Spanish Fossils Enter Human Ancestry Fray
Bower, Bruce, Science News
Fossils found in a cave in northern Spain constitute a new species in the human evolutionary family that may represent the last common ancestor of Neandertals and modern humans, according to a new report.
The approximately 800,000-year-old Spanish hominid, dubbed Homo antecessor by its discoverers, originated more than 1 million years ago in eastern Africa, where it gave rise to H. sapiens, propose paleobiologist Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid and his colleagues. In their view, H. antecessor later trekked to Europe, where it was ancestral to a German species known as H. heidelbergensis and to Neandertals.
"H. antecessor displays a unique combination of cranial, dental, and [lower jaw] traits that collectively is different from other known Homo fossils," the Spanish researchers report in the May 30 Science.
The identification of fossil hominid species and their evolutionary relationships to one another is a controversial endeavor. For instance, after initial reports of the finds in Spain's Atapuerca Mountains (SN: 8/12/95, p. 100), some investigators assigned them to H. heidelbergensis. Other scientists hold that the extent of anatomical variation in Homo specimens from that general time range precludes any species designations.
"The Atapuerca specimens were part of a movement of early hominids from Africa into southern Europe that probably began more than 1 million years ago," asserts anthropologist Erik Trinkaus of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "But it's highly premature to assign them to a new species and call it ancestral to later hominid groups. …