The last common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals was a tall, well-traveled species called Heidelberg Man, according to a new PLoS One study.The determination is based on the remains of a single Heidelberg Man Homo heidelbergensis known as “Ceprano,” named after the town near Rome, Italy, where his fossil — a partial cranium — was found.Previously, this 400,000-year-old fossil was thought to represent a new species of human, Homo cepranensis. The latest study, however, identifies Ceprano as being an archaic member of Homo heidelbergensis. The finding may shed light on what the species that gave rise to both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens looked like.
“Considering other fossils that can be lumped together with Ceprano in H. heidelbergensis, we can hypothesize that the Ceprano-morphotype was tall, with a strong mandible jaw and small teeth,” coauthor Silvana Condemi told Discovery News.
For the study, she and colleagues Aurelien Mounier and Giorgio Manzi compared Ceprano with 42 fossils from Africa and Eurasia ranging from 1.8 million to 12,000 years ago. The scientists also compared Ceprano to 68 modern humans. The sample set is the most extensive ever assembled in relation to the ancient Italian fossil.
In addition to identifying Ceprano as a Heidelberg Man, the analysis found notable similarities with other human-associated fossils from Europe dating to the Middle Pleistocene 781,000 to 126,000 years ago. Connections were also made to early human fossils from Africa. The researchers therefore believe that Homo heidelbergensis was widespread, dispersing throughout Eurasia and Africa beginning around 780,000 years ago. Good weather may have permitted Heidelberg Mans worldly lifestyle.