A group of Spanish scientists working with fossils from a Lower Pleistocene cave site in Atapuerca, Spain, say they've identified a new species of hominid--one that may represent the oldest known European and the last common ancestor of modern humans and our extinct cousins, the Neandertals. Dubbed Homo antecessor by Bermudez de Castro et al., the Atapuerca fossils exhibit a notably modern-looking mid-face (less protuberant than older hominids), which is more commonly seen in fossils dating nearly 650,000 years younger. However, other traits of the cranium, lower jaw, and teeth are very primitive, similar to those found in a poorly understood species of hominid called Homo ergaster. The remains found by the authors belong to at least six individuals who, they say, lived during the Lower Pleistocene, about 800,000 years ago, making them the oldest confirmed European hominids. The findings will be published in the 30 May 1997 issue of the journal Science.
Hominids are the family of two-legged primates that includes all forms of human beings, alive and extinct. Anthropologists trying to sort out the hominid family tree in Europe (and indeed, elsewhere) find the picture murky. One view is that Europe was settled about 500,000 years ago by Homo erectus, which eventually evolved into early Homo sapiens (including Neandertals, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis). Other scientists don't accept the presence of H. erectus in Europe. Still others argue that Europe was settled by a species of hominid whose line eventually died out: H. heidelbergensis to the Neandertals. According to this view, H. heidelbergensis was living in Africa at the same time as H. erectus and there gave rise to early humans who migrated to Europe and left descendants who survived the Neandertals. In this case, an African H. heidelbergensis would constitute the common ancestor of both Neandertals and H. sapiens.
If the authors' interpretation of the Atapuerca fossils is correct, however, some of these views would be challenged. The authors suggest that H. antecessor originated in Africa, where it spawned H. sapiens long before that species' migration to Europe; that H. antecessor itself migrated to Europe (possibly about 1 million years ago), and there gave rise to H. heidelbergensis, which in turn led to the doomed Neandertals. Though the debate will surely continue, the authors say that H. antecessor, and not H. heidelbergensis, is the true common ancestor of Neandertals and modern humans.
The authors say that H. antecessor was a robust figure of average height with a cranial capacity slightly greater than 1,000 cc; its face was large but completely modern looking. During the time it was alive 800,000 years ago in Spain, the landscape and climate would have been much like it is today: H. antecessor most likely lived in open forests of oak, pine and beech trees. Nothing is yet known about the hominids' social organization, though probably they were hunter-gatherers and perhaps scavengers as well.
Note: The article title is "A Hominid from the Lower Pleistocene of Atapuerca, Spain - Possible Ancestor to Neandertals and Modern Humans," by J.M. Bermudez de Castro and A. Rosas at Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (CSIC) in Madrid, Spain; J.L. Arsuaga and I. Martinez at Universidade Complutense de Madrid, CSIC in Madrid, Spain; E. Carbonell and M. Mosquera at U. Rovira I Virgili, CSIC in Tarragona, Spain.
To interview the authors, contact: Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro at 34-1-411-1328 ext. 1216 (phone), or firstname.lastname@example.org (e-mail)
A press conference sponsored by the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales will take place at 2 p.m. on 29 May at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (Calle Jose Guiterrez Abascal 2, 28006 Madrid).
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