NEW HOMINID LINK
By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence
WASHINGTON, D.C. (5/29/97) A newly discovered hominid species
might prove to be the oldest known European, a valuable missing link to human
Spanish paleontologists working in northern Spain found a group of bones
in cave near Atapuerca. The remains included bones from at least six individuals
who lived during the Lower Pleistocene, about 800,000 years ago.
This would earn them the title of oldest European hominids.
"We believe this is a new species that we have called Homo
antecessor. It is a species that we consider the common ancestor
of modern humanity and the neanderthals," Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro
of the Natural Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid told the press.
Homo antecessor (Latin: human forbear) possessed characteristics
of both neanderthals and Homo sapiens. With the bulky brow and big
jaw of the now extinct neanderthal and the cheekbones and nose of Homo
sapiens, the researchers believe they have discovered a missing link
that may cause a major reconsideration of human ancestry.
"This combination of characteristics is unique. It doesn't appear in
any other hominid," said Antonio Rosas, a co-author of the study published
in Science. "From a logical viewpoint, it fits into an easily definable
space, the common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals."
The more modern facial characteristics of Homo antecessor have
previously only been seen in hominids more than half a million years younger.
In other respects it more closely resembles Homo ergaster, a very primitive
Anthropologists will now have to redraw the family tree to include a
branch for Homo antecessor.
One implication of the discovery is that Homo sapiens evolved
in a less linear fashion than previously believed. Until this discovery,
scientists have argued that Homo sapiens in Europe evolved either
from Homo erectus with input from Homo sapiens neanderthalensis
OR that Europe was settled by an African species, H. heidelbergensis,
a common ancestor of both Neandertals and H. sapiens.
The Spanish researchers believe the Atapuerca fossils 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. This would mean that H. antecessor, and not H. heidelbergensis,
is the true common ancestor of Neandertals and modern humans.
The researchers report 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. The landscape and climate 800,000
years ago in Spain, would have resembled what you would find today. Living
in forests of oak, pine and beech trees, the hominid ancestors were
most likely hunter-gatherers. There is also some evidence of cannibalism,
the scientists report.
The article appears in the May 29, 1997, issue of Science.
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