By Maina Kiarie
Homo heidelbergensis (Heidelberg Man”, named after the University of Heidelberg) lived in Europe, possibly Asia (China) and Africa (eastern and southern) about 700,000 to 200,000 years ago. The species was the first early human species to live in colder climates. Their short, wide bodies were a likely adaptation to conserving heat. It lived at the time of the oldest definite control of fire and use of wooden spears, and it was the first early human species to routinely hunt large animals. 400,000 year old wooden spears were found at the site of Schöningen, Germany, together with stone tools and the remains of more than 10 butchered horses. This early human was also an innovator; it was the first species to build shelters—creating simple dwellings out of wood and rock. Evidence for this comes from the site of Terra Amata, France. In Atapuerca, northern Spain, at a site dating to about 400,000 years ago, there is evidence of what may be human ritual. Scientists have found bones of roughly 30 H. heidelbergensis individuals deliberately thrown inside a pit. The pit has been named Sima de los Huesos (‘Pit of Bones’). Alongside the skeletal remains, scientists uncovered a single well-made symmetrical handaxe —illustrating the tool-making ability of H. heidelbergensis .
The species was first discovered in 1908 near Heidelberg, Germany by a workman who found the fossil in the Rösch sandpit just north of the village of Mauer. German scientist Otto Schoentensack was the first to describe the specimen and proposed the species name Homo heidelbergensis.
This species may also reach back to as early as 1.3 million years ago, and include early humans from Spain (‘Homo antecessor’ fossils and archeological evidence from 800,000 to 1.3 million years old), England (archeological remains date back to about 1 million years), and Italy (from the site of Ceprano, possibly as old as 1 million years).
This early human species had a very large brow ridge, a larger braincase and flatter face than older early human species. Males averaged 5 ft 9 in (175 cm) and females averaged 5 ft 2 in (157 cm) in height. Males weighed about 136 lbs (62 kg) and females about 112 lbs (51 kg). H. heidelbergensis had a large brain-case — with a typical cranial volume of 1100–1400 cm³ overlapping the 1350 cm³ average of modern humans.
Comparison of Neanderthal and modern human DNA suggests that the two lineages diverged from a common ancestor, most likely Homo heidelbergensis, sometime between 350,000 and 400,000 years ago – with the European branch leading to H. neanderthalensis and the African branch (sometimes called Homo rhodesiensis) to H. sapiens.
As early humans like H. heidelbergensis migrated to colder climates, their bodies became more compact, reducing overall skin surface area and heat loss. This helped in conserving heat than, say, a tall, lean body like Homo erectus, which exposed more surface area proportional to body mass which was more useful in a hot, dry, African environment.