter Kessler, 26 July 2005. Updated 31 January 2017

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A SEVEN PART FEATURE:
Part 1: 20 million years
Part 2: 3.9 million years
Part 3: 2.3 million years
Part 4: 1.9 million years
Part 5: 600,000 years
Part 6: 350,000 years
Part 7: 200,000 years

 

Pan-Euro-Africans
 

600,000

Homo heidelbergensis
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Homo ergaster's immediate descendant was Homo heidelbergensis ('Heidelberg man'). In the late twentieth century it was thought to have first appeared between 800,000 and 600,000 years ago. [1]

More recent findings seem to have moved that date back at least to 1.0 million years ago, roughly the same time as the most recent evidence (chronologically-speaking) for the continued presence of Homo ergaster. Earlier dates have also been proposed, allowing a crossover period of co-existence between ergaster and heidelbergensis populations - the new replacing the old by out-competing it.

The first example was found by a workman in 1908 near Heidelberg in Germany. This was an almost-complete mandible which was missing only its premolars and first two left molars; it was heavily built and lacked a chin. German scientist Otto Schoentensack was the first to describe the specimen and proposed the species name Homo heidelbergensis.

Another example, known as Bodo, which was discovered in the Middle Awash in Ethiopia in 1976, was also dated to this period.

Heidelbergensis was significantly more intelligent than its contemporary rival, Homo erectus. The exact areas that this species occupied is vague due to insufficient fossilised remains, but it is known to have flourished in Europe and Africa for several hundred thousand years.

It is thought that many aspects of the Acheulean era (Early Palaeolithic) tool case were innovated and utilised by this species (see the Lower Palaeolithic cultures link, right, for more information on the Acheulean).

It also innovated many more advanced tools not associated with the early and middle Palaeolithic periods, such as throwing spears, which is a somewhat anomalous finding. More advanced tool-making techniques of the Mousterian (Middle Palaeolithic) tool case were also thought to have been innovated by this species toward the end of its presence in the fossil record. However, heidelbergensis tools were not nearly as advanced as those used by later hominids.

Recent findings in Europe also suggest that heidelbergensis may have been the first species of the Homo genus to bury their dead, but that is hotly contested at this time.

Sites at which heidelbergensis appears to have produced the red pigment ochre from hematite suggest that this species may have practiced art or ritual. At least toward the end of its existence, the species almost certainly controlled fire and may even have used rudimentary language.

 

[1] This was simultaneous to Homo erectus populations in sub-tropical Asia showing their first signs of anatomical development since they had migrated there 1.2 million years before. Soon after this point, there were apparently evolutionary developments in features of the head that would become characteristic of modern humans, which perhaps explains why some see erectus as a direct ancestor of Homo sapiens and not the dead-end branch it was.

500,000

Homo heidelbergensis spread out to populate Africa, the Middle East, and then southern Europe, with a good source of remains being discovered at a system of limestone caves at Atapuerca in northern Spain. They also reached Boxgrove in West Sussex, England, which at this time was a beach with limestone cliffs, part of a tidal lagoon tucked behind a headland. Horses, megaloceros (giant deer), rhinoceros, voles, and wolves occupied the landscape.

Skulls from elsewhere in Europe and in Africa show that heidelbergensis was developing a large brain, and the species is now seen as a key evolutionary link between ergaster and modern humans.

Homo heidelbergensis
This partial skullcap dated to 300,000 years ago is one of an extremely small number of early human fossils found on the Indian sub-continent - it may be heidelbergensis, which would make it the most easterly example of the species to date (2017)

 

400,000

Homo heidelbergensis was using throwing spears to kill large prey such as megaloceros. Such hunting transformed formerly scavenging hominids into masters of their environment.

Still very unprotected, prior to any form of clothing being developed, and using very basic spears, heidelbergensis would have had to pick its targets with some care, probably acting in a pack like wolves, using its spears instead of fangs and claws to corner and bring down its prey.

Bones from large animals such as rhinos, horses, and hippos were covered with cut-marks where 'Boxgrove Man' in Britain used stone blades to slash and butcher the animals for their meat. Crucially, the cut marks were found beneath the tooth marks of carnivores, indicating that humans got there before the scavengers. To archaeologist Mark Roberts, who led the Boxgrove excavation, this implies that the Boxgrove people really were hunting, not scavenging.

They were also the first humans to build shelters instead of sleeping in whatever natural protective environment they could find. Now they could create simple dwellings out of wood and rock. They would also build a hearth - an early form of fireplace - where they could cook and share food, stay warm, and ward off predators.

Heidelbergensis also continued to thrive in Africa. A fossil skull dated to this period was found at Kabwe in Zambia - the same area in which later Homo sapiens (archaic) finds would be made.

 

400-300,000

Homo erectus
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In Asia, Homo erectus specimens from China were some of the first hominids to be discovered. The various specimens from Dragon Bone Hill, in the Zhoukoudian or Choukoutien cave system in Beijing, were discovered in the late 1920s. However, all but two of the teeth that were sent abroad for analysis were lost in the chaos of the Second World War. The material included five skullcaps, several cranial and facial fragments, eleven mandibles, and 147 isolated teeth.

This material was used for the reconstruction of 'Peking Man' (so-called Homo erectus pekinensis) by F Weidenreich. A newer reconstruction was made by I Tattersall and G Sawyer in 1995, using fragments that were assumed to be male - the original reconstruction used both male and female remains. The newer cranial reconstruction resulted in a larger cranial capacity with a more massive and projecting face, and a broader, taller nasal region.

This new reconstruction is more similar to erectus specimens from elsewhere in the world. The material has been dated between 500,000 and 400,000 years ago. The five skullcaps have a mean cranial capacity of 1043cc. The Asian erectus had become mostly isolated from African hominids, and had begun to look distinct, resulting in facial bones that were massive, mandibles that were very robust, and more robust ridges of bone with the walls of the skull greatly thickened.

Homo erectus seems to have dwindled greatly in its Asian homeland by 300,000 years. It had been, to date, the longest-surviving Homo species, but seems to have started a decline by this point. It continued to survive in the more remote region of Java and in isolated pockets in South Asia.

 

Homo heidelbergensis

Earliest basic speech?
 

300,000

Homo heidelbergensis
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Homo heidelbergensis, which had spread to populate southern Europe and Africa, was beginning to use basic speech by this time, a skill which seems to have evolved progressively rather than being a sudden discovery.

The species was divided into at least two branches by the coming of a new ice age in the Pleistocene. As conditions changed on either side of the Mediterranean, the population in Africa began to evolve along different lines to that in Europe. Genetic studies suggest that this evolutionary divergence may have begun as early as 600,000 years ago.

The polar ice caps were locked in a cycle of retreat and advance. When they retreated, temperatures climbed and deciduous forest covered Europe. When the ice caps advanced, temperatures plummeted and the landscape turned into snowy tundra. In order to survive these ice ages, the European population of heidelbergensis evolved physical adaptations to the cold - becoming broader and more thickset, developing wider nostrils to heat the air entering its lungs - and became neanderthalis, although there may also have been heidelbergensis populations which existed for a time alongside the new Neanderthals until the increasingly harsh conditions eventually ensured their demise.

Homo heidelbergensis

Populations of Homo heidelbergensis in northern Europe probably wore animal hides to help stay warm. Unfortunately clothing is not durable so no remains have been found to prove the adoption of clothing

The Neanderthals lost the tall, strapping physique of heidelbergensis which was so ideally suited to life in Africa and developed a short, stocky body that was an ideal shape for conserving heat. They were also extremely muscular in order to cope with the demands of a gruelling ice age lifestyle. This physique developed early in childhood.

The second division of heidelbergensis, in Africa, became taller and slimmer to cope with the hotter temperatures there, emerging as archaic forms of Homo sapiens.

And then there was Homo denisovan...

 

300,000

Homo denisovan
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In 2010 a third descendant of Homo heidelbergensis was discovered in Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia. They were more closely related to Homo neanderthalis than modern man, with the genetic split occurring around 400,000 years ago (compared to modern man's genetic split of a maximum of 600,000 years ago). Homo denisovan seems to have existed alongside neanderthalis, and once modern humans had left Africa, all three species were living in same area at the same time.

While Neanderthalis was adapting to the European ice age to the west of the Altai Mountains, their Denisovan cousins inhabited Siberia and parts of Asia, possibly alongside late H erectus populations.

A finger bone fragment of a juvenile which lived about 41,000 years ago was found along with a tooth and toe bone from two other individuals of the same population.

Further facts are slowly emerging from continued examination of the remains and DNA analysis. Genetically, Denisovans were as different from Neanderthals as Neanderthals were from modern humans. And yet it seems that by 20,000 years ago, populations of H denisovan and H sapiens were interbreeding on mainland East Asia, adding a new aspect to Denisovan's survival. Most of these hybrid populations ended up as today's Melanesians.

Homo denisovan, Homo neanderthalis, and Homo sapiens were born from the changes triggered by the ice age, although Neanderthals appeared as much as 100,000 years earlier than H sapiens.

 

 

 

Main Sources

Archaeology Daily

BBC series - Walking with Cavemen, first screened from 1 April 2003

Bone Clones

Live Science

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

 

 

 

     
Images copyright BBC or affiliates unless otherwise stated. No breach of copyright is intended or inferred. Text copyright P L Kessler, adapted from numerous sources and notes. An original feature for the History Files.