The Japan Times, May 31, 1997

Fossils of unknown early ancestor found

Spanish find pushes back date of European occupation by 300,000 years

MADRID (AP) Scientists Thursday announced the discovery of a common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans, a tall and lanky being with protruding brows and heavy jaws but who otherwise looked a lot like us.
This new species of protohumans, dubbed Homo antecessor from the Latin word meaning an explorer or one who goes first, lived 800,000 years ago, hunting in what is now Spain in oak and beech forests for rhinoceroses, elephants and other game, according to scientists who discovered the species. Sometimes, they ate their own kind, the scientists said.
The discovery by a Spanish anthropological team, whose findings were to be published Friday in the American journal Science, will force scientists worldwide to consider remapping the human family tree.
The new findings support the theory that rather than being linear, the human family tree has many branches, and that present-day humans share ancestors with other humanlike beings who eventually became extinct.
The Spanish scientists dug up 50 fossilized specimens belonging to at least six individuals during the summers of 1995 and 1996 in the Atapuerca hills in northern Spain.
In studying them, the scientists realized they had in their hands missing pieces in the human evolutionary puzzle, said Jose Luis Arsuaga of Madrid's Complutense University, one of the six scientists on the anthropological team.
"Our decision to name a new species came after trying to fit the fossils into all previous species from Europe and Africa," said Arsuaga as the team presented the fossils to reporters at Madrid's Museum of Natural Sciences.
The largest fossilized remains are from the face of an adolescent male, which form the centerpiece of the team's study.
Homo antecessor had a bulky lower jaw, primitive teeth, and a ridged brow all typical of Neanderthals and humanlike cheekbones and depressions on either side of the nose, known as canine fossa, also typical of modern humans.
"This combination of characteristics is unique. It doesn't appear in any other hominid," said Antonio Rosas, a coauthor 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 team's findings are vulnerable to criticism for being largely dependent on a single immature specimen, said Rick Potts, curator of the Institute of Human Origins at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
"We all know that people vary in every population. The question that's going to be there in the minds of many anthropologists is, what is the range of variation," Potts said in a telephone interview. "Are they, in this individual, picking up the outer limit (of physical variations)?"
However Potts said that on the surface, the Spanish team's findings were "impressive."
Homo antecessors were perhaps almost 1.8 meters tall, muscular and were hunters, sometimes resorting to cannibalism or possibly eating carrion. Some of their fossilized remains are marked by cuts of the sort made by stone tools used to strip meat away from bone.
The team believes Homo antecessor first evolved in Africa, where it eventually gave rise to modern humans, known as Homo sapiens, and migrated to Europe about 1 million years ago.
The scientists say Homo antecessor also gave rise to Homo heidelbergensis, a species identified in 1907, which most anthropologists have until now considered the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans.
Therefore the H. antecessor, and not the H. heidelbergensis as previously believed, is the true common ancestor of both the Neanderthals and modern humans.
Scientists say another line of primitive humans evolved in east Asia, called Homo erectus.
All three types of humanlike beings lived simultaneously 500,000 years ago. By 250,000 years ago, only Homo sapiens were still alive.


SCIENTISTS BELIEVE these fossilized bones and teeth, found in a cave in Spain's central Atapuerca mountains, are the remains of a newly discovered species of protohumans who lived about 800,000 years ago. REUTER PHOTO