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Conceptual issues in hominin taxonomy: Homo heidelbergensis and an ethnobiological reframing of species

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Version 2 2023-03-19, 12:02
Version 1 2023-03-16, 06:18
journal contribution
revised on 2023-03-19, 12:01 and posted on 2023-03-19, 12:02 authored by Sheela Athreya, Allison Hopkins

Efforts to name and classify Middle Pleistocene Homo, often referred to as “Homo heidelbergensis” are hampered by confusing patterns of morphology but also by conflicting paleoanthropological ideologies that are embedded in approaches to hominin taxonomy, nomenclature, and the species concept. We deconstruct these issues to show how the field's search for a “real” species relies on strict adherence to pre-Darwinian essentialist naming rules in a post-typological world. We then examine Middle Pleistocene Homo through the framework of ethnobiology, which examines on how Indigenous societies perceive, classify, and name biological organisms. This research reminds us that across human societies, taxonomies function to (1) identify and classify organisms based on consensus pattern recognition and (2) construct a stable nomenclature for effective storage, retrieval and communication of information. Naming Middle Pleistocene Homo as a “real” species cannot be verified with the current data; and separating regional groups into distinct evolutionary lineages creates taxa that are not defined by readily perceptible or universally salient differences. Based on ethnobiological studies of this kind of patterning, referring to these hominins above the level of the species according to their generic category with modifiers (e.g., “European Middle Pleistocene Homo”) is consistent with observed human capabilities for cognitive differentiation, is both necessary and sufficient given the current data, and will allow for the most clear communication across ideologies going forward. 

Other Information

Published in: American Journal of Physical Anthropology
See article on publisher's website:



  • English



Publication Year

  • 2021

Institution affiliated with

  • Texas A&M University at Qatar

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