The Grandparents of My Cousin

Those of you who have been following me since the beginning know that my first foray into anthropology came fairly young, when in the 8th grade my science teacher introduced the class to Lucy. Lucy, or more accurately Australopithecus afarensis is a species of human ancestor that is rather better known to lay people. Lucy brought a lot of spotlight to an otherwise fairly obscure branch of science, and she has rightfully had a bit more celebrity status than many of our distantly ancient ancestors.

There are others ancient human species and relatives that the average bloke has heard of, though. Neanderthal is quite easily the most commonly known, although what is commonly known is typically far from accurate (unless you’re thinking of the Geico commercials, in which case it’s about as spot on as it gets). More recently there was buzz about a species called the Hobbits, who were found on the Indonesian island of Flores. A bit more recent but I think less commonly paid attention to outside of the field are the Denisovans. And you may or may not remember Ardi, or Ardipithecus ramidus, who so gorgeously graced the cover of National Geographic maybe 15 or so years ago.

But there are more, lots more. I suppose I will eventually get into a discussion that touches on all of them, but as I go along I realize that I’m better off leaving the specialties to the specialists, and focusing on that which I am best read. Still, paleoanthropology is pretty much my life, even though the last couple years have been overly focused on cast iron…which by my own historic standards is obscenely recent.

It’s so obscenely recent that the actual topic of today’s blog seems obscenely old, when really anything under roughly 2 million years old was more or less my cutoff point for modernity. That is to say, up until a few years ago, 2 million years just felt too recent to me, as though once anything properly resembling archaeology came about it just didn’t grab me as much. Well, that’s clearly changed, and in this post I’m going to be briefly introducing you to a species that I have almost embarrassingly ignored: Homo heidelbergensis.

Found near Heidelberg, Germany in the early 20th century, Homo heidelbergensis, like many others, takes its name from the final resting place of the first individual/s discovered by modern humans (that’s us). Heidelbergensis were an interesting bunch. They were quite different from “us,” but also more like us than anything prior. They had a wide array of behaviors that we would really like to only have attributed to us, and they were displaying them almost shockingly early.

Heidelbergensis display the earliest clear evidence of controlling fire, using hearths (“controlling” fire is the word choice here, because scavenging and controlling is different from creating it, which can be tougher to see in the archaeological record). They created wooden spears with which they hunted large game and their spear points have been found embedded in horses from around 340,000 year ago. They’re associated with butchery sites, and while they don’t appear to have symbolically buried their dead, the earliest site to arguably be a mass grave may be either late heidelbergensis or early neanderthalensis.

And from the studies of European heidelbergensis remains as compared with those of neanderthalensis, it seems there’s a pretty good blurring of the traits of the two, getting more like the Neanderthals as we get later in time. But heidelbergensis isn’t a strictly European species. Often called Homo antecessor or archaic Homo sapiens, the evidence is growing to support a population of heidelbergensis in Africa as well (and if antecessor and heidelbergensis are the same species after all, the rules of taxonomy mean the first discovered keeps the name). So late in time (relative to our last common ancestor with the other great apes), heidelbergensis is poised as the most likely candidate for the species that ultimately gave way to Homo sapiens…us.

The three of us in a 64 bit family reunion.

But their populations split at some point in time, and we know that by around 500,000 years ago they are found in Europe. Some hung around in Africa while others made their way into Europe, and so these two populations slowly drifted from one another, eventually giving rise to two physically distinct but genetically quite similar species: Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. These two wouldn’t meet up for quite some time, and since you’re the one reading this, being Homo sapiens means you already know the outcome there.

A handy graphic from

But we do know that there was a substantial (or at least not insignificant) amount of interbreeding between the two species. I know I have as much as 3% Neanderthal DNA. Given my family genealogy, we consider ourselves to be largely Irish and Italian. The same genetic analysis that gave me my 3% Neanderthal also gave me something like 5% Italian. I am almost as Neanderthal as that which my family always considered ourselves to be.

That’s pretty big. And given the suite of characteristics shown by us and by the Neanderthals, it makes sense that we would have a fairly recent common ancestor who also exhibited previously unheard of degrees of behavior that we would really like to have been unique to “us.” That isn’t the case though. More and more the traditional concepts of what makes humans human has been getting blurred.

Both the Neanderthals as well as ourselves had/have an incredible array of complex behaviors. It would make sense that each of us would have an immediate ancestry in an equally impressive species. That there’s a strong case to be made that it’s the same one shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the grandparents of my cousin are also my grandparents.

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