Scientists Determine Height of Homo Heidelbergensis

The reconstruction of human limb bones found in Atapuerca, Spain, has helped scientists to determine the height of the human species Homo heidelbergensis.

The researchers have found that Homo heidelbergensis was only slightly taller than the Neanderthal (SINC / José Antonio Peñas)

Along with its enormous quantity of fossils, one of the most important features of the Sima de los Huesos site in Atapuerca, Burgos, is the splendid state of the findings. They are so well conserved that the 27 complete bones from some 500,000 years ago have been reconstructed.

“The incredible collection allows us to estimate the height of species such as H. heidelbergensis, who inhabited Europe during the Middle Pleistocene era and is the ancestor of the Neanderthal. Such estimations are based solely on analysis of the large complete bones, like those from the arm and the leg,” said to SINC Dr José Miguel Carretero Díaz, a researcher at the University of Burgos and lead author of a study published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

In addition, since bones were complete, the researchers were able to determine whether they belonged to a male or female and thus calculate the height of both men and women.

“Estimations to date were based on incomplete bone samples, the length of which had to be estimated too. We also used to use formulas based on just one reference population and we were not even sure as to its appropriateness,” Dr Díaz said.

Since the most fitting race or ecology for these human beings was unknown, scientists used multiracial and multigender formulas to estimate the height for the entire population in order to reduce the error margin and get a closer insight on the reality.

“We calculated an overall average for the sample and one for each of the sexes. The same was done with the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon fossils,” the researcher explained.

The results reveal that H. heidelbergensis from the Sima de los Huesos were 163.6 cm tall on average, while Neanderthals were 160.6 cm.

“Neither can be described as being short and both are placed in the medium and above-medium height categories. But, both species featured tall individuals,” Dr Díaz said.

The height of these two species is similar to that of modern day population of mid-latitudes, like in the case of Central Europe and the Mediterranean.

The humans who arrived in Europe during the Upper Palaeolithic era, Cro-Magnons or anatomically modern humans, replaced the Neanderthal populations. They were significantly taller (about 177.4 cm) than other human species and their average height for both sexes was higher, falling in the very tall individual category.

According to the researchers, putting aside the margin corresponding to small biotype species like H. habilis (East Africa), H. georgicus (Georgia) and H. floresiensis (Flores in Indonesia), all documented humans during the Early and Middle Pleistocene Era that inhabited Africa (H. ergaster, H. rhodesiensis), Asia (H. erectus) and Europe (H. antecessor, H. heidelbergensis and H. neanderthalensis) seemed to have medium and above-medium heights for the most part of two millions years. However, the researchers state that “amongst every population we have found a tall or very tall individual.”

In their opinion, this suggests that the height of the Homo genus remained more or less stable for 2 million years until the appearance of a “ground-breaking species in this sense” in Africa just 200,000 years ago. These were the Homo sapiens, who were initially significantly taller than any other species that existed at the time.

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Bibliographic information: Carreteroa J-M. et al. 2012. Stature estimation from complete long bones in the Middle Pleistocene humans from the Sima de los Huesos, Sierra de Atapuerca (Spain). Journal of Human Evolution 62 (2); 242–255.