Coping with climate: the legacy of homo heidelbergensis

Project Details


We've all seen, whether in books, museums or on television and other media, representations of our early human ancestors, typically naked or with only the most limited forms of animal skin 'clothing'. We've also all woken up on cold winters' mornings, and crawled back under the duvet (or spent ten minutes de-icing the car). These themes of behaviour, material culture and climate, and the connections between them, are central to the story of Europe's earliest humans, who date back at least one million years.

The research network therefore aimed to address two fundamental evolutionary questions:

Firstly, what were the 'globalising' adaptations of Homo heidelbergensis (a key early human species in Europe, which existed prior to the Neanderthals and our own species, Homo sapiens)? In practical terms such adaptations would be required for early humans to deal successfully with the varying day-to-day challenges brought on by the changing latitudes and longitudes encountered during dispersals through Eurasia: e.g. long winters, short days, and marked seasonality. These factors would have impacted significantly on issues as varied as food availability, climatic tolerances, human technological and social behaviours, inter-species interactions (as suggested by recent palaeogenetic studies), and even human morphology and speciation events (the evolution of new human species).

Secondly, how have those 'globalising' adaptations contributed to the evolution of our own species' abilities to manage climatic and environmental challenges (both past and present)?

These questions were at the time unanswered, despite the fact that during the previous twenty years researchers had come to recognise that the emergence of our own species, H. sapiens, was a more gradual and complex process than the 'human revolution' perspectives of the late 1980s (that older viewpoint argued that there was a rapid and dramatic 'step-change' in human behaviour, which appeared with H. sapiens). However even the newer perspectives continue to ignore over 1 million years of human evolution: this is the period sandwiched between the first dispersals of older human species from Africa (occurring around 1.8 million years ago) and the first appearance of H. sapiens (around 200,000 years ago in Africa). Yet the intervening period is critical to our understanding of human behavioural evolution, because H. heidelbergensis (whose European fossils are mostly dated to between 600,000 and 400,000 years ago) is widely recognised as our last common ancestor (albeit one that we also shared with the Neanderthals), and was also the first human species to engage successfully and enduringly with the new climatic and environmental challenges faced during those initial dispersals from Africa. This species, and other early Europeans such as Homo antecessor, are thus an invaluable test case for developing our understanding of how early humans met the challenges of Eurasian environments, and the associated implications for evolutionary developments in hominin technology, social life, and cognition.

The overall goal of the network was therefore to engage academics (e.g. from archaeology, palaeoenvironmental studies, palaeoclimatology, palaeogenetics, and anthropology), stakeholder groups (bushcraft organisations, museums and teachers), and the general public with the dynamic realities of Pleistocene (Ice Age) life and behaviour: e.g. taking paleoclimatologists from the climate model to the realities of a cold winter morning, while taking archaeologists from the stone tool to the dynamics of animal migrations and plant food security. This promised to advance our knowledge and understanding across multiple research fields, an exercise which is the only means of coming to understand the complex dynamics and the realities of the great dispersals of our human past. The trans-disciplinary approach proposed by this network application was the first step in achieving this goal.

Key findings

Network meeting
The network meeting [see links] highlighted a number of key themes for the understanding of early humans (i.e. from roughly 1.5 million years ago to 300,000 years = the Lower Palaeolithic period) in Europe with respect to Pleistocene ('Ice Age') climate and how they coped with it.

These themes cut-across various sub-specialisms (i.e. Palaeolithic archaeology [focusing on technology and diet], Palaeoanthropology [fossil humans], and Quaternary climates and environment [including plant and animal communities]). Key themes included population characteristics (e.g. the periodic fragmentation, geographical isolation and then re-combination of early human groups, and the implications of this for human evolution and artefact patterning in the archaeological record), developing appropriate reconstructions of Pleistocene environments (e.g. being cautious when using modern animals as models for their Pleistocene equivalents; the meeting discussed various methodologies [such as microscopic dental analysis] which are providing increasingly detailed understanding of past animal behaviours), and being more explicit about the nature of, and bias in, our evidence (e.g. the different scales and resolution of our evidence - from sub-annual to tens of thousands of years; those landscapes settings that we know less and more about - such as uplands compared to river valleys).

The meeting as a whole expressed interest in developing new research to explore and resolve some of these issues. Post-workshop we have identified a group of 15 multi-national colleagues and institutions who are developing a new research project application for the ERC. We have also developed new initiaties in Palaeolithic fieldwork and palaeofire.

Resources for Schools
As part of this project we compiled, in collaboration with Schools Prehistory & Archaeology (Kim Biddulph; a set of resources for Key Stage 2 Prehistory.

[see link to website] The resources include lesson plans, image banks, a timeline, fundamental fact sheets, and practical activities. The resources are divided into 6 sessions, with an overall outline. We have included both PDF (for easy printing) and Word/PPT (for re-formatting/editing) versions of each resource. All image sources are Wikipedia Commons and are acknowledged in the files.

Effective start/end date1/04/1630/09/17


  • Arts and Humanities Research Council


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