Human Evolution in the Middle Pleistocene

Normally the death of an individual was not of major concern, at least in terms of disposing of the body. The group would merely move on, leaving the body where it lay. Now, however, it was the depths of an ice age winter and the body of the old female could not remain within the cave. This was not the first time that this group had come across such a problem. This was, after all, their winter cave, and it was also the most frequent time when members of the clan succumbed to the elements. Per usual practice, the males started to drag the body to the back of the cave, until they reached the deep shaft. They then proceeded to push the body over the lip of the opening. The body fell into the darkness below, and seconds later a thud could be heard as it hit the bottom of the sinkhole. But by then the men had already headed back to the main chamber of the cave to rejoin the group.

In the early 1980s a major discovery was made in the Acueva Mayor Cueva del Silo complex in northern Spain. At the bottom of a deep vertical shaft was a large collection of hominin bones representing at least 30 individuals, adult males and females as well as children. Also found were the remains of a number of cave bears (Arsuaga et al., 1997; Arsuaga, 2002; Agusti & Antón, 2002). The fossil hominins are now usually allocated to the species H. heidelbergensis, a species that appears to have its origins in Africa. But as we will see, they may stand at the base of a different species that dominated Europe for 200,000 years.

Most of the fossil materials to be discussed in this chapter have until recently been referred to as "archaic Homo sapiens." This classification was used as a type of "dustbin" category for middle Pleistocene specimens that could not easily be allocated to H. erectus, H. neanderthalensis, or H. sapiens. The problem was that they display a mosaic of features such as could also be seen in these other, morphologically and geographically diverse species. With the introduction of phylogenetic systematics and the recognition of primitive and derived features, we can now begin to identify a number of lineages within this group, each defined by derived features (see Chapter 5). As such, we now recognize three species within what was formerly termed "archaic H. sapiens." Most recently the species Homo antecessor has been named for one group from Spain (Bermudez de Castro et al., 1997), while the species H. heidelbergensis has been resurrected for a number of specimens from Africa and Europe (see Groves, 1989a). Here, we also recognize, at least for the time being, a third species, H. steinheimensis, which was endemic to Europe, though we have severe doubts as to whether it is anything more than a name of convenience (see partly Howell, 1998; Tattersall & Schwartz, 2000). The phylogenetic relationship of these three species to the later H. sapiens (the modern human lineage) and H. neanderthalensis (the Neanderthal lineage) is the subject of this chapter.

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