November 26, 2012
Humans and Neanderthals split from a common ancestor roughly half a million years ago. While many anthropologists will tell you we don’t really know who that common ancestor was, others will say we do: the species Homo heidelbergensis, or something very much like it. An even smaller portion will point to another possibility: a controversial species called Homo antecessor.
H. antecessor, which first came to light in the 1990s, is known almost entirely from one cave in northern Spain’s Atapuerca Mountains. While working at the Gran Dolina site from 1994 to 1996, a team of Spanish researchers found 80 fossils belonging to six hominid individuals that lived roughly 800,000 years ago. The hominids’ teeth were primitive like those of Homo erectus, but aspects of the hominid’s face—particularly the shape of the nasal region and the presence of a facial depression above the canine tooth called the canine fossa—were modern, resembling features of modern people. The unique mix of modern and primitive traits led the researchers to deem the fossils a new species, H. antecessor, in 1997.
In 2008, the researchers expanded the timeline of the species . At another cave site in Atapuerca, Sima del Elefante, scientists unearthed a partial lower jaw, as well as a few dozen stone tools, dating to about 1.2 million years ago. Outside of Spain, the only other potential evidence of H. antessor
fossils are stone tools found at a nearly 800,000-year-old English archaeological site named Happisburgh that might have been made by the species.
H. antessor‘s discoverers—including José Bermúdez de Castro of Spain’s National Museum of Natural Sciences, Juan Luis Arsuaga of the Universidad Complutense in Madrid and Eudald Carbonell of the University of Tarragona—say the species’ similarities with modern people, and its age, make it the best known candidate for the common ancestor of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. They suggest H. antecessor may have evolved from a population of H. erectus living in Africa more than 1.5 million years ago and then migrated to Europe, journalist Ann Gibbons reported in Science when H. antecessor was first announced. Although the species has yet to be discovered in Africa, an African origin for H. antecessor may be necessary if it was indeed the direct ancestor of modern humans, which all fossil evidence suggests originated in Africa. Furthermore, the researchers say H. heidelbergensis is too similar to Neanderthals to be a direct ancestor of modern humans. Instead, H. antecessor gave rise to H. heidelbergensis, which then gave rise to Neanderthals.
But many anthropologists are not on board with this scenario. One problem is that most of the known H. antecessor specimens represent children, Gibbons reported. Only two of the six individuals found at Gran Dolina are thought to be adults, about 20 years old. Since most of the features tying H. antecessor to modern people were found in juveniles—whose bodies and physical features change as they grow up and go through puberty—it’s possible that H. antecessor adults didn’t really look much like H. sapiens at all. And if that’s the case, then it’s hard to argue the species had an ancestor-descendent relationship with us. The issue won’t be settled until researchers find good examples of complete adult H. antecessor fossils.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.