Heidelberg man (Wikipedia)
A recent post on Uncommon Descent correctly pointed out that Neanderthal man was not a primitive species of human being, but a race of people who buried their dead and had larger brains than ours. Consequently, evidence that some modern people have Neanderthal DNA in their genes does not constitute evidence for the common ancestry of humans and apes, per se. Indeed, Casey Luskin made this very point in an article on Evolution News, in response to claims by evolutionists Karl Giberson and Francis Collins in their book The Language of Science and Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2011, pp. 43-44) that evidence for a genetic connection between modern humans and Neanderthals bolsters the case for “common ancestry.”
Now, I happen to believe that humans and apes do in fact share a common ancestry, although I would add that the development of the human brain since humans and apes diverged must have been intelligently guided, and I would also argue that nothing about the human brain can explain intentionality or free will. But what I’d like to discuss today is the question of whether Heidelberg man, the presumed common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern human beings, was also a true human being.
“Why does this matter?” I hear you ask. Because if Heidelberg man wasn’t a true human being, then we’d have a very odd situation indeed: two distinct races of human beings (Neanderthals and us) both diverged from a non-human ancestor. Heidelberg man certainly had a brain capacity in the modern range, but as yet we do not know whether he was capable of language, art or religion.
In a 2009 article entitled Evolution of the Genus Homo (Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 2009. 37:67–92, doi: 10.1146/annurev.earth.031208.100202), anthropologists Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey Schwartz write:
The first truly cosmopolitan Homo species is Homo heidelbergensis, known from Africa, Europe, and China following 600 kyr ago [600,000 years ago – VJT]. One species sympatric with it included the >500-kyr-old Sima de los Huesos fossils from Spain, clearly distinct from Homo heidelbergensis and the oldest hominids assignable to the clade additionally containing Homo neanderthalensis. This clade also shows evidence of brain size expansion with time; but although Homo neanderthalensis had a large brain, it left no unequivocal evidence of the symbolic consciousness that makes our species unique…
There is a good deal of variation within this assemblage, … particularly in occipital morphology, nasal profile, the relation of the orbits to the anterior cranial cavity, and the extent of bony pneumatization. But all specimens show the same basic morphology, with a consistent relationship of the face to the cranial vault, brains in the 1120 to 1285 ml range [cf. the average of 1350 ml for modern human beings – VJT], broad and massive lower faces topped by very tall supraorbital margins that peak at approximately midorbit, and twisting anterior supraorbital surfaces (Schwartz & Tattersall 2005).
The very earliest evidence yet recovered for the controlled use of fire in one place over a sustained period of time currently comes from a 595-kyr-old site in Israel (Goren-Inbar et al. 2004), where thick deposits of ash have been found; but it is not until after Terra Amata times that evidence for the domestic use of fire is found more or less routinely in hominid sites. From the same general period come the miraculously preserved 400 kyr old wooden spears from Schoeningen, Germany (Thieme 1997). These weapons, over two meters in length, are carefully shaped with their center of balance far forward, as in modern javelins and not at all as in thrusting spears. The penetrating power of their carefully sharpened wooden tips has been questioned, but use of these spears as missiles would imply ambush hunting, a more sophisticated means of obtaining animal prey than might have been inferred from the lithic record alone. Clearly, in the heyday of Homo heidelbergensis we encounter evidence of a cognitively much more complex hominid than any known in the earlier record—although, significantly, there is no artifact known in this time frame that can unambiguously be interpreted as a symbolic object.
We cannot be certain, however, that all of the significant technological innovations just discussed were actually made by Homo heidelbergensis, because this species clearly shared the Earth with other kinds of hominid. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
The Wikipedia article on Heidelberg man adds:
In theory recent findings in Atapuerca (Spain) also suggest that H. heidelbergensis may have been the first species of the Homo genus to bury their dead, even offering gifts.
Some experts believe that H. heidelbergensis, like its descendant H. neanderthalensis, acquired a primitive form of language. No forms of art or sophisticated artifacts other than stone tools have been uncovered, although red ochre, a mineral that can be used to create a red pigment which is useful as a paint, has been found at Terra Amata excavations in the south of France. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
What do readers think? Was Heidelberg man human or not? And how would you go about deciding that fact? Any ideas?