Homo heidelbergensis was a hominid species which lived around 400,000 years ago, and the most recent archaeological evidence suggests that these early humans were the direct ancestors of modern humans. They certainly had a lot in common with modern humans, although some very clear morphological differences set them apart from Homo sapiens. The majority of Homo heidelbergensis finds have occurred in Europe, but fossilized remains from other regions of the world have been classified in this species as well.
Scientists believe that Homo heidelbergensis descended from Homo ergaster, another early hominid. Homo heidelbergensis appears to have been one of the first hominids to venture out of Africa and into Europe, following the tracks of homo erectus, and archaeological digs in several regions of Europe suggest that these hominids formed large social groups. These digs have uncovered large numbers of tools, along with the evidence of hunting, the use of fire, and burial practices. Homo heidelbergensis may have been one of the first hominids to bury the dead, and archaeologists have also found evidence of other cultural rituals.
Homo heidelbergensis had a larger brain when compared to other hominid species, and a body type which appears to be very similar to that of modern humans, although Homo heidelbergensis was somewhat taller. Homo heidelbergensis was also capable of speech. Over time, Homo heidelbergensis evolved into two new species; modern humans, and the Neanderthals. Modern humans apparently supplanted the now-extinct Neanderthals; DNA studies on both species indicate that the two were certainly distinct from each other, although related through their common Homo heidelbergensis ancestors.
These hominids are named for Heidelberg, Germany, a city which is near the location of the first Homo heidelbergensis find, a jaw which was discovered in a sand pit. The jaw was classified by Otto Schoetensack as a entirely new hominid species, which caused a bit of a stir in the archaeological community, with some people arguing that the naming of a new species on the basis of a single jaw was a bit ambitious. However, later discoveries across Europe supported the idea that Homo heidelbergensis was a distinct and real hominid species, and the classification is now widely accepted by many archaeologists.
Fossilized examples of these human ancestors can be seen on display in several museums around the world, and archaeological digs uncover more periodically. Study of these fossils helps to fill in the gaps of human history, providing more information about our origins and the lives that these early humans led.