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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 forbears.

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 hominid.

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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