Is it possible that modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) or our forerunners archaic modern humans (Homo sapiens, Cro-magnons, et al) were living close to 1 mya? Generally, we’ve believed that modern humans came onto the scene about 100 kya then with new discoveries that was extended back to 200 kya and recently with new finds in Morocco the timeline for modern humans has been extended back to 300 kya.
Back in December of 1997 Discover Magazine ran an article about a controversial discovery. That discovery was made in Spain in 1995 in a cave called Gran Dolina in the Atapuerca region of Spain. This fossil suggested that modern humans were much older than believed, by far, in fact. The fossil was from an 11 year old boy who looked like a modern human yet it was dated at 800 kyr (hundred thousand years old). How is this possible if modern humankind is only 200-300 kyr?
This discovery, however, is not alone because in 1932 the famous Dr Louis Leakey made an astonishing find of his own! This discovery was made around Lake Victoria in Kenya, Africa. Leakey found numerous fossils belonging to the Middle Pleistocene that were really no different from modern man. Problem was that the Mid Pleistocene was about one million years ago!! (actually from about 781 to 126 thousand years ago). His discoveries were dismissed (as expected) but Leakey always maintained that the dating was CORRECT!
Returning to the 1995 discovery made in Spain, the find was so shocking that even the discoverers were shocked by it! Never in a million years did they expect to find any ancient human ancestor remains that looked like modern humans! The team was led by Dr Juan Luis Arsuaga Ferraras who said that he and his team expected something big and primitive but never modern looking. “What we found was a totally modern face,” he told the Discover magazine writers. “The most spectacular thing is finding something you thought belonged to the present, in the past….we were very surprised when we saw it.” Continue Reading
Artistic conception of Homo antecessor in Spain
1.2 mya an ancient human ancestor entered into what is today Europe with a unique mix of modern and primitive traits. This AHA is believed to be among the earliest human ancestors in Europe. We call this species “Homo antecessor” meaning “human pioneer.”
First discovered back in 1997 H. antecessor is much debated when it comes to just how this species is related to modern humans. Some anthropologists believe it to be a transitional species between H. erectus/ergaster and H. heidelbergensis. Others hold the view that this “human pioneer” was the last common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals. This species displays both modern and archaic morphology yet it displays traits not seen in either H. sapiens or the Neanderthals. Still, other anthropologists believe H. antecessor to be a separate species that evolved from H. erectus/ergaster. As if these various theories were not enough yet another one postulates H. antecessor is the same species as H. heidelbergensis which was in Europe about 600 kya to around 250 kya.
What we have in terms of fossil remains for this species are some lower jaw bones and about 14 bone fragments. In 1994 about 80 remains were found from 6 individuals who MAY have belonged to this species. These remains were found in the Atapuerca Mountains in northern Spain near Castile Leon. No complete skull has been found. I must also be noted that MOST of these remains are from CHILDREN! As you well know the bodies of children change as they grow into adults and enter into puberty and it may be that H. antecessor adults did not look like modern humans at all. The best fossil remain we have of this species is a lower jaw bone belonging to a 10 year old juvenile from Spain. This fossil has been dated between 857-780 kya.
H. antecessor may have been a CANNIBAL! Actually, cannibalism is NOT unusual for early human ancestors as much as we’d like to think otherwise. Numerous bits of evidence found at the Atapuerca site show cuts where flesh have been stripped from the bones which is a typical indicator of cannibalism. Further, on the coast near Norfolk in England 800 kya footprints believed to be from this species have also been found.
Some researchers believe H. antecessor may have indeed evolved from H. erectus in Africa around 1.5 mya and migrated into Europe. They also believe that once in Europe this species evolved into H. heidelbergenesis who, in turned, evolved into the Neanderthals. Very complicated! And if this is so then evolution was clearly not only going on in Africa but in EUROPE too! Was it evolution or were these simply different “breeds” of ancient humans who interbred with each other? Continue Reading