Monday, 29 December 2008

The Herto remains (Homo sapiens idaltu)

The Herto remains are a find of early anatomically modern human remains from Herto, Middle Awash in the Afar Triangle, Ethiopia. The find comprises of three well-preserved crania plus fragmentary remains. The crania were discovered in 1997 by a team lead by Dr. Tim White but the find was not described until 2003. Two of the crania belong to adult males; the third belongs to a six-year-old child. The cranial capacity of the best-preserved adult cranium, known as BOU-VP-16/1, is 1450cc – at the high end of the modern human range.

Deposits dated by the argon-40/argon-39 method to 154,000 years old and 160,000 years old provided constraints on the age of the Herto remains. At the time, they were the earliest examples known of modern Homo sapiens. Crucially they pre-date the “classic” Neanderthals, ruling out the possibility that modern humans are descended from the latter.

Although the finds are close enough to present-day humans to be considered the same species, they retain some primitive morphological features from earlier human species such as Homo heidelbergensis. The braincases are longer and the brow ridges are more pronounced than those of later humans. For this reason, White erected a new subspecies for them, Homo sapiens idaltu (idaltu means elder or first-born in the Afar language).

Stone tools found with the fossils suggest a transitional phase between the Acheulian hand-axe and Middle Stone Age (MSA) flake technologies. Such assemblages are traditionally classified as final Acheulian.

The Herto people occupied the margin of a freshwater lake, and archaeological evidence indicates butchery of large mammal carcasses, particularly hippopotamus. Whether they hunted or simply scavenged these animals is not known.

The less-intact adult cranium (BOU-VP-16/2) bears cut-marks made with stone tools. Some of these are deep cut-marks typical of de-fleshing, but more abundant are more superficial marks showing a repetitive scraping motion, a pattern that is not seen on faunal remains processed for food, or in instances of cannibalism.

The child’s skull exhibits cut-marks made by a very sharp stone flake deep in its base. The rear part of the cranial base was broken away, and the broken edges polished. The sides of the skull show a deep polish that may have formed from repeated handling of the skull after it was de-fleshed.

All of this implies some form of ancient mortuary practice. Ethnographic evidence from several cultures documents the post-mortem manipulation and preservation of human remains as part of mortuary practices. For example, some New Guinean crania show cut-marks, decoration and polishing reminiscent of traces seen on the Herto people.

This suggests the Herto people may have had complex belief systems; a feature considered to be one of the hallmarks of modern human behaviour.


Clark JD, Beyene Y, WoldeGabriel G, Hartk WK, Renne PR, Gilbert H, Defleurq A, Suwa G, Katoh S, Ludwig KR, Boisserie J-R, Asfawkk B & White TD (2003): Stratigraphic, chronological and behavioural contexts of Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia, Nature Vol 423 12 June 2003.

White TD, Asfaw B, DeGusta D, Gilbert H, Richards GD, Suwa G & Howell FC (2003): Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia, Nature Vol 423 12 June 2003.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

1 comment:


I have read some of your posts. I would like to revisit your blog and would like to read more from you.

If you like short stories and paintings, then a short visit to my blogs would be an interesting one for you.

Naval Langa