Homo heidelbergensis inhabited Africa and Europe 600,000 200,000 years ago. Males were tall, as much as 180cm (6'0") in some cases, and very muscular.

Their faces were sometimes very large, and most had projecting brow ridges and a sloping braincase that housed a brain nearly the size of a modern human's. Male heidelbergensis were noticeably bigger than the females.

They were proficient hunters. In Europe, they seem to have targeted large animals to hunt. Horses, hippos and rhinos were all on the menu for heidelbergensis. About 300,000 years ago at present day Boxgrove in England, heidelbergensis manufactured huge numbers of stone tools to butcher big game animals.

The First Europeans

The remains at La Sima belong to a species of hominid called Homo heidelbergensis. But another site at Atapuerca has produced the remains of the oldest human ever found in Europe; a partial skull belonging to a young male who lived 780,000 years ago. This skull was discovered in 1994, when the Atapuerca team were excavating the site of an old railway cutting at the Atapuercan locality of Trinchera Dolina.

The specimen shares many similarities with Homo ergaster. But Professor Juan Luis Arsuaga of the Complutense University of Madrid and co-director of the Atapuerca research considers it different enough to give it a new species name: Homo antecessor. Not all palaeoanthropologists accept this classification because it is based on a juvenile specimen and key characteristics of a species often develop only in adulthood.

Professor Eudald Carbonell of the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain says recent examination of the Trinchera Dolina remains suggests Homo antecessor could not have been ancestral to heidelbergensis. Instead, says Carbonell, antecessor was probably extinct by around 600,000 years ago. Homo heidelbergensis was not afraid to tackle big animals

Axes and spears

Bones from large animals such as rhinos, horses and hippos were covered with cut-marks where Boxgrove man used stone blades to slash and butcher the animals for their meat. Fossil skull of Homo heidelbergensis individual dated to 400,000 years ago from Kabwe, Zambia

Crucially, the cut marks were found beneath the tooth marks of carnivores, indicating that humans got there before the scavengers. To archaeologist Mark Roberts, who led the Boxgrove excavation, this implies the Boxgrove people were hunting, not scavenging. "Each (carcass) would have weighed 675kg (1,500 lbs), a magnet for other predators. Yet each carcass was skilfully cut up. Fillet steaks were sliced from the spine and the bones were smashed to get out the marrow. Only hunters who were in total command of their patch could have done that," says Roberts.

Evidence:About a boy

In 1907, a quarryman in Mauer, near Heidelberg in Germany discovered a large, fossilised jawbone. The jaw is now thought to belong to the species Homo heidelbergensis that lived in Europe and Africa.

At Boxgrove in England, heidelbergensis used stone tools to butcher animals on a beach at the edge of an ancient sea.

Wooden spears preserved in a bog in Germany and dated to 400,000 years ago, show that heidelbergensis was a proficient hunter. In 1976, the remains of 32 heidelbergensis individuals were discovered at the bottom of a cave shaft at Atapuerca in northern Spain. Most of the remains were from juveniles, many of whom showed signs of poor health.