Homo heidelbergensis



photo of a reconstruction of an adult male Homo heidelbergensis


Homo heidelbergensis

(skin color and location of hair
are only guesses by the artist,
but the body shape is based   
on skeletal remains)     

The evolutionary dividing line between Homo erectus click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced and modern humans was not sharp.  It extended over several hundred thousand years during the middle of the Pleistocene Epoch.  Adding to the confusion about this important transitional period is the fact that some regions were ahead of others in the process of evolving into our species.  The evolutionary changes above the neck that would lead to modern humans may have begun in Southern Europe and East Africa 800,000-700,000 years ago.  Elsewhere in the Old World, this change apparently began around 400,000 years ago or later.  The transition to our species, Homo sapiens click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, was not complete until around 100,000 years ago and even later in some regions.

It is difficult to speak of our ancestors in terms of specific species during this long period of accelerated change from 800,000 to 100,000 years ago.  The more biologically progressive post-800,000 B.P. populations in Europe and Africa are commonly classified as a distinct species--Homo heidelbergensis click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  By 300,000 years ago, some of these populations had begun the evolutionary transition that would end up with Neandertals click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced and other archaic humans (also called archaic Homo sapiens click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced and premodern humans).  By 100,000 years ago, some populations had evolved into modern humansOthers remained largely unchanged until about 28,000 years ago, when they became extinct.  These were the Neandertals.  Complicating the picture is the fact that, in at least one area of Indonesia, a few Homo erectus remained until at least 53,000 years ago, and the little understood dwarf Homo floresienses persisted until at least 18,000 years ago.

family tree of archaic and modern humans

  photo of the side view of a Homo heidelbergensis skull from Petralona Cave, Greece

Homo heidelbergensis
(Petralona Cave, Greece)


Homo heidelbergensis was named for a jaw of this species discovered near the town of Mauer, southeast of Heidelberg, Germany in 1907.  Since then, fossils of Homo heidelbergensis have been found throughout the Old World from tropical to temperate zones.  These widespread populations show regional variations in physical appearance.  The extent of the interaction between these diverse and widely distributed populations is not clear.  Likewise, there is not yet agreement as to which of these populations were the ancestors of modern humans.  However, it is apparent that in all regions, these people were anatomically a mosaic of late Homo erectus and more modern human traits. 

The bodies of heidelbergensis in Europe tended to be compact, as would be expected for people living in cold climates.  This shape reduces the loss of heat.  Male heidelbergensis averaged about 5 feet 9 inches tall (175 cm) and 136 pounds (62 kg).  Females averaged 5 feet 2 inches tall (157 cm) and 112 pounds (51 kg).  This is only slightly smaller than most people today.  With an average of 1200 cm.3, heidelbergensis brains were only 10% smaller than people today as well, but their heads did not have a modern appearance.  They had large brow ridges and low foreheads.  Their brain cases also were more elongated from front to back than in Homo sapiens.  In these characteristics, heidelbergensis was still more like Homo erectus than us.


Important Homo heidelbergensis Sites

Map of the Important Homo erectus Sites
  Date of Fossil
years ago)
Cranial Capacity
( in cm.3)

  Bodo d'Ar 600,000  1300  
  Broken Hill (Kabwe)   700,000-400,000? 1280  
  Lake Ndutu 400,000-250,000? 1100  
  Gesher Benot Ya'aqov 790,000    
  Arago Cave 450,000 1150  
  Atapuerca 800,000-400,000 1125-1390  
  Boxgrove 524,000-478,000  
  Ehringsdorf 245-190,000 1450
  Happisburgh 780,000  
  Mauer 500,000  
  Petralona Cave 400,000-250,000 1230  
  Steinheim 400,000-300,000 1100  
  Swanscombe 400,000 1325?
  Vértesszöllös 475,000-250,000 1400?
  Dali 200,000-100,000  1120    
  Jinniushan 280,000 1260  
  Maba 169,000-129,000  
Note: There is not a general agreement at this time as to how all Homo heidelbergensis fossils should be classified.  Some paleoanthropologists prefer to classify the more recent ones as archaic humans.  Likewise, some of the earliest Homo heidelbergensis are classified as Homo antecessor or even late transitional Homo erectus.
photo of the excavations inside Arago Cave, France   Excavations in 2002 at the
Homo heidelbergensis site
of Arago Cave in southern

NEWS:  What may be the earliest known human footprints have been found on the slope of Roccamonfina volcano in Italy.  The three sets of footprints and a handprint surviving in hardened volcanic ash were made 385-325,000 years ago presumably by early archaic humans.  Based on the size of the footprints, it was estimated that they were made by someone who was not quite 5 feet tall.  While these may be the earliest known human footprints, they are not the earliest known hominin ones.  That honor goes to the 3.7-3.5 million year old footprints at the Laetoli site in Tanzania.  More information about the 385-325,000 year old Italian footprints may be found in the March 13, 2003 issue of Nature.

NEWS:  Eudald Carboneli et al. reported in the March 27, 2008 issue of Nature that a human jaw with a tooth dating 1.2-1.1 million years ago has been found in Sima del Elefante cave in the Atapuerca Mountains of Northern Spain.  This is the oldest fossil evidence of humans yet discovered in Western Europe.  The authors believe that they are from a Homo antecessor (i.e., a very early Homo heidelbergensis or a late transitional Homo erectus).


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