The inhabitants of the venerable university city of Heidelberg are frequently asked by visitors whether they can show them exactly where the Homo heidelbergensis was discovered. Regretfully they have to decline the request. True, the world-famous lower jawbone of the hominid named after the city of Heidelberg is in the keeping of the Museum of Geology and Palaeontology of the University of Heidelberg. But it was discovered in an otherwise largely unknown village by the name of Mauer, a community of some 3,500 souls 12 miles south-east of Heidelberg in the Kraichgau region.
It is here that citizens and scientists founded an extremely active society three years ago, dedicated to a very ambitious aim: to found a "European Hominid Centre" where those interested in the lives of our ancestors can get first-hand, on-the-spot information about this highly significant find and many others. The Klaus Tschira Foundation provides support for the establishment of an important prerequisite for the success of this project: a complete digital catalogue classifying all the animal fossils found in the sandy soil in and around Mauer.
It was in this soil that the important find came to light almost 100 years ago. On 21 October 1907, labourer Daniel Hartmann was going about his daily work. All of a sudden his shovel unearthed what soon proved to be a scientific sensation. Hartmann identified the lower jawbone he had dug up as the remains of one of our early ancestors and took it immediately to the town hall in Mauer. The fact that this untutored workman was able to gauge the significance of what he had found was due to the circumspection of Heidelberg University professor Otto Karl Friedrich Schoetensack. Since the early 19th century, animal fossils of all kinds from the Pleistocene period (1,800,000 to 11,500 BC) had been discovered in and around Mauer. Schoetensack concluded from this that it was only a matter of time before hominid remains would also turn up in the area. The scientist instructed the labourers working in the area to keep an eye out for such finds. But he had to wait 20 years before his prophecy came true.
Although this find was thus no coincidence, it has remained the only relic of a hominid discovered in Mauer so far. Schoetensack called its original owner Homo heidelbergensis, determined his place in the sequence of our ancestors and made him world-famous. For a long time, this lower jawbone of a man between the age of 18 and 25 was the oldest find of its kind in Europe, until discoveries dating from even earlier periods were made in Spain and the Caucasus. Scientists assume that in Europe the Neanderthal man developed from the Homo erectus heidelbergensis, while in Africa it was Homo sapiens, our immediate forebear. Today, the Neanderthal man is considered to be an extinct side-line in the history of human evolution. In Mauer, however, the assumption is that all central Europeans have at least some of their roots in the Kraichgau.
550,000 to 600,000 years ago, the area boasted a highly diversified animal world. Palaeontologists have found remnants of extinct fauna ranging from wood elephants to the so-called Mosbach horse. Beavers and hippopotamuses inhabited the river, while sabre-toothed tigers and the Etruscan rhinoceros made frequent forays into the region in search of food and prey.
This makes Mauer one of the most important prehistoric locations for vertebrates from the Pleistocene era. Some 5,000 fossils have been unearthed in the meantime. A large number of the 4,500 objects in the "Heidelberg Collection" belonging to the University of Heidelberg are at present in the keeping of the Natural History Museum in Karlsruhe. Other fossils from Mauer have been distributed all over the world, some in museums, others in private collections.
In a two-year project supported by the Klaus Tschira Foundation, the Society in Mauer now intends to establish a comprehensive digital catalogue classifying as many fossil finds from Mauer as possible. This will represent the scientific data basis on which the Hominid Centre can found its activities. Part of the detective work involved is the search for other, hitherto unknown locations of fossils in the vicinity. "Who knows?" says Erich Mick, long-time former mayor of Mauer and chairman of the Society. "Maybe there are more scientific rarities lurking in attics or cellars." The Society would welcome the return of such fossils to their original location for the purposes of scientific inquiry and later presentation to the public.
So far, the Society ("Homo Heidelbergensis von Mauer e.V.") has attracted more than 200 members, including both interested citizens and scientists working in many different fields (palaeontologists, geologists, geochronologists, mineralogists, sedimentologists, molecular biologists, sport scientists). In lectures and at scientific symposia, these scientists are gradually reconstructing the world of Homo heidelbergensis and arousing the enthusiastic interest of their fellow citizens for this fascinating subject. For more information, go to www.homoheidelbergensis.de .
The Klaus Tschira Foundation (KTF) supports research projects in the field of applied informatics, the natural sciences and mathematics. One of its central aims is to promote general understanding in the public mind for the sciences, mathematics and computer science. The Foundation has its headquarters at the Vila Bosch, the former residence of Carl Bosch (1874-1940), Nobel Prize laureate for chemistry. For more information, go to www.kts.villa-bosch.de .
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Homo heidelbergensis von Mauer e.V.
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Dr. Michael Schwarz
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