Aroeira 3: the westernmost Middle Pleistocene cranium of Europe

Why is it important?

  • Firmly dated to 390–436 ka, this new hominin fossil found in Portugal is the westernmost Middle Pleistocene cranium of Europe.
  • It is one of the earliest fossils associated with Acheulean tools in Western Europe.
  • Together with the tools, there is also a direct association with a large amount of faunal remains: mainly cervids and equids, also some rhinos and bears, a large bovid, a caprid and a tortoise.
  • The presence of burnt bones suggests a controlled use of fire.
Aroeira 3 cranium

Aroeira 3 cranium. Credit: Daura et al, New Middle Pleistocene hominin cranium from Gruta da Aroeira (Portugal)

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Historias de la Prehistoria. Reseña

David Benito. Historias de la Prehistoria. La Esfera de los Libros, S.L. 2017. 424 pp.

Historias de la Prehistoria es el segundo libro de David Benito tras Área 51. En él plantea un recorrido por todo el conocimiento acumulado sobre la evolución humana, con un foco particular en el relato histórico de los principales descubrimientos que nos han permitido avanzar en esta ciencia desde hace 150 años.

“De África siempre llega algo nuevo”, Plinio el Viejo

Tras esta cita, el libro comienza fuerte dando un repaso por lo que nos hizo (o hace) humanos, y por cómo ha ido progresando el punto de vista de los investigadores desde los inicios de la paleoantropología moderna. A continuación realiza una descripción muy completa y con sabor histórico de los hallazgos clave en orden cronológico: su contexto, protagonistas, fósiles, retos y polémicas, desde los orígenes de nuestro árbol evolutivo, recorriendo los primeros homininos, Australopithecus, Paranthropus y nuestro género Homo hasta el momento actual o, más bien, todo lo actual que puede llegar a ser ya que, si bien el texto llega hasta 2016, sabemos que parte del conocimiento actual quedará ya “antiguo” en unos meses. El libro termina describiendo algunos temas polémicos que han estado salpicando a esta ciencia, como el lamentable fraude del Hombre de Piltdown.

Historias de la Prehistoria, David Benito

Historias de la Prehistoria, de David Benito. Foto: Roberto Sáez

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Quick summary of the new hominin footprints at Laetoli


  • Since the 1970s several prints and trails of mammal, bird and insect have been identified in 18 sites (labelled from A to R) out of 33 total palaeontological localities in the Laetoli area, Tanzania.
  • In 1978 a 27-meter footprint trail was found at Site G, with about 70 footprints corresponding to 3 hominins.  They were bipedal, had big toes in line with the rest of their foot, and their gait was “heel-strike” followed by “toe-off”, that is, the same way modern humans walk.
  • The footprints were ascribed to Australopithecus afarensis, as suggested by the dating (3.66 Ma) and the fossils found nearby in the same sediment layer.

The new find

  • Site S is located only 150 m away from Site G. In October 2014 some excavation works were executed to assess the impact of building a museum including a protective covering for the Site G tracks. This yielded 14 hominin tracks plus other 529 tracks left by other animals including bovids, equids, girafs, rhinos…
Laetoli footprints

Figure 7 from Masao et al. 2016. Original caption: Southern part of the hominin trackway in test-pit L8. Footprints L8/S1-1, L8/S1-2, L8/S1-3 and L8/S1-4 are visible from left to right. The heel drag mark is well visible posteriorly to L8/S1-3.

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A moment of silence for the death of Homo heidelbergensis

“Every time I see the name ‘Homo heidelbergensis’ I feel a little queasy”, John Hawks

Homo heidelbergensis was defined in 1908 as a new species for a mandible that was found one year before, by the Neckar river in Mauer, near Heidelberg in Germany. This mandible, dated to 600 Ka, was the oldest hominin fossil in Europe for the following 90 years.

In the meantime, the name Homo heidelbergensis remained with no further assignment to any other fossil for seven decades, until it was resurrected to try to classify a group of 20+ specimens of the Middle Pleistocene from dispersed sites in Europe (Arago in France, Petralona in Greece…), Africa (Kabwe in Zambia, Bodo in Ethiopia…) and Asia (Yunxian and Dali in China…). They all had in common some derived features from Homo erectus, basically a larger brain which reflects in complex tools (e.g. the wooden spear fron Schöningen, Germany).

“In reality this species should have stayed dead instead of being resurrected in the 1980s”, Juan Luis Arsuaga

They were ‘archaic Homo sapiens’, fossils dated to between 600 Ka and 200 Ka just before the Homo sapiens appeared in Africa. It was made necessary to assign them to a species which demonstrated an evolutionary path between erectus and modern humans, being also ancestor of neandertals. Homo heidelbergensis was the choosen name, although there was not any complete description of this species.

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El triple enterramiento de Dolní Věstonice

Hace 31.000 años en Dolní-Věstonice (actual República Checa), un grupo de humanos realizó un triple enterramiento que fue descubierto en 1986, muy singular en cuanto a la disposición de los cuerpos y otras características que recojo aquí:

Enterramiento de Dolní Věstonice

El triple enterramiento de Dolní Věstonice. Fuente imagen: Mittnik A. et al. A Molecular Approach to the Sexing of the Triple Burial at the Upper Paleolithic Site of Dolní Věstonice (2016)

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Summary of the 2016 ESHE Meeting

The 6th annual meeting of the European Society for the study of Human Evolution (ESHE) took place in Alcalá de Henares, near Madrid, Spain on September 15-17th 2016. This is a summary of most of the presentations that I attended, sorted by the number of engagements in twitter. Click on the podium pictures to enlarge. Contact me if you are missing any other lecture or need further information.

Alcalá de Henares

Alcalá de Henares, Plaza Cervantes. Photo:

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The 9 neandertals of Sima de las Palomas

Sima de las Palomas del Cabezo Gordo is a vertical cave in Murcia (southeastern Spain), that is one of the most remarkable neandertal sites in Western Europe. Since 1991 it has yielded remains from at least 9 neandertal individuals, including 3 nearly complete articulated skeletons, among many other objects that also help to explain the ecology of the human populations in the area at least 50,000 years ago. The 2016 campaign is important as new fossils have been found at the deepest layers dated to 65-90 Ka.

The 3 skeletons

Between 2005-2009 three undisturbed neandertal skeletons with several parts in anatomical position were recovered:

  • An adult woman (SP96) and a child beneath her (SP97), both with the knees flexed and the elbows and hands raised up beside the face.
  • Another adult individual (SP92) with an extended elbow was beneath the child.
  • The 3 skeletons are dated to 50 Ka by U-series.
  • Many large stones and flakes were located over the skeletons. They might have been thrown to deter leopards and hyenas from disturbing the corpses.
  • The skeletons were lying in a cemented rock tumble, together with some burnt articulated horse ankle bones, 9 Mousterian tools, 12 flakes and 100 fragments of knapping waste.
  • Most of the human bones do not show any cut marks nor burnt residues.
  • However, the woman was deposited over a layer where a large fire was made before.
  • Near the child, two articulated leopard paws were found.

There could be an intentional arrangement of the bodies before rigor mortis, although there is no burial pit or other clear-cut signs.

Sima de las Palomas. Neandertal child SP97

Sima de las Palomas. Neandertal child SP97. Laboratory removal of adherent breccia with vibroscalpels continues. CAT scan of SP97 cranium revealed some hidden hand bone fragments close to the forehead. Photo credit: MUPANTQUAT

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What’s new in Atapuerca 2016: more fossils and a whole new site

The Atapuerca complex is composed of several paleontological sites located along the southwest side of the old mountains called Sierra de Atapuerca, in northern Spain. In the surroundings there is a number of other smaller sites with evidences of neandertal and other ancient human presence, including open air places. In 2016, more than 300 people have worked on this vast paleontological complex.

Atapuerca map

Map of the Atapuerca complex

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Nuevos hallazgos de homínidos en la isla de Flores

La isla de Flores en Indonesia, ha sido siempre un “mundo perdido” durante el Pleistoceno (periodo desde hace 2,5 millones de años hasta hace 12.000 años). Aunque la acumulación de hielo en periodos glaciares hace descender el nivel del mar, siempre ha habido un brazo oceánico muy ancho que separaba a Flores. A pesar de ello, tal vez en los momentos donde ese brazo se estrechaba (hablo de “momentos” que duraban durante miles de años), distintas especies de animales pudieron llegar allí. Entre ellos, llegaron los Homo erectus que poblaban el sur de Asia hace un millón de años. Por un proceso llamado especiación alopátrica debido al aislamiento geográfico extremo, la evolución allí dio lugar a especies endémicas como animales elefantes enanos o ratas gigantes, pero también a homínidos enanos. 
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El yacimiento paleontológico de Somosaguas: la campaña 2016

Muy cerca de Madrid, en el campus universitario de Somosaguas, desde 1998 se viene desarrollando un proyecto paleontológico muy interesante: la excavación y estudio de varios yacimientos del Mioceno (dos principales y varias catas) con evidencias de fauna de hace 14 millones de años. Este campus se construyó en 1968, aunque los primeros restos no se descubrieron hasta 1989, y aún pasaron otros 9 años hasta la primera campaña de excavaciones.

Existen dos yacimientos principales: Somosaguas Norte con presencia de grandes vertebrados, y Somosaguas Sur con microvertebrados. En total se han recuperado más de 6000 fósiles que representan a 28 especies distintas incluyendo 24 de mamíferos:

  • Mastodontes (Gomphotherium)
  • Rinocerontes (Prosantorhinus)
  • Équidos (Anchitherium, un pequeño caballo con tres dedos en cada extremidad)
  • Rumiantes (bovoides como el Tethytragus, cervoides como el Heteroprox)
  • Suidos (Conohyus, semejantes a los jabalíes)
  • Carnívoros (Pseudaelurus, Amphicyon – un género extinto conocidos como osos-perro)

Entre los microvertebrados: roedores (Heteroxerus, Galerix, Cricetodon soriae – una especie de hámster definida a partir de los restos de este yacimiento), pikas, aves, tortugas….

Somosaguas. Prosantorhinus-Tethytragus

Restos de Prosantorhinus y Tethytragus del yacimiento de Somosaguas. Foto:

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