Many people have not heard of the Herto Man. This phrase refers to the human remains uncovered in Ethiopia, dated to between 160,000 to 154,000 years ago. These human remains, from the sedimentary deposits of the Bouri formation, were discovered in 1997 by Tim White.
At the time the discovery of the Herto Man was especially significant as it was a period of human history about which we knew very little. The age of the bones fell within a long gap within the record of fossils, dating from between 300,000 to 100,000 years ago.
Formally described in 2003, Herto Man was considered to be part of the oldest dated Homo Sapiens remains. The 12 individuals were described as falling just outside of the modern human in terms of anatomy. As such, they have named as Homo Sapien Idaltu, meaning “elder” in the Afar language of the region.
The closeness of the Homo Sapiens and the Idaltu represented a morph between the older Homo branch and the more modern human, echoing the “missing link” that Victorian anthropologists searched for to connect Man to the other primates. But what does this all mean and what can it tell us about human evolution from the past?
Fossils of the Herto Man in 1997 compromised of a nearly complete skull, missing only the left skullcap, some skull fragments including a parietal bone and a nearly complete skull of young child assumed to be approximately 6 or 7.
Ethiopia has long been recognized as a region famous for its ancient proto-human remains, stretching back as far as 6 million years ago. In 2003, scientists used the argon-argon dating system to date these bones to 160,000 to 154,000 years ago, establishing where the fit within our understanding of human evolution.
The paper that was published by Tim White described the bones as just outside of the anatomically modern human. They considered the earliest specimens that had been discovered from South Africa and compared the bone structures. From this, that they were able to distinguish the Idaltu as a separate sub-species of the Homo Sapiens branch.
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However, in another paper published at the same time, Chris Stringer doubted the validity of the conclusion that these bones represented a subspecies of the Homo Sapiens. His conclusions were based on his comparison of the bones to those that had been found in Australasia, dating back to the late Pleistocene period, a geologic epoch that lasted 2.5 million years before ending only some 12,000 years ago.
White and his fellow researchers did make note of these concerns but still considered the Herto Man to be anatomically distinct from all others at this point. More recently in 2011, Kyle Lubsen and Robert Corruccini, American anthropologists, compared skulls that had been found in Israel noting how similar they were.
This led to the conclusion that the Herto Man was clearly distinct being put under suspicion. This was then further corroborated by Robert McCarthy and Lynn Lucas in 2014. They used a much larger sample size than White and came to the same conclusion as Lubsen and Corruccini.
The Anatomy of Herto Man
Very similar to a modern human being, the Herto skull has a high cranial vault encasing the brain. It had an overall globular shape from the side, with a relatively flat face. The brain volume was about 1,450 cubic centimeters (88 cubic inches).
This places the brain size of Herto Man very close to that of modern Homo Sapiens, with our brain volume of 1,500 cubic centimeters (92 cubic inches). Further, the skull of Herto Man is robust with a projecting brow ridge, similar to modern-day Indigenous Australians and Pacific Islanders, suggesting that they are morphologically the same.
However, there are differences as well. Compared to the average present-day human skull, the Herto Skull is notably long and has larger dimensions overall. In contrast, the cheekbones and parietal bones (the back of the skull) are relatively weak though it does have a strongly flexed occipital bone at the base of the back of the skull.
Could this be a weaker bone structure arriving from a rapidly evolving and growing brain? Or are there other, environmental pressures which led to this large, soft head?
What were These People Like?
The region in which these bones were found is known to be a sandy region with sedimentary deposits coming from rivers, perhaps indicative of a freshwater lake environment. What is certain however is that Herto Man showed some very human characteristics: they used tools, and they buried their dead.
The tools that were found with the bones included tools made using stone knapping. These tools included cleavers and axes. Such tools as these are rare finds but it seems more likely that the Herto Man created these tools more frequently than previous iterations of the Homo Sapiens branch of hominids.
Points and blades in this period were usually made with obsidian while other tools were rock, often making use of fine-grained basalt. The sites at which Herto Man has been found are also associated bovine and hippo carcasses, that show examples of manmade cut marks. This indicates a long-standing butchering tradition, with a taste for hippo.
The skull of the Herto Man also shows vertical cuts on parts of the bone across the temporal line and the parietal bone. Other bones show deep cut marks that are consistent with the method of skinning the flesh from the bones.
Some of the bones show repetitive scraping around the circumference of the braincase which has been identified as symbolic modification rather than for cannibalism. This seems to indicate a mortuary ritual practiced by the Herto Man, perhaps the first evidence of a burial custom in human history.
An Easy Life?
It is possible, with abundant resources and a hunter gatherer lifestyle, that Herto Man enjoyed a much more pleasant existence than the agriculturalists that came in later millennia. The early humans at Herto lived across the shores of a shallow lake created by the Awsash River that was dammed approximately 260,000 years ago. The lake itself would have contained hippos, crocodiles, and catfish, whilst buffalos roamed the land.
But were these people truly Homo Sapiens? The Herto fossils are very similar to modern-day human crania in the areas of the face and cranial vault. Their closeness to the Homo Sapiens indicates that if not, they are certainly a very close ancestor of the Homo Sapiens.
They are some of the earliest modern human fossils yet known. They provide great evidence for understanding how we evolved as a species, which seems once again to be proven to come out of Africa, before spreading into Eurasia.
Top Image: Herto Man existed some 160,000 years ago. Source: Fractal Pictures / Adobe Stock.
By Kurt Readman