Homo heidelbergensis

Model of what Homo heidelbergensis might have looked like.

Homo heidelbergensis reconstruction

Homo heidelbergensis is known to have lived from at least 600,000 years ago in Africa and Europe to maybe as late as 250,000 years ago in some areas. 

They routinely butchered large animals, and their fossil remains are often associated with handaxes.

Evidence suggests that African H. heidelbergensis could be the ancestor of our own species, Homo sapiens.

Distinctly human

Replica of the Broken Hill skull, the finest known example of Homo heidelbergensis

Replica of the Broken Hill skull from Kabwe, Zambia, the finest known example of Homo heidelbergensis

After 1 million years ago, we see different human species living across Asia and Europe as well as Africa, which are thought of as distinctly human in physique and behaviour.

The first fossil identified as H. heidelbergensis was a jaw discovered near Heidelberg, Germany in 1907. Since then various other finds have been made in Europe, Asia and Africa. They show a less projecting face, more prominent nose and a bigger braincase than Homo erectus, but also more primitive features than those of Neanderthals and modern humans.

Some H. heidelbergensis individuals had brain sizes within the modern human range. However, facially they still looked very different from us, with a longer, lower shaped skull, large brow ridge and no chin.

Skilled and organised

Did Homo heidelbergensis actively hunt large animals such as this elephant?

Despite this illustration by Angus McBride, we are not sure whether Homo heidelbergensis actively hunted dangerous large animals, but they were certainly skilled at obtaining their meat.

Evidence shows that H. heidelbergensis was an accomplished tool-maker and skillfully butchered large animals. The remains of horses, elephants, deer and rhinoceroses with butchery marks on their bones have been found alongside fossils of this hominin in Southern England and Germany. Whether they actively hunted the animals isn’t known. But, even if they scavenged the carcasses, these hominins were organised enough to drive off dangerous competing animals such as lions, hyenas and wolves.

Common ancestor

Neanderthal and Homo sapiens DNA reveals that they shared a common ancestor about 400,000 years ago. Many scientists think this could have been H. heidelbergensis, giving rise to Neanderthals in Europe and to our species in Africa. And perhaps to the Denisovans in Asia.