Homo sapiens idaltu: characteristics of this possible human subspecies

Throughout the history of paleoanthropology all kinds of bones have been discovered, both from primitive humans and from species that we descend from or evolve alongside our own but which have become extinct.

however, the bones of Homo sapiens idaltu, human remains found in Ethiopia, Seems to be proof of a lost link between extinct humans and modern humans, while generating a real controversy in the scientific community.

Let’s take a look below at who these hominids were and why so much controversy arose.

    What is Homo sapiens idaltu?

    Homo sapiens idaltu, also known as Herto’s man, was, according to current scientific opinion, a subspecies of Homo sapiens. The remains of this hominid were found in Ethiopia in 1997 and, although they are considered to belong to our species, the remains had morphological characteristics that made them significantly different from what humans are today but not enough to match. consider them as a separate species.

    The scientific name of this species, Homo sapiens idaltu, as we can see, is trinominal. In taxonomy the trinominal names are used to refer to the subspecies, being the two words the kind and the specific name of the species, while the third word refers to its subspecies. In this case, Homo refers to hominids, “sapiens” in that it is part of the human species (sapiens in Latin means wise) and idaltu is a word in Amharic, the language of the region where it was discovered. , which means “old age.”


    Homo sapiens idaltu was discovered in Herto Bouri, which is why it is colloquially called Herto’s man. This region is in Ethiopia, near the mid-Awash in the Afar Depression, areas characterized by volcanic sub-layers, ranging from 154,000 to 160,000 years old.

    The discovery was made in 1997 by the team of paleoanthropologists Tim White, Berhane Asfaw and Giday WoldeGabriel, scientists at the University of California at Berkeley and the Natural History Museum in London. Although the discovery was made in the 1990s, the discovery was made public several years later, in 2003.Then make sure that they have found a new type of hominid, but within the human species.

    These remains correspond to the skulls of three individuals, two adult men and a child. The age of these bone remains is 158,000 years, Living in the prehistoric Chibaniense or Middle Pleistocene period. His discovery was really important, because until then there was a gap in the human fossil record, missing intermediate fossils between prehumans and modern humans, between 300,000 and 100,000 BC.

    The remains of Homo sapiens idaltu were considered to be the oldest specimens of the species Homo sapiens until 2005. In that year, the fossils Omo I and Omo II were found, the remains of older Homo sapiens. , 195,000 years old. Subsequently, in 2017, human fossils were discovered in Morocco at Jebel Irhoud, dating back 315,000 years.

      Morphology and taxonomy

      The remains of Homo sapiens idaltu differ chronologically later than the first Homo sapiens.. In fact, Herto’s men possess traits reminiscent of other species of hominids found in Africa.

      The three skulls found match the skull shape of modern Homo sapiens quite well, especially the globular shape of the skull and face. Yet, they possess distinctive traits that have led them to be considered a different subspecies from ours. These features are visible in the supraciliary arch, as well as a more robust constitution and a very prominent occipital protuberance..

      One of the characteristics that sets them apart is that they do not have prognathism, which is common among Neanderthals. This led experts to confirm that these remains did not belong to Homo neanderthalensis. This reinforced the idea that the first sapiens evolved in Africa long before the disappearance of European Neanderthals, refuting the idea of ​​the “Neanderthal phase” in human evolution.

      The conclusion of the discovery is that they are a transition from the most primitive African hominids to modern humans. Based on the characteristics, the scientific community considers Homo sapiens idaltu an extinct subspecies of Homo sapiens, Who must have been our direct ancestors of the current human species, defending the idea of ​​the theory of recent African origin.

      Below we will take a closer look at the morphological characteristics of these three skulls.


      It is an almost complete skull of an adult, with a cranial capacity of approximately 1450 cubic centimeters. These are truly amazing, given that this cranial capacity is greater than that of many modern humans.


      It matches another adult skull, but not as complete as the first. Its size could be even bigger than the previous one.


      This skull is that of a child. He must have been around 6 or 7 years old, estimated from the teeth, with a cranial capacity of 1250 cubic centimeters. It was fragmented into over 200 pieces and a thorough reconstruction was required to analyze it.


      The discovery of this hominid subspecies has sparked controversy among researchers in the field of paleontology. Critical voices viewed Homo sapiens idaltu as nothing more than a normal human being, like those of the present species of Homo sapiens, but which possessed archaic morphological characteristics.

      This trait, compared to that of other Homo sapiens fossils, has led to believe that it was a different subspecies, when they may just have been a difference. Cro-Magnon men and Grimaldi men are an example of the remnants of Homo sapiens with striking characteristics, but these hominids are not considered to be subspecies of sapiens.

      It should be noted that the scientific community has difficulty establishing when two populations are two different subspecies. Morphological traits may not be sufficiently different to state that two individuals are not part of the same evolutionary lineage.. In fact, the same was observed by Chris Stringer in 2003, when the discovery of Homo sapiens idaltu was discovered. Stringer said in an article in the journal Nature that the skulls did not appear to have such different characteristics that they considered Herto’s man to be a subspecies of Homo sapiens.

      To this day, and although the trinomial name and the idea that it is a subspecies have been preserved, there is still debate. In fact, the use of this name is controversial since, if the thesis is correct according to which Homo sapiens idaltu is one of our subspecies, it would be necessary to save the old name of Homo sapiens sapiens to speak about it to current human individuals. .

      The term Homo sapiens sapiens was once used when Neanderthals were considered a human subspecies rather than a different hominid species from ours. Likewise, the claim that humans and Neanderthals are different species is still debated, as it was found that when the two types of hominids coincided in evolutionary history, there were crosses. which gave birth to fertile hybrids. In fact, the European population has Neanderthal genes in their genotype.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Smith, Fred H .; Ahern, James C. (2013). The origins of modern man: biology has been reconsidered. John Wiley and sons. ISBN 978-1-118-65990-8.
      • Blanc, Tim D .; Asfaw, Berhane; DeGusta, David; Gilbert, Henry; Richards, Gary D .; Suwa, Gen; Clark Howell, F. (2003). Homo sapiens from the Pleistocene of Middle Awash, Ethiopia. Nature 423 (6941): 742-747.
      • Stringer, Chris (2003). “Human Evolution: Outside Ethiopia”. Nature 423 (6941): 693-695.

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