The beginning of Homo sapien sapiens (Let’s just call them sapiens) is shrouded in mystery. Estimates vary among the authorities anywhere from 100,000 to a million years ago. Trying to trace modern humans back to Homo erectus is as difficult to document as it was with neanderthal.
Human or human-like creatures may have been around for a very long time. In Ethiopia, a stone tool dated 2.5 million years ago was recently uncovered. That is the oldest tool ever found by a half million years. Who made it? Whatever it was, it wasn’t an Australopithecus. Don Johanson, the paleontologist who discovered Lucy, believes that there is no evidence any australopithecus created a stone tool.
Robustus remains a possibility exception. But we can pretty much rule out robustus. The tool proceeded that species by a half million years. Moreover, the only „tools“ anyone has ever credited to robustus were made of bone – not stone.
Johanson thinks the only thing that could have made that tool was a human. But that presents a problem. The earliest estimates anyone has ever given for both Homo habilis and Homo erectus is two million years ago. And neanderthal was a couple of million years too late to manufacture that tool. Consequently, the 2.5 million year old Ethiopian tool remains one of many unsolved archeology puzzles.
Many fossil remains from Africa, Asia, and Europe date from 100,000 to 500,000 years ago. Collectively they are called „archaic“ Homo sapiens. Archaic is a broad category. We see a lot of variety. Some of these fossils reveal erectus characteristics, but have larger brains or show other differences in size or shape of the skull.
The experts are divided on how we should view these fossils. Some believe these „archaics“ may have been one or more separate species. Others say that these early sapiens were no more diverse than people are today. After all, modern humans vary widely in size and shape: black, white, tall, short, fat, thin, big nose, small nose, etc. That degree of variation is rarely found in other species.
Nevertheless, when sapiens appear on the scene, they show more traits in common with each other than with any other species or sub species in the area. That suggests that a single ancestral population with modern features spread out rapidly across Africa, Asia, and Europe. Anthropologists believe these widespread modern human characteristics indicate a recent common origin.
What are sapiens‘ distinguishing traits? A high rounded cranium with a large brain cavity averaging around 1400 cubic centimeters, small teeth, distinct bony chin, and a relatively slender body. The most striking characteristic of a modern human skeleton is the brain cavity.
At birth a baby’s brain is only one-third the size of a mature adult brain. The brain more than doubles in weight during the first year. Starting day one with a fourteen ounce brain, a normal baby will grow to a thirty-five ounce brain by its first birthday. By six or seven, modern humans reach their mature level with a forty-five ounce brain.
On the other hand, both apes and monkeys are limited to mature brains no more than twice the size of what they had at birth. Chimpanzees, for instance, start with seven ounces and mature with fourteen. It is thought that erectus also started with seven ounces at birth, but increased eighteen more in the first year and another seven before reaching maturity. The fully mature Homo erectus brain weighed in at thirty-two ounces.
Although the human brain weighs a mere three pounds, proportionally that’s five times larger than the mammal average, given our body weight. Homo erectus‘ brain was three times the average considering its body size.
The oldest archaic sapien fossil is a skull from Java dated 700,000 years ago. The face protrudes forward and has pronounced ridges over its eye sockets. The cranial vault is long, low, and broad at the base of the skull. It was similar to what we found in Homo erectus.
In Zambia, Africa, a Homo sapien skull shows a large face and dense brow ridges. Paleontologists think it could be 300,000 years old. Some have suggested it could be a form between erectus and sapien.
Yet another skull comes from Dali in northern China. This one is dated between 180,000 and 230,000 years old. Johanson says it shows „a lot of primitive features including an exceptionally large brow ridge, thick cranial bone, and a long low cranium similar to Homo erectus. Its brain size lies between that of erectus and modern humans.
Two more China skulls called Maba and Dali are archaic Homo sapiens. Researchers date them very roughly between 100,000 and 200,000 year old.
A cranium found in a cave in Morocco, Africa, the so called „Jebel Irhoud 1“ has been difficult to date. But it’s believed to be in the vicinity of 100,000 to 200,000 years old. While the brow ridges are heavy, the shape of the face and cranium is modern. It reveals a short flat face. Compared to neanderthal, the nose was short and the cheek region relatively hollow.
Still another skull, this one from Omo-Kibish in southern Ethiopia, has an uncertain age but may be 130,000 years old. They call it „Omo 1.“ Again, Johanson is our source of information for this fossil. He tells us that much of the back of the skull and some of the sides are present. Its parietal bones are intact. The mandible has a distinct chin, and the cheek bones meet the face at a right angle just like they do in modern humans.
The brow ridges taper at the sides as it does in Jebel Irhoud 1. Omo 1 possessed a short, broad face which is far more modern with its high forehead and long curved sides than the much later neanderthal.
At the southern tip of Africa, about 400 miles east of Cape Town, archeologists discovered the Klasies River Mouth cave. Here they found human fossils, stone tools, and animal bones. Among the artifacts were numerous leaf-shaped, pointed stone flakes and scrapers.
Those are the sort of tools archeologists classify as Middle Stone Age technology, a period usually associated with neanderthal from roughly 40,000 to 180,000 years ago. But these fossils show modern features – not neanderthal.
The fossils are in bits and pieces. Found were several fragments of lower jaws, one upper jaw, a number of partial skulls, teeth, and four cranial bones. Johanson says the lower jaw is nearly identical to modern human’s. It has a light build, small teeth, and most significant of all — a chin. Neanderthals did not have a bony chin, neither did Homo erectus. What’s more, we find no bony ridges over their eye sockets. That means these bones definitely didn’t belong to a neanderthal.
Furthermore, it didn’t belong to any of the other archaic Homo sapien groups in Africa either. These fossils may be 100,000 years old. They were modern humans, living in South Africa during the same period neanderthal lived in Europe and western Asia. And they had the same technology as neanderthal.
Apparently humans, who looked very much like us today, lived in this cave somewhere between 75,000 to 115,000 years ago. Investigators claim these people hunted large and small game.
At approximately the same date, 100,000 years ago in Java, we find more fossils at Ngandong located six miles north of Trinil, the so called „Solo fossils.“ Unearthed were several skulls, skull fragments, and a couple of lower limbs. Unfortunately, no face was present. Its features resembled Homo erectus, but its brains were larger.
We have moved from Africa to Java; now it’s on to France. In 1947, a pair of fossils was discovered in the Fontechevard cave in France. Their features were modern. Excavators found these partial skulls beneath a layer of undisturbed stalagmite. From this we know later burial was impossible. The were dated at 100,000 year old.
Remains of modern human burials were located in two Israel caves, Qafzeh and Skhul. Fifteen individuals dated around 90,000 years old – possibly as old as 100,000, possibly as recent as 80,000 years ago – were uncovered in these caves. Johanson says, „Their mandible have a distinct chin, their faces are short and broad, and the back of their craniums lack the distinctive occipital bun“ which identifies neanderthals.
They look very much like their contemporaries found in far off Klasies River cave in South Africa. Ninety-thousand years ago we already see Homo sapiens from both South Africa and the Near East who bear a striking modern resemblance to humans today.
From Australia we find Mongo III, an almost complete male skeleton, who was buried in a flexed (knees bent) position between 28,000 and 32,000 years ago in what is now New South Wales. It was similar to early burials taking place in Europe during the same period.
The bones were pink from ocher spread over the burial. The fossil was robust, but Johanson believes he was not quite as robust as the average male Aborigine of today.
About the same time, 30,000 years ago, Cro-Magnon was living in France. In the town of Les Eyzies, skeletons of three males, a female, and an infant were discovered along with reindeer and mammoth bones. These people were modern in every respect.
Back to Australia, at Lake Mungo over 100 partial skeletons have been found. Researchers reconstructed a female and nicknamed her Mungo I. She lived 25,000 years ago and had been cremated.
In China, two skulls were discovered dating 25,000 year old. They are modern.
Sometimes paleontologists are surprised by the twists and turns in the fossil record. That nice looking modern skull turns out to be quite old; conversely, primitive fossils on occasion are of recent vintage. Examples of the former are seen in the 90,000 year old modern groups found in Israel and South Africa.
Kow Swamp serves as a prime example of the latter. Forty individuals, some decorated with shells and beads, were buried together at Kow Swamp, south of Lake Mungo. They show robust skulls with large faces and teeth. Above their eye sockets were dense ridges across flat foreheads.
Researchers began to speculate that they had discovered the missing link between erectus and sapiens. These primitive-looking archaic types just might be the direct descendents of Homo erectus. The surprise came when the fossils were dated. They were only 9,000 to 15,000 years old.
Amazing! The primitive-looking Kow Swamp people were half as old as the much more gracile Mungo fossils which clearly belonged to modern humans. Such contradictions are not uncommon in the fossil record.
As the Qafzeh and Klasies River Mouth sites show, Homo sapiens already had their distinctive physical features at least by 90,000 years ago. They reveal high rounded craniums, small teeth, bony chins, and slender gracile bodies. Physically they were human. But what about culturally?
Culturally, they were at the same Middle Stone Age level as neanderthal. And they remained at that level. Erectus, you may recall, kept the same stone technology for one to two million years. No innovations, no changes, no real variation from place to place. Experts question his ability to speak based to a large degree upon his prolonged stagnate culture.
Neanderthal was around for 100,000 years or so. His Middle Stone Age technology was certainly more refined than erectus‘ tools. All the same, neanderthal, like erectus before him, failed to improve as time went on. Again, we suspect something about neanderthal is not quite human; otherwise we would expect progress.
Next we find Homo sapiens. Some look archaic; others appear physically very modern. Still, no cultural progress. Once more, we are forced to conclude that they are not quite human either, even if they look the part. That certain bit of creative genius, that certain spark that makes humans human was as absent in sapiens as it had been in erectus and neanderthal. Sapiens, like neanderthal, appears to have come into this world with Middle Stone Age abilities, and there they stayed.
There they stayed until 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. Then something happened. Something transformed sapien behavior so dramatically, we know we are viewing people as human as ourselves. In his book, Ancestors, Don Johanson tells us that revolutionary new ideas exploded across the Old World.
We see a greater variety of stone tools including specialized utensils for different tasks. Styles start changing over time and from place to place. New stone implements appear: flint leaf-shaped points, projectile points, scrapers, and harpoon heads.
Moreover, we find grave goods, communal graves, ocher making, and rocks covering graves to deter scavengers. Yes, neanderthal buried their dead too, but sapiens added ceremony to the burial.
At the same time, we find the first archeological evidence of symbolic art. Modern sapiens began to demonstrate their skill and desire for something beyond their day to day needs. Prehistoric art appeared in caves in three continents: Europe, Africa, and Australia. Evidently, the artwork arose independently some 40,000 years ago.
Neither neanderthal nor archaic Homo sapiens left any engraving or painting. Only modern sapiens left artwork. This human revolution is called the Upper Paleolithic in Europe and the Late Stone Age in Africa.
Symbolic art certainly implies a spoken language. Anthropologists believe that art, language, and human self-perception all occurred 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. That would explain why so little progress had been make before that period, and so much has been achieved since.
You might wonder how do the naturalists and the religious side view this „human revolution.“ All the naturalists can say is: „Some nucleotide in a sapien’s brain must have mutated which left him — different.“ That mutation must have been a fortunate one, for it took a dimly reasoning creature who couldn’t find his way out of Middle Stone Age technology and turned him into a reasoning, thinking, creative dynamo who found his way to the moon and back.
Those on the religious side respond: „The one who made the universe and created life on this planet gave man a spark of his own creative reason. That is what Genesis means when it says, ‚He made them in his on image.‘ This divine spark is the individual soul. Therein lies our consciousness, our reason, our ingenuity, our uniqueness, and our immortality. That is what sets modern Homo sapiens apart from all other creatures past and present.“
How did mankind evolve? You find as many opinions on this subject as you find paleontologists. That is no surprise. The trail of clues is often no more than a few flakes of stone and broken animal bones. Maybe a vaguely human type of jaw or perhaps just a tooth is found among other bones.
Little wonder investigators come up with widely different interpretations. The major problem remains the pitifully small number of hominid fossils.
All too often, the experts make up for scanty and ambiguous evidence with speculation. Presumption becomes intertwined with meager evidence, and it is all presented as facts. About the only thing authorities in this field can agree on is that „evolution is a fact.“ Ask them how it happened, and they quickly began to squabble among themselves.
What do we actually know about the ancestry of man? An honest answer is — very little. A wide variety of human-like forms, to one degree or another have lived on earth during the last two million years. By all accounts, some were contemporaries of early humans, others might have proceeded humans. It is difficult to say because we really don’t know when Homo sapiens began.
Going back into time, we run into fossil after fossil which may be a human variation, but then again, perhaps they were something else. Certainly the authorities don’t agree. The bits of bone and stone they uncover explain little and conceal much.
As for which fossil begat which, there are no surviving eyewitnesses, there are no written records, DNA tests are not feasible. The only thing left is theory and speculation.
In his book, The Making of Mankind, paleontologist Richard Leakey quotes David Pilbeam’s candid assessment of the fossil record: „If you brought in a smart scientist from another discipline and showed him the meager evidence we’ve got he’d surely say, ‚Forget it; there isn’t enough to go on.‘ . . . we remain fully aware of the dangers of drawing conclusions from evidence that is so incomplete,“ cautions Leakey himself.
If such eminent anthropologists are „fully aware“ of their „meager“ and „incomplete“ fossil evidence, why do they turn right around and say emphatically, „the fossil record supports evolution“? Here’s the straight forward unvarnished truth: The fossil record is too „meager,“ too „incomplete,“ and too „inadequate“ to prove either evolution or creation.
That is the truth. But you won’t catch anthropologists saying it. To understand their position, you need to look at it from their point of view.
The authorities in this field start with two premises. The first is that everything can be explained by natural forces of one type or another. And the second premise is that mutations and natural selection have no natural boundaries. Given enough time and the proper circumstances a single-celled organism can mutate and natural select its way into an elephant or man. If you accept both of these premises, then you accept evolution.
Evolution is a given. The only reason for consulting paleontology, archeology, or anthropology is to see how life evolved, not if. As for those millions of years between major types of hominids, no problem. Future investigations will surely fill in the gaps, they believe.
Anthropology field and laboratory work continues to churn out new information. Anthropologists, keeping abreast of the latest developments, occasionally update their views on what proceeded man. And due to the sketchy nature of the evidence, they will continue to disagree among themselves about our ancestors. However, they unite in saying we evolved. Certainly. That was an unquestioned assumption from the start. And so it has remained. Anthropology had nothing to do with it.
Question to Consider: Is human evolution — science? or a faith-based set of beliefs?