The Broken Hill Skull (replica shown) was originally designated Homo rhodesiensis. Today, it’s typically considered a member of the species Homo heidelbergensis. Image: Gerbil/Wikicommons
The Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Initiative counts seven species as belonging to the genus Homo. But that’s just a fraction of all the species that scientists have proposed for our genus. Over the years, as researchers have realized fossils from different groupings actually come from the same species, anthropologists have tossed out the names that are no longer valid. Last spring, I highlighted several of these now-obscure names, as well as some recently proposed species that are not universally accepted. Here’s a look at four more proposed species of Homo that you probably won’t find in human evolution text books or museum exhibits.
Homo antiquus: In 1984, Walter Ferguson of Israel’s Tel Aviv University declared that Australopithecus afarensis wasn’t a real species (PDF). At the time, the known fossils of A. afarensis came from the site of Hadar in Ethiopia and Laetoli in Tanzania. There was a lot of physical variation among the bones in this combined collection, but many anthropologists thought the diversity was simply due to size differences between male and female members of the species. Ferguson, however, believed the bones actually represented more than one species. Based on the size and shape of the molars, Ferguson concluded that some of the larger jaws at Hadar matched those of Australopithecus africanus, a species that had only been found in South Africa. Other jaws in the collection had smaller, narrower Homo-like teeth, he said. The roughly three-million-year-old fossils were too ancient to fit with any of the previously described members of the genus Homo, so Ferguson created a new species name—H. antiquus. Ferguson’s species splitting had a larger implication: If Australopithecus and Homo had lived side by side for hundreds of thousands of years, it was unlikely that australopithecines were the direct ancestors of Homo. Ferguson’s work must not have been convincing. Almost 30 years later, A. afarensis is still around and few people have ever heard of H. antiquus.
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