Meet the Rhodesian Man

Widely known as Broken Hill-1 (also Kabwe-1), the Rhodesian Man is an almost complete cranium discovered on June 17th, 1921 in a lead and zinc mine, 18 meters below the ground level, at Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia (now Kabwe, Zambia). It was sent in the same year to London, where it remains one of the key treasures of the Natural History Museum.

Kabwe 1 replica, NHM London. Photo: Roberto Sáez

This is a challenging specimen for the understanding of our African ancestors. However the circumstances around the discovery do not help to assign precise data to this fossil. It was found by a miner and there were no scientists around, so the initial collection of data was not the desirable: for example, the exact position and the relation to animal remains in the area. The discoverer had no clear memories of the finding. He explained that the surroundings were basically soft material, and the only few bones present were some bat bones plus a human tibia discovered one meter away on the same day. This likely corresponds to the same individual of the cranium. 

Broken Hill was initially dated to 40 KYA, but further evidences set a dating of at least 125, probably 200, to 300 KYA. In any case it is considered the oldest first human ancestor found in Africa.

Many scientists include this specimen within the Homo heidelbergensis species, together with the European Middle Pleistocene specimens.

But some scientists claim that Broken Hill is the holotype of Homo rhodesiensis, a separate, a specific African species which would be a direct ancestor to Homo sapiens. Some even consider that Homo rhodesienis gave rise to the subspecies Homo sapiens idaltu – this is a set of fossils known as ‘Herto’, dated to 160 Ka, discovered at Herto Bouri, Ethiopia by Tim White in 1997. Therefore H. rhodesiensis in Africa would have been contemporary to H. heidelbergensis in Europe.

The skull shares features of both Homo erectus (like the heavy brow ridge and thickness of the bones, although H. erectus are normally thicker) and Homo sapiens (like the flatter face and large brain, 1300 cc). The following slide deck describes its morphology more in detail.

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