Homo heidelbergensis

Homo heidelbergensis was named because he was found near Heidelberg, Germany. He is also called ‘Heidelberg Man’ for that reason.  In the scientific classification system species are commonly identified by two names (binomial nomenclature). The first name is the genus and the second is the species (the first word is always capitalized, the second is not) hence; Homo heidelbergensis.  The time period for Homo heidelbergensis is 800,000 years to 200,000 BCE (before the common era).

The Fossil Evidence

The first Homo heidelbergensis skeletal remains were  found by a worker in a sandpit on October 21, 1907.  It was a complete jaw.  Daniel Hartmann, the workman took the jaw to Otto Schoetensack a professor at the University of Heidelberg. It was Schoetensack who identified jaw and named the fossil.

Heidelberg man was very wide spread, he has been found across Africa, Europe, Eurasia and into India. 

One of the first things to always consider when studying the different hominin species is the time period of when they lived.  That of course allows you to see how they fit into the human lineage.  The time is determined by various ways, the skeletal remains themselves, other artifacts at the site, the soil environment, etc.  

The timeline for hominin species is always getting pushed back and never forward.  

When there is only small pieces of material found it can be very challenging to determine a timeline.  New finds give us more information. It has been my experience in studying human evolution that the more finds from any species that are made the further back the timeline for that species is pushed. Which is totally understandable.  The more material you have to date the better the dating will be.

The timeline for Homo heidelbergensis was long considered to be in the 600,000 to 200,000 BCE range.  Then newer finds have pushed it back to 800,000.  Now it appears the timeline could be as far back as 1.3 million years ago.

The 1.3 million years refers to a very small sample of skull parts.  Only fourteen fragments and lower jaw parts exist for a suggested species called Homo antecessor. I call it a suggested species because I believe it is really a Heidelberg man, just an earlier version or a transitional version from Homo erectus.  Here is the evidence of this find.  Not a whole lot there to declare a new species.

I prefer to think that when the dust settles antecessor will be delcared Heidelberg man as it pretty much is.  But until it has been settled more definitively I am using 800,000 years ago as the upper limit on my Heidelberg man plates. There is an axiom that is fitting for Anthropology that goes like this:

"absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"

 Hey Good Looking

What did they look like?  Well they had a very large browridge and flatter faces than we do. Here is a reconstruction of what Heidelberg man could have looked like. A glamour shot done at the mall no doubt.

 The European Heidelberg man stood about 5'7" to 5'9" (1.70 to 1.77 m).  Just as in modern man I am sure there were variations in height.  However, you might be startled to know that in Africa heidelbergensis stood over 7 feet tall.  

According to Lee R. Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, numerous fossil bones indicate some populations of Heidelbergensis were "giants" routinely over 7 ft (2.13 m) tall. 

They had thick bones which meant they were more heavily muscled than we are. The chin sloped back and the jaw was heavy even though the teeth were sized like ours. Their brain was large, averaging 1250 cubic centimeters placing it in the range of modern man. The forehead sloping back is in contrast with the more vertical forehead of modern man. Overall they were  thicker and stronger than we were.  

Heidelberg Man Culture and Behavior

It seems clear that H. heidelbergensis lived in a hunting and gathering type of culture. They made hearths and controlled fire. They made shelters. They hunted big game like deer, horses, elephants and hippos in coordinated hunting parties. There is strong evidence that they buried their dead in ritual burials which implies strong emotional attachments and caring. They lived in colder climates so it stands to reason they made clothing.    

The hand axes and stone tools heidelbergensis made where similar to H. erectus but more refined and precise.  And here is an extremely significant advancement - they used stone tipped spears.  I don't think the importance of this can be over stated.  Stone tipped spears are way more lethal than the hardened wood tipped spears H. erectus used.  And it took more reasoning power to work out the process involved.

Here is a picture of actual heidelbergensis stone spear points.

Heidelberg man stone tipped spear

Not only does using sharp stone tipped spears give them a huge advantage in bringing down prey at a distance it also allowed them to fight off predators to a much greater degree. Until spears were invented predator animals had to come into physical contact with the prey by clasping them either with claws or jaws.   

The Case For Language

Heidelberg man certainly had language, without a doubt. Their vocabulary was not as great as ours but there is little doubt in my mind they had a robust language and could communicate abstract thoughts to one another.

The most common example used to validate language use is hunting. To be able to set and execute hunting of large animals that would be some distance from where you are living takes a coordination that can only be achieved with a pretty sophisticated language.

Here is what I imagine would have been a typical conversation for a hunting party.

"Ok, look we are going out today and bring down a mammoth.  I saw a few yesterday over by that big tree south of here about a mile away.  Joe, you and Ed will circle around to the north of them and drive them south to the rest of us.  We'll be waiting and hiding right by the big tree.  And don't screw it up this time I am hungry." 

Activities around the camp fire were opportunities to have conversations that affected the entire tribe. The women talked about the kids and gathering food, etc.,  just like what you would imagine any group of modern people would do sitting around the communal fire pit.

Making shelters and clothing would have taken verbal instructions to get the job done but also to pass along the technology involved.

The Anatomical Case for Language 

It is clear to me that based on their culture alone you can surmise H. heidelbergensis used a developed language. However, there is substantial evidence from looking at the anatomy of the ear itself.  In Spain there is a H. heidelbergensis site  at Atapuerca. This site is a system of caves, in one cave 28 Heidelberg man skeletons have been recovered. The delicate bones of the ear have been well preserved in some of these individuals.

Some anatomical bullet points.

  • Ear bone anatomy is almost exact to modern humans.
  • sharp hearing in the 2 to 4 kilohertz frequency range where most of the sound of human language is transmitted in. 
  • Had the ability to moderate breathing for speech.
  • The fragile hyoid bone in the throat is the basically the same as modern man.
  • The Broca area (speech areas) of the brain were well-developed.

Here is an illustration of where the Broca area (red) in the brain is.

Broca area of brain

Here is an illustration of and where the hyoid bone is.

hyoid bone

The hyoid bone is important because it provides an anchor for the tongue and other muscles in the neck that facilitate speech. In other words it is crucial in the making of sounds and noises of language.

The anatomy needed for speech was in place and that coupled with their culture behavior strongly suggests Heidelberg man was actually speaking. 

When studying early man there is a caution to ascribing the attributes of  modern man to earlier species of Homo.  Anthropologists ideally want to be able to have definitive evidence before making claims about cultural behaviors and social interactions between individuals. 

Let's take clothing for example.  I would say that for sure heidelbergensis made and wore clothes.  They lived in Europe and other climates that would have necessitated the wearing of clothing to thrive in the colder months.  Given their brain size and what we can deduce from actual artifacts discovered, it seems certain to me that they developed the technology to make clothing from animal skins.

However, given the nature of animal skins it seems very unlikely any evidence could have survived for hundreds of thousands of years.  Any animal skin clothing would have deteriorated beyond recognition relatively quickly. 

When we are talking about language and social interactions there is no way on the face of the earth we can definitively know what went on hundreds of thousands of years ago and the complexity of it.

To me though the circumstantial evidence is quite overwhelming. With the skeletal remains we do have, the anatomy, the brain size, and the artifacts found all clearly point to a developed language.

I personally have no problem pushing certain human attributes back a million years. Circumstantial evidence is allowed in a modern court of law so when you look at the evidence for certain characteristics of human development like language you have to be open to accept what is there.

Homo heidelbergensis:

  1. Kingdom - Amimalia
  2. Phylum - Chordata
  3. Class - Mammalia
  4. Order - Primates
  5. Family - Hominidae
  6. Genus - Homo
  7. Species - heidelbergensis

Heidelberg Man Skull