NEANDERTALS AND NEARLY MODERN HUMANS
Beginning 250,000 years ago
|Reconstruction of the skull of a male Homo neandertalensis from the site of La Ferrassie, France, estimated to be between 70,000 and 50,000 years ago.
Credit: Photo by Kathy Schick, courtesy of the Stone Age Institute. All rights reserved.
In some parts of the world, around 250,000 years ago, some proto-human populations evolved into physical forms more reminiscent of modern humans: they retained the large brains of Homo heidelbergensis but showed changes such as less robust facial features. In Europe these forms were the Neandertals or Homo neandertalensis, while in Africa they appear to have been evolving into forms on the line to anatomically modern humans. Some anthropologists have called these African forms a new species, Homo helmei, while others think they are just a slightly more robust form of Homo sapiens. These forms would co-evolve for the next 230,000 years, with the Neandertals finally disappearing.
In any case, these populations developed new technologies which we call the Middle Palaeolithic or Middle Stone Age, which last down to about 30,000 years ago in some places. These new technologies were widespread and variable in time and space, but in general they showed a shift away from the large handaxes and cleavers and towards smaller flake tools such as side-scrapers, denticulates (scrapers with irregular chipped edges) and points. Some of these points were almost certainly hafted onto wooden shafts and used as thrusting or throwing spears. Prepared-core methods such as the Levallois tortoise-core and Levallois point technologies became common as well.
|Reconstruction of a Neandertal female.
Credit: Illustration by John Sibbick, courtesy of John Sibbick Illustration. This illustration used with permission. All rights reserved.
HOW DO WE KNOW?
Well-dated sites with a long stratigraphic record show a gradual morphological change from Homo heidelbergensis to these new forms. These human fossil remains associated with stone tools (discussed in the next event) show the emergence of the Neandertals in Europe and the emergence of more modern-like forms in Africa.
WHY SHOULD I CARE?
It is thought that the reduction in facial robustness was probably a consequence of the use of fire in cooking and perhaps other food-preparation techniques making more tender and requiring less hard chewing. Some of these populations, notably in Africa, were probably the direct ancestors of you and us, anatomically modern humans.
This is a Wikipedia webpage about the Neanderthals.
This is a Discovery News article, “Neanderthals more intelligent than thought.”
This Discovery News webpage contains a series of articles about Neanderthals.
This is a National Geographic article, “Volcanoes Killed Off Neanderthals, Study Suggests.”
This is a short BBC video clip about Neanderthals, including a brief segment with C.K. Brain, the eminent South African paleontologist.