The Rise Of Modern Humans

The meteoric ascent of early humans a quarter of a million years ago in East Africa had little ecological impact. Still, early Homo sapiens did look rather different from earlier Homo erectus. Climatologically, the era was characterized by shifting ice age conditions.

The precise origin of Homo sapiens is not yet fully resolved. Two different models have been proposed. According to the first, called the "multiregional hypothesis," the distribution of anatomical traits in modern human populations in different regions was inherited from local populations of Homo erectus and intermediate "archaic" forms. This model holds that all modern humans evolved in parallel from earlier populations in Africa, Europe, and Asia, with some genetic intermixing among these regions. Support for this view comes from the similarity of certain minor anatomical structures in modern human populations and preceding populations of Homo erectus in the same regions.

The second model proposes that a small, relatively isolated population of early humans evolved into modern Homo sapiens, and that this population succeeded in spreading across Africa, Europe, and Asia, displacing and eventually replacing all other early human populations. This scenario views the variation among modern populations as a recent phenomenon. Part of the evidence to support this theory comes from molecular biology, especially studies of the diversity and mutation rate of nuclear DNA and mitochondr-ial DNA in living human cells. From these studies, an approximate time of divergence from the common ancestor of all modern human populations can be calculated. This research has typically yielded dates around 200,000 years ago. Molecular methods tend to point to an African origin for all modern humans, implying that the ancestral population of all living people migrated from Africa to other parts of the world. Hence the name of this model, the "Out of Africa hypothesis." Which model is correct has not been conclusively determined. However, it appears that the earliest fossil evidence for anatomically modern humans in Africa is about 130,000 years old, and there is evidence that modern humans lived in the Near East sometime before 90,000 bce. During this period, two closely related protohuman forms - Cro-Magnon and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis - had emerged out of Africa and coexisted in various places for some time.31

Neanderthals are generally considered a subspecies of Homo sapiens. Their fossil remains were first found in Neanderthal, Germany, in 1856. The so-called classic Neanderthals were robust and had a large, thick skull, a sloping forehead, and a chinless jaw. Their brains were somewhat larger than those of most modern humans, but this is probably due to their greater bulk. Neanderthals were the first humans to adapt to cold climates, and their body proportions are similar to those of modern cold-adapted peoples: short and solid, with short limbs. Men averaged about 168 cm (5 feet 6 inches) in height. Their bones are thick and heavy, and show signs of powerful muscle attachments. Neanderthals would have been extraordinarily strong by modern standards, and their skeletons show that they endured hard lives. The Neanderthals' culture included stone tools, fire, and cave shelters. They were formidable hunters and are the first people known to have buried their dead.

Neanderthals were initially thought to have been limited to Western Europe, but their remains have also been discovered in Morocco, in the northern Sahara, at Mount Carmel in Israel and elsewhere in the Near East and Iran. This highly successful species has also been traced to Central Asia and China, where the earliest specimens go back as far as 230,000 bce. Neanderthals must have been creatures adapted to the cold, but they did not migrate any farther north than Northern Europe, the Ukraine, and the Caspian Sea. The first penetration of Siberia and the Arctic was left to later, fully modern humans. The Neanderthals were meat-eaters and they fashioned quite advanced tools. They buried their dead and worshiped bears. Their burial rituals show that they were capable of thinking abstractly and that they communicated with each other in a highly developed way.32

Neanderthals were the first species to leave undisputed evidence of regular use of fire, and they were the real inventors of cooking, a cultural practice that became much more ambitious with the appearance of the Cro-Magnon.33 Food probably was scarce, because it was difficult to hunt in frozen environments. The spring and autumn were particularly difficult times for hunters because of the difficulty of moving over the slushy snow. There is no evidence that the Neanderthals knew of snowshoes or skis to help them cross the snow. Around their winter caves archaeologists found the remains of large mammals, such as cave bears, ibex, and rhinoceros, as well as many smaller animals such as birds and snails. This suggests that Neanderthals were pressed for food and would eat virtually anything.

In such conditions, cooking takes on a particularly important function. After all, advanced methods of cooking make supplies go further. Evidence suggests that Neanderthals developed quite sophisticated cooking techniques that helped keep alive members of the group who were apparently either very elderly or lifelong invalids. Probably they were able to prepare soup-like food dishes by cooking meat within prepared animal skins, an early practice in many parts of the world that was still used in Ireland as late as the sixteenth century.34 Perhaps because they lacked the physiological capacity for advanced speech, Neanderthals perished some 30,000 years ago.35

Cro-Magnons first appeared in Europe some 10,000 to 40,000 years ago. They are one of the best-known examples of early modern human populations. Remains of this most recent late-Stone Age ancestor were first found in France in 1868 and then throughout other parts of Europe and Western Asia. Their skeletal remains show a few small differences from modern humans, but they are still generally classified as the earliest known representatives of the same subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens. Cro-Magnon features differed significantly from Neanderthal, including a high cranium, a broad and upright face, and a cranial capacity about the same as that of modern humans but smaller than that of Neanderthals; the males were as tall as 6 feet. Their geographic origin is still unknown.

Cro-Magnon culture was markedly more sophisticated than Neanderthal. They used a wider variety of raw materials such as bone and antler to produce novel implements for making clothing, engraving, and sculpting. They produced fine artwork in the form of decorated tools, beads, ivory carvings of humans and animals, shell jewelry, clay figurines, musical instruments, and polychrome cave paintings of exceptional vitality. Cro-Magnons were without any doubt skilled hunters of game of all sizes, exploiting their environment to the limits. Fish and bird bones are present at various Cro-Magnon sites, and it is clear that these people regularly exploited the migratory movements of other vertebrates to their advantage. Campsites were often quite elaborate, and the making of complex fire hearths and the use of heated stones to heat up water in skin-lined pits show that cooking had become much more sophisticated.36 They constructed shelters similar to tents in which several families lived. They also created sophisticated weapons such as spear tips, harpoons, and animal traps. They even created a crude lunar calendar to keep track of the seasonal movements of game animals. In essence, Cro-Magnons were nomadic hunters and gatherers with a sophisticated material culture.

Like all other hominids, Homo sapiens originally evolved in - and migrated out of - Africa. Our species had already reached Israel some 100,000 years ago, and 40,000 years later had conquered the whole of Europe and the Asian continent. Humans entered Australia as early as 60,000 years ago, and, some 13,000 years ago, climatic variations enabled them to enter the Americas, the last uninhabited continent. Crossing from Asia somewhere in the region of what is now the Bering Strait, they moved southward for thousands of years as they followed large animals. Equipped with unprece-dentedly expanded cultural and linguistic capacities, Homo sapiens' ecological record and impact on fellow species were unlike those of other hominids. A new order of conscious intentionality expressed itself in the creation of new cultural and technological means to control and change the environment.

A few thousand years sufficed to produce art, trade, mythology, pearls,37 sculpture, cave painting, and a plenitude of tools. Representative art appeared in the form of clay and stone sculptures, along with simple but often strikingly beautiful paintings on cave walls. Ice age archaeological remains from 30,000 years ago in Sungir, Russia, show people bedecked in woven garments decorated with thousands of ivory beads. Like contemporary humans, these people had art, religion, and a social structure.38 In some parts of Europe, an archaic form of literacy became established as early as 32,000 years ago, as illustrated by the Chauvet cave paintings in the Rhone Valley in France.39 This important form of expression and communication consisted of scratches on ornaments, pieces of bone and clay, and stones. The scratches were arranged through repeated motifs into descriptive classes such as meanders, fishlike images, and parallel lines. All these inventions appeared near the end of the anatomical evolution of Homo sapiens.40 Moreover, during this period, increases in the technical sophistication of tools, flute-like instruments carved of sawbones, appear in the archaeological record of humans. For more than a million years, the universal repertoire of tools of hominids had been stone scrapers and simple blades. Now, spear points made of mammoth tusks, drilled fox and wolf teeth, and deer horn and bone needles for sewing on leather appear in large numbers.

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