The shoulders of 'Homo antecessor' and modern humans are similar

The shoulders of 'Homo antecessor' and modern humans are similar

The CENIEH has published a paper in the journal Scientific Reports which concludes that Homo antecessor had a shoulder development analogous to that in H. sapiens, although its growth was faster
Homo antecessor shoulders
Homo antecessor scapulae. Credits: D. Garcia Martínez et al

The shape of our shoulders was already present in the Lower Pleistocene, according to a pioneering study published today in the journal Scientific Reports, carried out by Daniel García Martínez and José María Bermúdez de Castro, paleoanthropologists at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), in collaboration with David Green of Campbell University (USA).

Studying the shoulder (technically known as the "shoulder girdle") furnishes information on points significant for human evolution such as locomotion, body shape, the possibility of climbing with ease or the ability to launch objects like stones or spears with high accuracy.

The authors of this work were able to study for the first time shoulder growth and development in the species Homo antecessor, dated to 850,000 years old, using tools from virtual anthropology and 3D geometric morphometry. The results show that the course of development of the shoulder in this species was very similar to that in H. sapiens, although the growth might have been faster.

Almost one million years ago, our evolution had already attained almost all the biomechanical capacities characterizing the shoulder in modern humans, and it had definitively parted ways from the abilities still then retained by the more archaic species of the human phylogeny, including climbing with great agility.

 To verify the changes undergone by this part of our anatomy, we need a flat bone: the shoulder blade or scapula. But, as the authors of this study state, “The fossil record of our phylogeny contains barely a handful of these highly delicate bones, which has posed enormous difficulties to studying the growth and development of the shoulders during human evolution”.

Two key fossils

By good luck, at level TD6 of the Gran Dolina site, situated in the Sierra de Atapuerca (Burgos), two scapulae have been conserved: one from a child and the other from an individual of age equivalent to a modern adolescent. These fossils were recovered during the excavation in the first decade of the twenty-first century and belonged to the species H. antecessor.

“In an earlier study of these two fossils, it had been noticed that the morphology of the scapulae was similar to our own. But until now, the growth and development model for the shoulders had remained unknown, and this work has now allowed us to check that our shoulder girdle bones have undergone modifications in accordance with different capacities”, says Bermúdez de Castro.

Comparative study

With the scant information available, it was known that the scapulae of Australopithecus species were similar in some ways to those of chimpanzees or gorillas but were different from our own. “We know that the development of our most archaic ancestors was very similar to that of the anthropoid apes, and the morphology of their shoulders shows that they still retained the capacity to climb with ease. We, on the contrary, have lost this ability”, explains García Martínez.

Comparative of scapulae. Credits: D.García Martínez et al

To determine when our anatomical peculiarities arose, in addition to virtual anthropology and 3D geometric morphometry, the researchers used complex statistical methods to study the development of the shoulder girdle in the species H. antecessor, comparing it with other species from the Pliocene and Lower Pleistocene, such as Australopithecus sediba and A. afarensis. A very broad sample from H. sapiens and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) was also used.

“This study shows that although there exist slight morphological differences between the scapulae of H. antecessor and H. sapiens, the former were much more similar to modern humans, to H. erectus and even to Australopithecus than to chimpanzees”, comments García Martínez.

With regard to how the scapulae grew, it was also seen that this was very different from what happens in chimpanzees, and comparable with H. sapiens. “However, it is true that the data seem to point to growth being more rapid in H. antecessor, as highlighted by the CENIEH research team on the basis of dental evidence”, emphasizes Bermúdez de Castro.

This paper lays the foundations for how the shoulder girdle developed in Lower Pleistocene species, and opens the door to new research studying shoulder development in fossil species, as it may become possible to expand the timeframe and study this development even in Pliocene species like the genus Australopithecus.

Full bibliographic information

García-Martínez, D., Green, D., Bermúdez de Castro, J.M. 2021. Evolutionary development of the Homo antecessor scapulae (Gran Dolina site, Atapuerca) suggests a modern-like development for Lower Pleistocene Homo. Scientific Reports. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-83039


Press release from CENIEH

Georadar reveals the unknown parts of the Sierra de Atapuerca caves

Georadar reveals the unknown parts of the Sierra de Atapuerca caves

The CENIEH has participated in a study led by Lucía Bermejo, in which this geophysical method was used to define the bottom part of the caves in the Trinchera del Ferrocarril sites
georadar Sierra de Atapuerca
GPR in Trinchera del Ferrocarril (Atapuerca). Credits: Miguel Ángel Martín

An international team of researchers from the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) and the University of Denver has managed to define the bottom part of the caves in the Trinchera del Ferrocarril sites (Cueva Peluda, Sima del Elefante, Galería and Gran Dolina), using georadar, revealing the unknown parts of these caves in the Sierra de Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain).

This non-invasive geophysical method, also known as ground penetrating radar (GPR), widely employed in archaeology because it is rapid and easy to apply, enables structures buried at different depths to be discovered. However, using it to study caves is usually discarded because the clayey sediments that fill them, being highly conductive, attenuate the radar signal, thus limiting its penetration capacity.

“Nevertheless, in our case this characteristic has served for studying the lower part of these caves, because we have been able to clearly distinguish the walls from the conduits, and from the sediments that fill them”, states Bermejo, lead author of this study, which was published recently in the journal Geomorphology.

It was possible to constrain the caves' depth by drilling two mechanical boreholes with core recovery, which have identified up to 17 meters of terrigenous fillings, such as in the case of the Galería site. Moreover, different types of sediments were discernible, thanks to which a possible conduit full of fluvial sediments was recorded, which would connect the lower level of Cueva Peluda with the lower part of Sima del Elefante.

Trinchera del Ferrocarril caves (Atapuerca). Credits: L. Bermejo et al

Quarrying activity

On the other hand, the information provided by the georadar and historical photographs have made it possible to establish how far the impact of the quarrying activity that took place at the Trinchera until the 1970s extended.

This activity was especially intensive between Cueva del Compresor, situated opposite the Galería site, and Gran Dolina, and it produced rubble fills up to 4 meters thick in the areas most impacted.

“All these data will help to optimize strategies for future excavations, as in this study it has been possible to identify the best preserved zones”, concludes Bermejo.

Full bibliographic information

Bermejo, L., Ortega, A. I., Parés, J. M., Campaña, I., Bermúdez de Castro, J. M., Carbonell, E., & Conyers, L. B. (2020). Karst features interpretation using ground-penetrating radar: A case study from the Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain. Geomorphology (0), 107311. doi: 10.1016/j.geomorph.2020.107311
Press release from CENIEH