Homo Erectus Tools Challenge Single Species-Single Tech Thinking

Homo Erectus Tools Challenge Single Species-Single Tech Thinking

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Even a million and a half years ago, our ancestors understood that sometimes you need a simple hammerstone and other times a finely-made hand axe would better suit the task in front of you. New findings suggest that the Homo erectus toolkit was more diverse than previously believed. This challenges the simple single species/single technology thinking that has often been applied to early hominins.

An international team of researchers led by scientists from Spain and USA have found two H. erectus crania and a selection of tools that were used by our ancient ancestors in the Gona area in Afar, Ethiopia. These discoveries are important for two main reasons: first, they suggest that sexual dimorphism (color, size, shape, and/or structural differences between sexes in the same species) was present in H. erectus and second, the stone tools challenge the single species/single technology idea regarding hominin toolmaking use and abilities.

The DAN5 cranium, top/frontview. ( Dr. Michael J. Rogers, Southern Connecticut State University )

Evidence for Homo erectus sexual dimorphism

The Southern Connecticut State University news release explains that the researchers discovered two H. erectus crania, one nearly complete example dating to between 1.6- 1.5 million years ago, and one partial cranium from about 1.26 million years ago.

The older of the crania is the more complete example and was found in an area they call Dana Aoule North (DAN5). It is smaller and more gracile than the 1.26 million old robust example which was unearthed at Busidima North (BSN12), just 5.7 km (3.54 miles) away. The researchers say the smaller cranium has “the smallest endocranial volume documented for H. erectus in Africa, about 590 cubic centimeters.”

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(A) DAN5/P1 neurocranium—four views: lateral, frontal, superior, and posterior. ( B) BSN12/P1 frontal—three views: superior (original fossil and cast), lateral, and frontal. ( C) BSN12/P1 vault—conjoined parietal and frontal viewed along midline anterior—is to the right. Scale bars, 40 mm (DAN5/P1) and 20 mm (BSN12/P1). ( Scott W. Simpson, Case Western Reserve University )

The scientists explain in their paper presented in the journal Science Advances that they believe that the small cranium was likely a female H. erectus and provides evidence that sexual dimorphism existed in the species; however they also admit that the difference between the crania may be due to more primitive anatomy still presenting itself in the older fossil.

One of the study’s authors, Michael Rogers from Southern Connecticut State University, explained to Newsweek why we want to know whether sexual dimorphism was present in H. erectus :

“For decades, and perhaps as recently as a decade ago or so, paleoanthropologists had thought of Homo erectus as exhibiting less sexual dimorphism than earlier hominins, based on the skeletal samples that had been measured. In just the last 10 to 15 years, though, with the discovery of a few smaller H. erectus crania—including the DAN5 cranium record-breaker—this view will certainly get a second look. If H. erectus is confirmed to be significantly sexually dimorphic throughout its long tenure, then the decrease in dimorphism among modern humans would be a more recent phenomenon, with interesting social implications.”

The Homo erectus toolkit was more complex than they’re given credit for

As Science News points out, “Hominid fossils and stone tools are rarely found together,” which makes these discoveries in Ethiopia even more exciting. Let’s move on to the fascinating world of stone tools as it presents itself in Gona, which, according to the university press release, provides “one of the earliest examples of H. erectus associated with both Oldowan and Acheulian stone assemblages.”

Two opposing views of Acheulian and Oldowan stone tools from the ( A) BSN12 and ( B) DAN5 sites. The Mode 1 cores are shown on the bottom row for each site. ( Michael J. Rogers, Southern Connecticut State University )

Specifically, it was found at the sites that while some of the Homo erectus tools have a single sharpened edge others were double-edged. Instead of only finding the expected large hand axes or picks, signature tools of H. erectus , the research team found both well-made hand axes and plenty of less-complex Oldowan tools and cores.

The story used to go: About 2 million years ago Homo habilis invented the first stone tools, which we call ‘Oldowan’ and these were very simple, then 1.8 to 1.7 million years ago Homo erectus changed toolmaking by creating large cutting tools such as hand axes - we call their tool technology ‘ Acheulian.’ This second toolmaking method allegedly took over from the simpler, earlier version.

But now the authors of the Science Advances paper say their work demonstrates that Oldowan stone tool technology continued to be used even after Acheulian technology was invented. This shows that the toolmakers were flexible in their choices and, according to the news release, H. erectus had a “cultural complexity” that has not been “fully understood or appreciated in paleoanthropology.”

“The simple view that a single hominin species is responsible for a single stone tool technology is not supported,” Rogers emphasized in the university press release. “The human evolutionary story is more complicated.”

The work that had to be done and the quality of rock options in the area likely played a role in which stone tool technology the individual chose.

Revealing the Homeland of the Prehistoric Toolmakers

Gona is in itself an interesting site to explore. It’s located in the Afar Triangle of Ethiopia, placing it by the more famous Middle Awash and Hadar sites, the homes of the famous skeletons “Ardi” and “Lucy,” respectively.

Isotope analysis on the older cranium found at Gona suggests that the individual had a heavily plant-based diet, but they also ate some animals that ate food from trees or shrubs. Environmental reconstruction of the Gona sites shows that rivers once flowed close to the prehistoric toolmakers’ habitats and there was woodland nearby as well.

Stone cobbles from the riverbed were taken by the H. erectus population to make tools and evidence of stone tool cut marks on an elephant toe bone and a percussion notch on an antelope leg bone indicates that they butchered both large and smaller animals, though the researchers are uncertain if the animals were hunted or scavenged by the toolmakers.

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Reconstruction of Homo erectus based on bones found by Eugène Dubois, as displayed in the Naturalis Museum in Leiden, the Netherlands. Reconstruction made by Kennis & Kennis in 2019. (Hay Kranen/ CC BY 4.0 )

The multidisciplinary team used a variety of methods to discover more about the H. erectus toolmakers and their homeland. The university news release says that the scientists employed: “standard field mapping and stratigraphy, as well as analyses of the magnetic properties of the sediments, the chemistry of volcanic ashes, and the distribution of argon isotopes in volcanic ashes.”

University of Michigan geologist Naomi Levin, one of the members of the research team demonstrated the importance of having a variety of experts present for this type of research when she said,

“Constraining the age of these sites proved particularly challenging, requiring multiple experts using a range of techniques over several years of field work. This is a great example of scientific detective work and how science gets done, drawing on a community of scholars and their collective knowledge of the geology of eastern Africa.”

The fascinating findings of both physical and behavioral variation in the hominins as well as the detailed picture of what the Homo erectus toolmakers’ environment could have been like supports the notion of engaging a multidisciplinary team to explore our distant past whenever possible.

An international team of scientists announced the discovery Thursday of a new species of hominin, a small creature with a tiny brain that opens the door to a new way of thinking about our ancient ancestors.

The discovery of 15 individuals, consisting of 1,550 bones, represents the largest fossil hominin find on the African continent.

“We found adults and children in the cave who are members of genus Homo but very different from modern humans,” said CU Denver Associate Professor of Anthropology Charles Musiba, PhD, who took part in a press conference Thursday near the discovery inside the Rising Star Cave in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site outside Johannesburg, South Africa. “They are very petite and have the brain size of chimpanzees. The only thing similar we know of are the so-called `hobbits’ of Flores Island in Indonesia.”

Homofloresiensis or Flores Man was discovered in 2003. Like this latest finding, it stood 3.5 five feet high and seems to have existed relatively recently though the exact age is unknown.

Caley Orr, PhD, an assistant professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, analyzed the fossil hands.

“The hand has human-like features for manipulation of objects and curved fingers that are well adapted for climbing,” Orr said. “But its exact position on our family tree is still unknown.”

The new species has been dubbed Homonaledi after the cave where it was found – naledi means `star’ in the local South African language Sesotho.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the discovery is that the bodies appear to have been deposited in the cave intentionally. Scientists have long believed this sort of ritualized or repeated behavior was limited to humans.

The team of 35 to 40 scientists was led by Lee Berger, research professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. It was supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Research Foundation. The October issue of National Geographic magazine will feature the discovery as its cover story. It will also be the subject of a NOVA/National Geographic Special airing Sept. 16.

Getting inside the Dinaledi chamber of the remote cave system was difficult, requiring the help of six `underground astronauts,’ who squeezed through a 7-inch wide gap to reach the remains.

“The chamber has not given up all of its secrets,” said Berger, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. “There are potentially hundreds if not thousands of remains of H. naledi still down there.”

The announcement coincides with the publication of two studies about the new species in the journal eLife, co-authored by Musiba and Orr.

In it, the researchers try to place Homonaledi in context with other species. Generally speaking, they say, there is an assumption that any new group of fossils must belong to an existing species.

But it’s not that simple here.

“Assigning these remains to any known species of Homo is problematic,” the study said. “While Homo(naledi) shares aspects of cranial and mandibular morphology with Homohabilis,Homorudolfensis, Homoerectus, MP Homo and Homosapiens, it differs from all of these taxa in its unique combination of derived cranial vault, maxillary, and mandibular morphology.”

The study suggests that Homonaledi most closely resembles Homoerectus with its small brain and body size. Yet it also resembles Australopithecus which highlights its own uniqueness.

Complicating matters is the fact that researchers still don’t know the exact age of the fossil site.

“If these fossils are late Pliocene or early Pleistocene, it is possible that this new species of small-brained, early Homorepresents an intermediate between Australopithecus andHomoerectus,” the study said.

That would also make the new species very old.

But if the fossils are more recent, they theorize, it raises the possibility that a small-brainedHomolived in southern Africa at the same time as larger brained Homospecies were evolving.

“This raises many questions,” Musiba said. “How many species of human were there? Were their lines that simply extended outward and then disappeared? Did they co-exist with modern humans? Did they interbreed?”

Homonaledi has a chest similar to a chimpanzee and hands and feet proportionate with modern humans, though with curved fingers.

“They would have had great climbing ability,” said Musiba. “The oldest adults were about 45 and the youngest were infants.”

He described poring over the bones late at night as akin to `hitting the jackpot.’

“You just didn’t want to go home because it was so exciting,” he said. “I felt like a kid in a candy store.” The find represents another milestone in Musiba’s efforts to advance the understanding of our earliest human relatives.

As director of CU Denver’s Tanzania Field School, he takes groups of students each year to gain hands-on experience working in and around the famed Laetoli hominin footprints site and Olduvai Gorge where some of the oldest hominin remains have been found.

Not long ago, they discovered ancient footprints of lions, rhinos and antelopes near those of the early hominins.

And last year, Musiba was appointed to an international team of advisors dedicated to building a museum complex in Tanzania to showcase a collection of 70 hominin footprints, estimated at 3.6 million years old. They are considered the earliest example of bipedalism among hominins.

Musiba said the Rising Star expedition was notable for getting so many anthropologists to work together.

“Anthropology can be a cut-throat profession with all these scientists scrambling for limited resources,” he said. “To me one of the most exciting aspects of this research was the collaborative nature of it.”

Why are we the only human species still alive?

Two million years ago in Africa, several species of human-like creatures roamed the landscape. Some looked surprisingly similar to each other, while others had distinct, defining features.

In September 2015, another species was added to the list. Hundreds of bones discovered in a South African cave are now believed to belong to a new species, known as Homo naledi. There may well be many more extinct hominin species waiting to be uncovered.

Our own species appeared around 200,000 years ago, at a time when several others existed. Yet today, only we remain. Why did we manage to survive when all of our closest relatives have died out?

To start with, it's worth pointing out that extinction is a normal part of evolution. In that sense it may not seem surprising that human-like species &ndash known as "hominins" &ndash have died out.

There is no evidence they were systematically preying on large animals

But it is not obvious that the world only has room for one species of human. Our closest living relatives are the great apes, and there are six species alive today: chimpanzees, bonobos, two species of gorilla and two species of orangutan.

There are some clues that reveal why some of our forebears were more successful than others.

Several million years ago, when a great many hominin species lived side-by-side, they mainly ate plants. "There is no evidence they were systematically preying on large animals," says John Shea of Stony Brook University in New York, US.

But as conditions changed, and hominins moved from the forests and trees to the drier open savannahs, they became increasingly carnivorous.

Until quite recently, we still shared the planet with other early humans

The problem was, the animals they hunted also had fewer plants to eat, so overall there was less food to go around. That competition drove some species extinct.

"As human evolution pushed some members to be more carnivorous, you would expect to see less and less of them," says Shea.

But while the switch to meat-eating clearly took its toll, it did not come close to leaving Earth a one-human planet. Until quite recently, we still shared the planet with other early humans.

Rewind to 30,000 years ago. As well as modern humans, three other hominin species were around: the Neanderthals in Europe and western Asia, the Denisovans in Asia, and the "hobbits" from the Indonesian island of Flores.

The Neanderthals were displaced very soon after modern humans encroached on their habitat

The hobbits could have survived until as recently as 18,000 years ago. They may have been wiped out by a large volcanic eruption, according to geological evidence from the area. Living on one small island will also leave a species more vulnerable to extinction when disaster strikes.

We do not know enough about the Denisovans to even ask why they died out. All we have from them is a small finger bone and two teeth.

However, we know a lot more about the Neanderthals, simply because we have known about them for much longer and have many fossils. So to get at why we are the only human species left standing, we must rely on figuring out why they died out.

The archaeological evidence strongly suggests that the Neanderthals somehow lost out to modern humans, says Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The Neanderthals were displaced very soon after modern humans encroached on their habitat, which Hublin says can't be a coincidence.

Neanderthals were better adapted to hunting in woodland environments than modern humans

Neanderthals evolved long before us, and lived in Europe well before we arrived. By the time we got to Europe, just over 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals had been successfully living there for over 200,000 years, ample time to adapt to the chilly climate. They wore warm clothes, were formidable hunters and had sophisticated stone tools.

But when Europe began experiencing rapid climate change, some researchers argue, the Neanderthals may have struggled.

The temperature was not the main issue, says John Stewart of Bournemouth University in the UK. Instead, the colder climate changed the landscape they lived in, and they did not adapt their hunting style to suit it.

Neanderthals were better adapted to hunting in woodland environments than modern humans.

But when Europe's climate began fluctuating, the forests became more open, becoming more like the African savannahs that modern humans were used to. The forests, which provided most of Neanderthals' food, dwindled and could no longer sustain them.

Modern humans also seemed to hunt a greater range of species.

As well as large game, they also hunted smaller animals like hares and rabbits.

In contrast, there is little evidence that Neanderthals hunted similar small ground mammals according to analyses of archaeological sites in Iberia where the Neanderthals clung on the longest.

We had a greater range of innovative and deadly tools

Their tools were better suited for hunting bigger animals, so even if they tried, they may not have been successful at catching small animals. Though there is evidence they ate birds, they may have lured them in with the remains of other dead animal carcasses, rather than actively hunting them in the sky.

All in all, "modern humans seemed to have a greater number of things they could do when put under stress," says Stewart. This ability to innovate and adapt may explain why we replaced Neanderthals so quickly.

"Faster innovation leads to better efficiency and exploitation in the environment and therefore a higher reproductive success," says Hublin.

He believes that there is something intrinsic to modern humans that helped us adapt so quickly. There is some evidence for that.

We know Neanderthal tools were remarkably efficient for the tasks they used them for, but when we arrived into Europe ours were better. The archaeological evidence suggests that we had a greater range of innovative and deadly tools.

But tools are not the only things modern humans made. We also created something else, which helped us outcompete every other species on Earth: symbolic art.

Our extinct relatives may have been able to speak

Genetic analysis suggests that Neanderthals and Denisovans both had the capacity for language. They carried the genes that allow us to finely control how our tongues move.

However, our heads were shaped differently to theirs, says Shea. That suggests we are better at making certain sounds.

Our face is situated directly under our brain, allowing us to break up sounds in short segments.

In contrast, Neanderthals and other ancient hominins had their faces further to the front of their skulls. "This makes it difficult to sort out particular sounds, like vowels," says Shea.

That does not necessarily mean they could not talk. Instead, it may indicate their language was more like song.

Shortly after modern humans left Africa, there is ample evidence that they were making art. Archaeologists have found ornaments, jewellery, figurative depictions of mythical animals and even musical instruments.

"When modern humans hit the ground [in Europe], their populations went up quickly," says Nicholas Conard at the University of Tübingen in Germany, who has discovered several such relics. As our numbers swelled, we began living in much more complex social units, and needed more sophisticated ways to communicate.

By 40,000 years ago, humans in Europe were making things any of us would recognise as art. One of the most striking is a wooden carving of a lion-human statue, called the Löwenmensch, found in a cave in Germany. Similar sculptures from the same period have been found elsewhere in Europe.

They didn't need a whole arsenal of symbolic artefacts to get the job done

This suggests that we were sharing information across cultural groups from different areas, rather than keeping knowledge to ourselves. It seems art was a critical part of our identity, helping to bring different groups together.

In other words, symbols were a kind of social glue. They could "help people organise their social and economic affairs with one another," says Conard.

In stark contrast, Neanderthals didn't seem to need art or symbols. There is limited evidence they made some jewellery, but not to the extent we did. "They did their hunting, cooking, sleeping, eating, sex and recreation. They didn't need a whole arsenal of symbolic artefacts to get the job done."

For humans, the sharing of symbolic information has been crucial to our success. Every new idea we pick up has the chance to become immortal by being passed down through the generations. That is how language spread, for example.

They found a rut and were stuck in it

The fact that we made any art at all, using the same hands that made all those tools, also points to our unique capacity for behavioural variability, says Shea.

"We do everything more than one distinct way," he says. "Often, the solutions we devise for one problem, we can repurpose to solve a different one. This is something we do exclusively well."

Other ancient hominins seemed to do the same thing over and over again. "They found a rut and were stuck in it."

Did we have a superior brain to thank for this?

That has long been a popular view. Illustrations of human evolution like the one above often show a progression from ape-like creatures to modern humans, with ever bigger brains as things went on.

Most Europeans only developed a tolerance to lactose when our ancestors started to eat more dairy produce

In reality, our evolutionary story is more complicated than that. Homo erectus survived for a long time and was the first hominin species to expand out of Africa &ndash before even the Neanderthals &ndash but its brain was quite small.

As a result, some anthropologists are uncomfortable with the idea that big brains were the solution. Our big brains may have played a role in our success, but Neanderthals had equally large brains compared to their body size.

Hublin says there is a more refined explanation.

We know that our behaviour, or the circumstances in which we find ourselves, can change our genetic make-up.

There are important differences between us and our Neanderthal and Denisovan relatives

For instance, most Europeans only developed a tolerance to lactose when our ancestors started to eat more dairy produce. Genetic changes can also occur when large populations are faced with devastating diseases such as the Black Death in the 14th Century, which changed the genes of survivors.

In a similar vein, Hublin proposes that modern humans, at some point, benefited from key genetic changes.

For the first 100,000 years of our existence, modern humans behaved much like Neanderthals. then something changed. Our tools became more complex, around the time when we started developing symbolic artefacts.

We now have genetic evidence to suggest that our DNA changed at some point after we split from the common ancestor we shared with Neanderthals.

When peering into our genetic make-up, there are important differences between us and our Neanderthal and Denisovan relatives. Geneticists have identified several dozen points in our genome that are unique to us, and several of them are involved in brain development.

Before we developed these abilities, modern humans and other hominins were fairly evenly matched

This suggests that while Neanderthals may have had a similar brain size to ours, it may have been the way our brains developed over our lifetimes that was key to our success.

We don't know what benefits these genetic changes had. But others have suggested that it is our hyper-social, cooperative brain that sets us apart. From language and culture to war and love, our most distinctively human behaviours all have a social element.

That means it could be our propensity for social living that led to our ability to use symbols and make art.

For tens of thousands of years, before we developed these abilities, modern humans and other hominins were fairly evenly matched, says Conard. Any other species could have taken our place.

But they did not, and eventually we out-competed them. As our population exploded, the other species retreated and eventually disappeared altogether.

If that's true, we might have our creativity to thank for our survival.

But there is one other possibility, which we can't entirely ignore. Maybe it was pure chance. Maybe our species got lucky and survived, while the Neanderthals drew the short straw.

Melissa Hogenboom is BBC Earth's feature writer. She is @melissasuzanneh on Twitter.

Homo erectus used both Olduvayense and Achelense industry

The smallest Homo erectus cranium in Africa and diverse stone tools found at Gona, Ethiopia, indicate that human ancestors were more varied, both physically and behaviorally than previously known.

Sileshi Semaw, from CENIEH (Burgos, Spain), and Michael Rogers, from SCSU (Connecticut, USA), together with their research team have discovered a nearly-complete hominin cranium estimated to 1.5 million years, and a partial cranium dated to 1.26 million years from the Gona study area, in the Afar State of Ethiopia. Both crania, assigned to Homo erectus, were associated with both simple Oldowan-type (Mode 1) and more complex, Acheulian (Mode 2) stone tool assemblages.

The nearly-complete cranium was discovered at Dana Aoule North (DAN5) and the partial cranium at Busidima North (BSN12), sites that are 5.7 km apart. Remarkably, the DAN5 cranium has the smallest endocranial volume documented for Homo erectus in Africa, about 590 cubic centimeters, probably representing a female. This cranium bears some similarity to the small individuals discovered at Dmanisi (Republic of Georgia), and dated to 1.8 million years. The BSN12 partial cranium is robust and large (similar to OH 9 from Olduvai Gorge), while the DAN5 cranium is smaller and more gracile, suggesting that Homo erectus was probably a sexually dimorphic species.

This physical diversity is mirrored by the stone tool technologies exhibited by the artifacts found in association with both crania. Instead of only finding the expected large handaxes or picks (signature tools of Homo erectus), the Gona team found both well-made handaxes and plenty of less-complex Oldowan tools and cores. This suggests that Homo erectus had a degree of cultural/behavioral plasticity that has yet to be fully understood.

Scott. Simpson, a co-author of the study, commented that “In the almost 130 years since its initial discovery in Java, Homo erectus has been recovered from many sites across Eurasia and Africa. The new remains from the Gona study area exhibit a degree of biological diversity in Africa that had not been seen previously, notably the small size of the DAN5 cranium. The BSN12 partial cranium also provides evidence linking the African and eastern Asian fossils demonstrating how successful Homo erectus was.”

Environmental setting and carnivory

The DAN5 and BSN12 sites at Gona are among the earliest examples of Homo erectus associated with both Oldowan and Acheulian stone assemblages. The toolmakers at both sites lived in close proximity to ancient rivers, in settings with riverine woodlands adjacent to open habitats. The low δ13C isotope value from the DAN5 cranium (from the right M1) is consistent with a diet dominated by C3 plants (trees, shrubs) or, alternatively, broad-spectrum omnivory.

Homo erectus at Gona used locally-available stone cobbles to make their tools, which were accessed from the nearby riverbeds. Fossil fauna was abundant at BSN12, but cutmarks or hammerstone-percussed bones were not identified. At DAN5, an elephant phalanx was found with stone tool cutmarks, and a small antelope leg bone had a percussion notch, implying that H. Erectus butchered both large and small mammals, though it is not clear whether they hunted or scavenged their prey.


There is a common view that early Homo (e.g. Homo habilis) invented the first simple (Oldowan) stone tools, but when Homo erectus appeared 1.8-1.7 million years ago, a new stone tool technology called the Acheulian, with purposefully-shaped large cutting tools such as handaxes, emerged in Africa. The timing, causes and nature of this significant transition to the Acheulian by 1.7 million years is not entirely clear, though, and is an issue debated by archaeologists.

Our investigations at DAN5 and BSN12 have clearly shown that Oldowan technology persisted much longer after the invention of the Acheulian, indicative of a particular behavioral flexibility and cultural complexity practiced by Homo erectus, a trait not fully understood or appreciated in paleoanthropology.

Semaw says, “Although most researchers in the field consider the Acheulian to have replaced the earlier Oldowan (Mode 1) by 1.7 million years, our research has shown that Mode 1 technology actually remained ubiquitous throughout the entire Paleolithic.” Rogers adds, “The simple view that a single hominin species is responsible for a single stone tool technology is not supported. The human evolutionary story is more complicated.”

It is important to note that the first hominins that migrated out of Africa probably left with Oldowan technology, traveling as far as Dmanisi in Georgia by 1.8 Ma. The Acheulian, then, was likely invented by a Homo erectus population that evolved in Africa. Semaw suggests that, “it’s still possible that the descendants of the hominins who migrated earlier to the Caucasus could have migrated back to Africa, as others also have argued that H. erectus evolved in Asia and possibly returned back to Africa.”

Interestingly, other than DAN5 and BSN12, the crania from Buia (in Eritrea) and Daka (from the Middle Awash study area) are the only two H. erectus cranial specimens known in the entire Afar in the 1.5-1.0 Ma critical time interval. Konso is the only other Ethiopian site that has produced H. erectus (from southern Ethiopia), and the Gona team has previously reported the first female Homo erectus pelvis known, dated to 1 million years. Thus, DAN5 is quite a rare discovery, and more hominins associated with stone artifacts are needed (2.0-0.5 million years) in order to better understand issues regarding Homo erectus stone technology, physiology, mobility across continents, etc.

Some argue that in Africa multiple hominin species may have been responsible for the two distinct contemporary stone technologies (Oldowan and Acheulian). To the contrary, the evidence from Gona suggests a lengthy and concurrent use of both Oldowan and Acheulian technologies by a single long-lived species, Homo erectus, the variable expression of which deserves continued research. Rogers suggests that “one challenge in the future will be to understand better the stone tool attributes that are likely to be passed on through cultural tradition versus others that are more likely to be reinvented by different hominin groups.”

Gona is located in the Afar Triangle of Ethiopia, adjacent to the well-known Middle Awash and Hadar study areas, were the famous skeletons “Ardi” and “Lucy” were found, respectively. The research team has been investigating the Gona deposits since 1999, and the BSN12 partial cranium was discovered by Dr. N. Toth (Stone Age Institute, Indiana University) during the first season. The DAN5 cranium was found a year later in 2000 by the late Ibrahim Habib (local Afar colleague) on a camel trail.

Human Characteristics: Walking Upright

Some non-human primates occasionally walk upright on two legs. So how are humans different? Watch this video to find out. NOTE: This video is silent.

One Step at a Time

The earliest humans climbed trees and walked on the ground. This flexibility helped them get around in diverse habitats and cope with changing climates.

© Copyright Smithsonian Institution Silhouette of Sahelanthropus tchandensis. Image courtesy of Karen Carr Studios

From at least 6 to 3 million years ago, early humans combined apelike and humanlike ways of moving around. Fossil bones like the ones you see here record a gradual transition from climbing trees to walking upright on a regular basis.

Sahelanthropus may have walked on two legs.

Becoming bipedal

The oldest evidence for walking on two legs comes from one of the earliest humans known, Sahelanthropus. Walking upright may have helped this species survive in the diverse habitats near where it lived—including forests and grasslands.

Leg support

© Copyright Smithsonian Institution Silhouette of Orrorin tugenensis for femur. Image courtesy of Karen Carr Studio.

The upper part of this thigh bone is similar in size to those of other large apes. But the angled part more closely resembles that of modern humans. It formed a strong bridge with the hip to support the body’s weight, suggesting Orrorin tugenensis walked upright.

Strong knee

Every time you take a step, you briefly stand on one leg—putting stress on your leg bones. The wide area of bone just below this the knee joint in Australopithecus anamensis is a result of that stress. It provides strong evidence that this individual walked upright.

Mostly bipedal

Karen Carr Studios Silhouette of Australopithicus afarensis with vertebrae

Fossils from around this time period come from early human species that lived near open areas and dense woods. Their bodies had evolved in ways that enabled them to walk upright most of the time, but still climb trees. As a result, they could take advantage of both habitats.

Curved spine

The curve of your lower back absorbs shock when you walk. It is uniquely human. You can see a similar curve in the spine of this early human, Australopithecus africanus, who walked upright in a way very similar to modern humans.

Hip support

The size and broad shape of the hip bones of Homo erectus are similar to a modern human’s, showing that this early human species had given up climbing for walking.

Fully bipedal

© Copyright Smithsonian Institution Silhouette of Homo erectus pelvis. Image courtesy of Karen Carr Studios

The pelvis and thigh bones (outline to right) of Homo erectus are similar to modern humans, and show that this early human was able to walk long distances. That ability was a big advantage during this time period. East Africa’s environments were fluctuating widely between moist and dry, and open grasslands were beginning to spread.

The long thigh bones of Homo erectus enabled its owner to take long strides and therefore to walk farther and faster than earlier humans.

Compare a Chimp with an Early and Modern Human

Modern chimpanzees occasionally walk upright, but their skeletons are not adapted for regular walking on two legs. Early humans evolved skeletons that supported their bodies in an upright position. Modern humans have bodies adapted for walking and running long distances on two legs.

© Copyright Smithsonian Institution Drawings of skulls of a chimpanzee (left), early human (middle), and modern human (right). Image courtesy of Karen Carr Studios

The spine of a chimpanzee connects with the skull at the back, holding the head at an angle.

The spine of early humans connected with the skull underneath, stabilizing the head when walking upright.

Your spine connects with your skull underneath and near the center, holding your head firmly upright.

Upper Leg Bone

© Copyright Smithsonian Institution Drawings of upper leg bones of a chimpanzee (left), early human (middle), and modern human (right). Image courtesy of Karen Carr Studios

Because the connection between the upper thigh and hip bones is short in chimpanzees, the hip muscles cannot contract effectively to provide support for upright walking.

The connection between the upper thigh and hip bones was longer in early humans than in chimpanzees, and its base thicker. The hip muscles could provide support for walking.

The connection between your upper leg and hip bones is long. Its base is strong and able to withstand the stresses of walking and running.

© Copyright Smithsonian Institution Drawings of lower knee bones of a chimpanzee (right), early human (middle), and modern human (left). Image courtesy of Karen Carr Studios

The chimpanzee knee joint is lightly built, so chimpanzees cannot rest their weight on one leg at a time to walk for long periods.

The early human knee joint was strong, enabling this early human to regularly support its weight on one leg at a time during walking.

Strong knee joints help support your body’s weight on one leg at a time while walking long distances.

Benefits and Costs of Walking

© Copyright Smithsonian Institution Scene illustrating a few of the benefits of upright walking. Image courtesy of Karen Carr Studios

As environments changed, walking on two legs helped early humans survive by:

  • making it easier to pick fruits and other food from low-lying branches
  • freeing hands for carrying food, tools, or babies
  • enabling early humans to appear larger and more intimidating
  • helping early humans cover wide, open landscapes quickly and efficiently.

Karen Carr Studios Silhouette of a modern human with back pain

Back pain and other skeletal problems are relatively common in modern humans, an unfortunate side effect of walking upright. Distributing all our weight on just two limbs can have painful consequences, like lower back pain, slipped disks, arthritis in hips and knees, and collapsed foot arches.

  • Press your fingers beneath the top bones of both of your hips.
  • Now stand on one leg at a time.
  • Can you feel the muscles contract?

These are the muscles that support your body during walking. They attach to the areas that curve inward above the hip socket.


The Latin noun homō (genitive hominis) means "human being" or "man" in the generic sense of "human being, mankind". [a] The binomial name Homo sapiens was coined by Carl Linnaeus (1758). [13] [b] Names for other species of the genus were introduced beginning in the second half of the 19th century (H. neanderthalensis 1864, H. erectus 1892).

Even today, the genus Homo has not been strictly defined. [15] [16] [17] Since the early human fossil record began to slowly emerge from the earth, the boundaries and definitions of the genus Homo have been poorly defined and constantly in flux. Because there was no reason to think it would ever have any additional members, Carl Linnaeus did not even bother to define Homo when he first created it for humans in the 18th century. The discovery of Neanderthal brought the first addition.

The genus Homo was given its taxonomic name to suggest that its member species can be classified as human. And, over the decades of the 20th century, fossil finds of pre-human and early human species from late Miocene and early Pliocene times produced a rich mix for debating classifications. There is continuing debate on delineating Homo from Australopithecus—or, indeed, delineating Homo from Pan, as one body of scientists argues that the two species of chimpanzee should be classed with genus Homo rather than Pan. Even so, classifying the fossils of Homo coincides with evidence of: (1) competent human bipedalism in Homo habilis inherited from the earlier Australopithecus of more than four million years ago, as demonstrated by the Laetoli footprints and (2) human tool culture having begun by 2.5 million years ago.

From the late-19th to mid-20th centuries, a number of new taxonomic names including new generic names were proposed for early human fossils most have since been merged with Homo in recognition that Homo erectus was a single species with a large geographic spread of early migrations. Many such names are now dubbed as "synonyms" with Homo, including Pithecanthropus, [18] Protanthropus, [19] Sinanthropus, [20] Cyphanthropus, [21] Africanthropus, [22] Telanthropus, [23] Atlanthropus, [24] and Tchadanthropus. [25] [26]

Classifying the genus Homo into species and subspecies is subject to incomplete information and remains poorly done. This has led to using common names ("Neanderthal" and "Denisovan"), even in scientific papers, to avoid trinomial names or the ambiguity of classifying groups as incertae sedis (uncertain placement)—for example, H. neanderthalensis vs. H. sapiens neanderthalensis, or H. georgicus vs. H. erectus georgicus. [27] Some recently extinct species in the genus Homo are only recently discovered and do not as yet have consensus binomial names (see Denisova hominin and Red Deer Cave people). [28] Since the beginning of the Holocene, it is likely that Homo sapiens (anatomically modern humans) has been the only extant species of Homo.

John Edward Gray (1825) was an early advocate of classifying taxa by designating tribes and families. [29] Wood and Richmond (2000) proposed that Hominini ("hominins") be designated as a tribe that comprised all species of early humans and pre-humans ancestral to humans back to after the chimpanzee-human last common ancestor and that Hominina be designated a subtribe of Hominini to include only the genus Homo — that is, not including the earlier upright walking hominins of the Pliocene such as Australopithecus, Orrorin tugenensis, Ardipithecus, or Sahelanthropus. [30] Designations alternative to Hominina existed, or were offered: Australopithecinae (Gregory & Hellman 1939) and Preanthropinae (Cela-Conde & Altaba 2002) [31] [32] [33] and later, Cela-Conde and Ayala (2003) proposed that the four genera Australopithecus, Ardipithecus, Praeanthropus, and Sahelanthropus be grouped with Homo within Hominini (sans pan). [34]

Australopithecus and the appearance of Homo Edit

Several species, including Australopithecus garhi, Australopithecus sediba, Australopithecus africanus, and Australopithecus afarensis, have been proposed as the ancestor or sister of the Homo lineage. [35] [36] These species have morphological features that align them with Homo, but there is no consensus as to which gave rise to Homo.

Especially since the 2010s, the delineation of Homo in Australopithecus has become more contentious. Traditionally, the advent of Homo has been taken to coincide with the first use of stone tools (the Oldowan industry), and thus by definition with the beginning of the Lower Palaeolithic. But in 2010, evidence was presented that seems to attribute the use of stone tools to Australopithecus afarensis around 3.3 million years ago, close to a million years before the first appearance of Homo. [37] LD 350-1, a fossil mandible fragment dated to 2.8 Mya, discovered in 2013 in Afar, Ethiopia, was described as combining "primitive traits seen in early Australopithecus with derived morphology observed in later Homo. [38] Some authors would push the development of Homo close to or even past 3 Mya. [39] Others have voiced doubt as to whether Homo habilis should be included in Homo, proposing an origin of Homo with Homo erectus at roughly 1.9 Mya instead. [40]

The most salient physiological development between the earlier australopithecine species and Homo is the increase in endocranial volume (ECV), from about 460 cm 3 (28 cu in) in A. garhi to 660 cm 3 (40 cu in) in H. habilis and further to 760 cm 3 (46 cu in) in H. erectus, 1,250 cm 3 (76 cu in) in H. heidelbergensis and up to 1,760 cm 3 (107 cu in) in H. neanderthalensis. However, a steady rise in cranial capacity is observed already in Autralopithecina and does not terminate after the emergence of Homo, so that it does not serve as an objective criterion to define the emergence of the genus. [41]

Homo habilis Edit

Homo habilis emerged about 2.1 Mya. Already before 2010, there were suggestions that H. habilis should not be placed in genus Homo but rather in Australopithecus. [42] [43] The main reason to include H. habilis in Homo, its undisputed tool use, has become obsolete with the discovery of Australopithecus tool use at least a million years before H. habilis. [37] Furthermore, H. habilis was long thought to be the ancestor of the more gracile Homo ergaster (Homo erectus). In 2007, it was discovered that H. habilis and H. erectus coexisted for a considerable time, suggesting that H. erectus is not immediately derived from H. habilis but instead from a common ancestor. [44] With the publication of Dmanisi skull 5 in 2013, it has become less certain that Asian H. erectus is a descendant of African H. ergaster which was in turn derived from H. habilis. Instead, H. ergaster and H. erectus appear to be variants of the same species, which may have originated in either Africa or Asia [45] and widely dispersed throughout Eurasia (including Europe, Indonesia, China) by 0.5 Mya. [46]

Homo erectus Edit

Homo erectus has often been assumed to have developed anagenetically from Homo habilis from about 2 million years ago. This scenario was strengthened with the discovery of Homo erectus georgicus, early specimens of H. erectus found in the Caucasus, which seemed to exhibit transitional traits with H. habilis. As the earliest evidence for H. erectus was found outside of Africa, it was considered plausible that H. erectus developed in Eurasia and then migrated back to Africa. Based on fossils from the Koobi Fora Formation, east of Lake Turkana in Kenya, Spoor et al. (2007) argued that H. habilis may have survived beyond the emergence of H. erectus, so that the evolution of H. erectus would not have been anagenetically, and H. erectus would have existed alongside H. habilis for about half a million years ( 1.9 to 1.4 million years ago ), during the early Calabrian. [47]

A separate South African species Homo gautengensis has been postulated as contemporary with Homo erectus in 2010. [48]

A taxonomy of Homo within the great apes is assessed as follows, with Paranthropus and Homo emerging within Australopithecus (shown here cladistically granting Paranthropus, Kenyanthropus, and Homo). [49] [50] [3] [51] [52] [53] [54] [55] [56] [57] [58] [59] [60] [61] The exact phylogeny within Australopithecus is still highly controversial. Approximate radiation dates of daughter clades are shown in millions of years ago (Mya). [57] Graecopithecus, Sahelanthropus, Orrorin, possibly sisters to Australopithecus, are not shown here. Note that the naming of groupings is sometimes muddled as often certain groupings are presumed before a cladistic analyses is performed. [55]

Several of the Homo lineages appear to have surviving progeny through introgression into other lines. Genetic evidence indicates an archaic lineage separating from the other human lineages 1.5 million years ago, perhaps H. erectus, may have interbred into the Denisovans about 55,000 years ago. [62] [63] [64] [54] [65] [66] Fossil evidence shows Homo erectus s.s. survived at least until 117,000 yrs ago, and the even more basal Homo floresiensis survived until 50,000 years ago. Moreover, a thigh bone, dated at 14,000 years, found in a Maludong cave (Red Deer Cave people) strongly resembles very ancient species like early Homo erectus or the even more archaic lineage, Homo habilis, which lived around 1.5 million year ago. [67] [68] A 1.5 million years Homo erectus-like lineage appears to have made its way into modern humans through the Denisovans and specifically into the Papuans and aboriginal Australians. [54] The genomes of non-sub-Saharan African humans show what appear to be numerous independent introgression events involving Neanderthal and in some cases also Denisovans around 45,000 years ago. [69] [65] Likewise the genetic structure of sub-Saharan Africans seems to be indicative of introgression from a west Eurasian population some 3,000 years ago. [59] [70]

Some evidence suggests that Australopithecus sediba could be moved to the genus Homo, or placed in its own genus, due to its position with respect to e.g. Homo habilis and Homo floresiensis. [56] [71]

Dispersal Edit

By about 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus is present in both East Africa (Homo ergaster) and in Western Asia (Homo georgicus). The ancestors of Indonesian Homo floresiensis may have left Africa even earlier. [72]

Homo erectus and related or derived archaic human species over the next 1.5 million years spread throughout Africa and Eurasia [73] [74] (see: Recent African origin of modern humans). Europe is reached by about 0.5 Mya by Homo heidelbergensis.

Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens develop after about 300 kya. Homo naledi is present in Southern Africa by 300 kya.

H. sapiens soon after its first emergence spread throughout Africa, and to Western Asia in several waves, possibly as early as 250 kya, and certainly by 130 kya. In July 2019, anthropologists reported the discovery of 210,000 year old remains of a H. sapiens and 170,000 year old remains of a H. neanderthalensis in Apidima Cave, Peloponnese, Greece, more than 150,000 years older than previous H. sapiens finds in Europe. [75] [76] [77]

Most notable is the Southern Dispersal of H. sapiens around 60 kya, which led to the lasting peopling of Oceania and Eurasia by anatomically modern humans. [10] H. sapiens interbred with archaic humans both in Africa and in Eurasia, in Eurasia notably with Neanderthals and Denisovans. [78]

Among extant populations of Homo sapiens, the deepest temporal division is found in the San people of Southern Africa, estimated at close to 130,000 years, [79] or possibly more than 300,000 years ago. [80] Temporal division among non-Africans is of the order of 60,000 years in the case of Australo-Melanesians. Division of Europeans and East Asians is of the order of 50,000 years, with repeated and significant admixture events throughout Eurasia during the Holocene.

Archaic human species may have survived until the beginning of the Holocene (Red Deer Cave people), although they were mostly extinct or absorbed by the expanding H. sapiens populations by 40 kya (Neanderthal extinction).

The species status of H. rudolfensis, H. ergaster, H. georgicus, H. antecessor, H. cepranensis, H. rhodesiensis, H. neanderthalensis, Denisova hominin, Red Deer Cave people, and H. floresiensis remains under debate. H. heidelbergensis and H. neanderthalensis are closely related to each other and have been considered to be subspecies of H. sapiens.

There has historically been a trend to postulate new human species based on as little as an individual fossil. A "minimalist" approach to human taxonomy recognizes at most three species, Homo habilis (2.1–1.5 Mya, membership in Homo questionable), Homo erectus (1.8–0.1 Mya, including the majority of the age of the genus, and the majority of archaic varieties as subspecies, [81] including H. heidelbergensis as a late or transitional variety [82] ) and Homo sapiens (300 kya to present, including H. neanderthalensis and other varieties as subspecies). "Species" does in this context not necessarily mean that hybridization and introgression were impossible at the time. However, it is often used as a convenient term, but it should be taken to mean to be a generic lineage at best, and clusters at worst. In general definitions and methodology of "species" delineation criteria are not generally agreed upon in anthropology or paleontology. Indeed, mammals can typically interbreed for 2 to 3 million years [83] or longer, [84] so all contemporary "species" in the genus Homo would potentially have been able to interbreed at the time, and introgression from beyond the genus Homo can not a priori be ruled out. [85] It has been suggested that H. naledi may have been a hybrid with a late surviving Australipith (taken to mean beyond Homo, ed.), [86] despite the fact that these lineages generally are regarded as long extinct. As discussed above, many introgressions have occurred between lineages, with evidence of introgression after separation of 1.5 Million years.

TalkPoint: Do the excavations of ancient stone tools in India reshape our theories of early human migration?

Illustration by Siddhant Gupta

New discoveries in Attirampakkam now challenge traditional theories of evolution of ancient stone tools — from big, blunt hand axes into sharply-sculpted stone points. The findings, reported in Nature, upend previous evidences about Middle Palaeolithic culture in India.

You can read what historian Shanti Pappu wrote for ThePrint here.

ThePrint asks: How do the excavations of ancient stone tools in southern India reshape our understanding of early human migration and evolution?

The beginning of the Middle Palaeolithic in the subcontinent has now been pushed back.

/>P. Ajithprasad
Professor and head of archaeology department, MSU, Baroda

These findings are not going to radically change our understanding about the overall picture of cultural and biological evolution of hominins, our ancestors. The luminescence date now places the transition of earlier culture to the MP period somewhere from 3,50,000 years to 1,70,000 years. The early part of these dates is almost contemporary with what we have already known, for similar kind of transition from Africa as well as Europe. This is all based on certain changes in technology used for stone tools.

The paper is a very significant contribution toward this research. We were not very clear about the date. We have been arguing about it. We had given 1,60,000 years to 2,00,000 years generally to the beginning of the Middle Palaeolithic (MP) in the subcontinent. Now, the date has been pushed back. Now, we can look at the new evidence and its antiquity.

But it does not change the ‘Out of Africa’ model, which is based on a set of evidence that includes fossil, archaeological and genetic records. Those converge at the point that most of the modern humans were natives of Africa and spread from Africa — that they emerged 2,00,000 years ago, first spread to West Asia (modern Israel), then spread toward the East, and then West into Europe. That hypothesis remains intact. To replace that, you would need evidence from all these different centres of origin.

However, we need to be a little more cautious about linking the new early date for MP with ‘Out of Africa’ model for modern human dispersal. The paper does not address that issue at all.

The new findings would help us to look at MP technology emerging very early, one would now expect diverse set of technologies from across different regions. The antiquity of this technology could go back to 3,50,000 years, and its independent origin probably emerging from a previous tradition.

We have no fossil records in the subcontinent of archaic or modern humans. We have identified the oldest record to archaic homo sapiens from 1,00,000 years ago.

We know that MP technology certainly originated in Africa, Europe, and now in India. But we have to be cautious to link it to the spread of anatomically modern humans ‘Out of Africa’.

New game-changing excavation will revise the timeframe of ‘Out of Africa’ models

Ravi Korisettar
UGC Emeritus Fellow, Department of History and Archaeology, Karnatak University, Dharwad

First of all, let’s examine the evidence from Attirampakkam from the perspective of the monolithic theory of ‘Out of Africa’ expansion and colonisation of contiguous landmasses of Asia and Europe. There are two major events: Out of Africa I and Out of Africa II.

Africa I refers to expansion of Homo erectus around 1.7 million years ago with the stone tool kit comprising handaxes and cleavers, known as Acheulian techno-complex. Africa II refers to expansion of our direct ancestors, Homo sapiens (modern humans), out of Africa around 1,20,000 years ago. Both these models have been debated under ‘long and short chronologies’ based on the dates for the ‘earliest sites’ in Africa. To date, there are no sites outside Africa of equal antiquity either in Europe or Asia, the contiguous landmasses of the Old World.

Africa is rich in palaeo-anthropological sites that have direct association with human fossils and stone tools, with the exception of Lomekwian site in Kenya, which has been dated to 3.3 million years ago. This has pushed the beginning of tool-making to that far back in time. This evidence of man-made stone tools without direct association with any known human ancestor was subject to rigorous peer review process by the journal Nature, and was published because of global significance of the findings for understanding human evolution and the rise of human behaviour. This has led to reshaping our theory of human behaviour in terms of its beginning at least 700 years earlier than the conventional thought that tool making/human behaviour began with the rise of Homo (Homo habilis) around 2.6 million years ago.

During the last five decades, African palaeo-anthropology has produced such game-changer evidence necessitating revision of our understanding of human evolution, even though Spain, Geogria, East and Southeast Asia have produced similar landmark discoveries, the antiquity of African sites has remained older than the rest asserting the monolithic nature of ‘Out of Africa’ model(s). Similarly, the genetic coalescence dates for modern human sites in Africa placed them around 2,00,000 years ago, but the site of Jebel Irhound in Morocco produced (Hublin et al. 2017) a date of 3,00,000 years for the site with fossil remains of Homo sapiens. Thus, pushing the antiquity further back by another 100,000 years.

Continuing research has contributed to reshaping the existing theories for a better understanding of human bio-cultural evolution. I emphasise that all the theories of human evolution have a scientific basis, such as Out of Africa or Multi-regional models, the strength of the theories is governed by the new evidence and the application of modern methods of investigation and the dating methods in particular.

During the last 6-7 years, persistent and single-minded investigations at Attirampakkam have contributed to placing Indian Palaeolithic archaeology at the forefront of human origins debate, contributing to Out of Asia speculations by some workers, but not by the authors themselves.

Be that as it may, in 2011, Attirampakkam produced 1.5 million years ago age to the Homo erectus/Acheulian (Lower Palaeolithic) context, and clearly suggested that Homo erectus left Africa early in the Lower Pleistocene or colonised the Indian subcontinent early in the Lower Pleistocene (2 miollion years ago). This paper was published in Science (Pappu et al. 2011)

Now the same site has produced 385-120 thousand year age for the Middle Palaeolithic, the succeeding phase generally attributed to the rise of the Middle Palaeolithic/Middle Stone Age associated with the rise of modern humans (Homo sapiens).

To date, the oldest Middle Stone Age/Homo sapiens sites in Africa are older (> 400, 000). In 2007, I produced the first oldest date for the Middle Palaeolithic in India (>78, 000 years ago), hinting at the possibility of finding older Middle Palaeolithic sites in India (Jwalapuram in Andhra Pradesh, see Petraglia et al. 2007, in Science).

The implications of Attirampakkam dates for the Middle Paleolithic are (a) the likelihood of Middle Palaeolithic or Middle Stone Age in Africa are older in Africa and the sites are yet not known (b) that modern humans left Africa much earlier than suggested by Out of Africa II, (c) there were multiple expansions of modern humans out of Africa soon after their emergence earlier than 4,00, 000 years ago. Based on this evidence it is too early to dismiss the Out of Africa II, but certainly helps revise the timeframe of out of Africa II and, in this regard, this a game-changer and has contributed much food for thought. This has been published in Nature after rigorous peer review, attesting to its scientific strength and relevance in understanding human exit out of Africa.

The big question is timing of expansion out of Africa, and not other aspects of human evolution, e.g. if human evolution occurred outside of Africa.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance that Stone Age cultures developed here

Malavika Chatterjee
Research scholar, department of ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology, Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute

For years, Indian archaeology has been subject to western ideas and influences especially with regards to human evolution and migration patterns. The recent dates from Attirampakkam (ATM) have revolutionised the way we see the Palaeolithic cultures and their origins. Until now we assumed that the Middle Palaeolithic culture (a stone tool culture developed by archaic or modern humans) in India developed around 140 ka (thousand years ago) and extended till 46 ka. It held up to the western ideas as well as validating their theories regarding human (modern human) dispersals out of Africa.

It is widely believed that around 300-200 ka, a shift in stone tool technology was observed from the Lower Palaeolithic to the Middle Palaeolithic culture in terms of hominin behaviour through technological transformations. The earliest evidence of Homo sapiens comes from a cave site at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco dating to 300 ka, 100 ka older than previously reported. However, paucity of such fossil finds, radiometric dates from excavated sites and geochronological constraints restrict Indian prehistoric research.

ATM provides us with dates over 380 ka, which discredits the theory that modern human dispersals from Africa began around 125 ka or later. Although, not much can be said about the origins of this culture being native but it certainly sheds light on the possible interaction between modern humans and archaic humans. This find also suggests that South Asia itself would have witnessed dispersals resulting in regional variation of the stone tool technology.

So, we have one of the oldest of the Lower Palaeolithic levels from Attirampakkam of 1.7 ma (million years ago) and the oldest Middle Palaeolithic dates as well. Maybe, just maybe there’s a chance that these Stone Age cultures developed here.

The second expansion outside Africa may have occurred in or close to the Indian subcontinent

B.N. Sarkar
Former superintending anthropologist, Anthropological Survey of India, Kolkata

The findings of the article titled ‘Early Middle Palaeolithic culture in India around 385-172 ka reforms Out of Africa models’ published in Nature, February 2018 is commendable. It probably is the only decent source of information, pertaining to long-range migration of the prehistoric people in India.

As much as I loved this article, there were some curious problems that I noticed concerning the paucity of excavated materials for addressing this issue. People migrate because of pulls from their destination and pushes in their homeland, often propelled along by some technological advantage. People have, of course, migrated out of India as well, but these out-migrations have been on a much smaller scale. This is obviously related to the fact that India had been the site of many, significant technological innovations which propelled major early migrations in this subcontinent.

This is in conformity with the current view that modern Homo sapiens populations underwent a first expansion within Africa and a second expansion outside Africa — an expansion that may have occurred in or close to the Indian subcontinent itself.

Such significant findings will certainly help us understand the origin and population movement in the Indian subcontinent during the prehistoric times. This may be confirmed with the findings of other disciplines, including the recent ancient genomic evidence.

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Why We Need to Study the Brain's Evolution in Order to Understand the Modern Mind

In the September 17th issue of The New Yorker, Anthony Gottlieb analyzes Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature, a new book by David Barash, a psychology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. Gottlieb's article is more than just a book review—it's also the latest in a long line of critiques of evolutionary psychology, the study of the brain, mind and behavior in the context of evolution.

Gottlieb makes several excellent points, describing the same major shortcomings of evolutionary psychology that critics and proponents alike have named many times before: frustratingly scant evidence of early humans' intellect, the immense difficulty of objectively testing hypotheses about how early humans behaved, the allure of convenient just-so stories to explain the origins of various mental quirks and talents. Some of his points are less relevant, such as psychologists' oft-lamented dependence on American and European college students as study subjects—this is a problem for all of psychology, not just evolutionary psychology.

One of Gottlieb's arguments stunned me—an argument so weak that it disintegrates when probed, like a flake of sandstone. "In theory, if you did manage to trace how the brain was shaped by natural selection, you might shed some light on how the mind works," Gottlieb writes. "But you don't have to know about the evolution of an organ in order to understand it."

Gottlieb gives the example of English physician William Harvey, who "figured out how [the heart] works two centuries before natural selection was discovered." As precise, detailed and beautiful as Harvey's descriptions of the heart and circulatory system were, they did not explain the origins of the heart as a functional organ. Why do different animals have different kinds of hearts? Why do some animals have blood but no heart? When, how and why did hearts arise in the first place? Simply knowing how the heart works is not sufficient to answer these important questions. Rather, one needs to understand how the heart evolved. Such understanding contributes to more than basic biology—it also advances medicine. Tracing how gene expression in heart cells has changed over evolutionary time, for example, has simultaneously improved our understanding of congenital heart defects.

Just as evolution shaped the human heart's structure and function, evolution sculpted the human brain—as well as the mind. This is an inescapable fact. The brain and mind are inextricable. In order to understand one, you must understand the other. Changing a brain's structure changes how that brain behaves and what kind of mind emerges from its interaction with the environment. We have clear evidence of this from people who have endured swift and dramatic changes to their brains through traumatic injury, stroke and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. Likewise, the more gradual structural changes to the human brain during the course of its evolution mirror an evolution of the human mind. Consciousness, self-awareness, complex emotions, language, creativity—if you want to truly understand these aspects of mind, you must understand when and why they first evolved. To do that, you must understand how the brain has changed over time.

The evolutionary story of the human brain begins where life itself began: the ocean. The brain's most basic building blocks have existed for billions of years: some of the simplest and oldest single-celled organisms use the same chemical messengers that our own brain and nervous system depend on. Sponges, one of the earliest groups of animals to have evolved, do not have nervous systems, but they do have some of the same genes and proteins that are essential for the construction of neural connections in our brain. The cells in a sponge's body also communicate with waves of calcium ions not unlike the cascades of charged particles that surge down neurons in more complex animals. Jellyfish and their gelatinous relatives may have been the first group of animals to evolve genuine neurons—long, thin, branching cells adapted for the task of transmitting messages from one part of animal's body to another. But these neurons were arranged in a diffuse net that enveloped the animals' bodies. There was no central processor, no intricate organization, no brain. The next major chapter in the brain's evolutionary history was a process known as cephalization, in which neurons cluster at one end of an animal, eventually becoming a brain linked to important sensory organs like eyes. Cephalization probably happened several times, and in different ways, in different groups of animals. Within the tiny, simple brains of worms and fish, particular brain regions began to specialize in different functions—one region largely devoted itself to vision, the precursor to our occipital lobe, while another focused on responding to threats, the progenitor of the amygdala. Even before life left the water, animals had evolved brains with much of the same basic neural architecture that we would eventually inherit.

Studying the brain and mind in ignorance of this vast evolutionary tale does not make sense. It would be equivalent to an archaeologist discovering the remains of an enormous tapestry, slicing out a particular figure from the cloth and claiming that he could learn everything he needs to know by examining that figure in isolation. Even if the archaeologist described the figure in exquisite detail, taking it apart thread by thread and sewing it back together, he would remain willfully oblivious of the whole story. In the same way, disregarding the human brain's history limits psychology and neuroscience to a paltry understanding of our brains and minds.

With regard to our brain's tumultuous past, evolutionary psychology is primarily concerned with what happened to the human brain during the Paleolithic, between about 2.6 million and ten thousand years ago. Gottlieb is right that evidence of Paleolithic psychology is scant, but it's not nonexistent. Learning about the brains and behaviors of early humans is a difficult challenge, but not an impossible one [PDF]. By measuring fossil skulls—and creating models of the brains they once held—anthropologists have established that brain size tripled over the course of human evolution. The trend kicks off around 2 million years ago and the swiftest growth occurred between 800,000 and 200,000 years ago during a period of rapid shifts in climate. The National Museum of Natural History has a graph plotting changes in braincase volumes of early humans against changes in the climate. Anthropologists think that early humans with the largest brains adapted most effectively to such a mercurial climate.

Around 100,000 years ago, the human brain largely stopped expanding (and some evidence suggests it has actually shrunk a little since then). What scientists have not yet satisfactorily answered is exactly why the human brain began to swell in the first place and what benefits larger brains offered our ancestors. The most intuitive and tempting explanation is that the expansion of our brains during the Paleolithic paralleled the emergence of more sophisticated intelligence, as partially evidenced by the existing archaeological record of increasingly complex tools and cookware. Learning to cook with fire dramatically improved our ancestors' diet—it's much easier to digest and extract calories from soft, cooked foods than from raw, tough foods. In turn, a more nutritious diet likely fueled brain growth. As early human populations increased and spread across the globe, an increasingly diverse social environment would also have demanded a larger and more comlex brain.

One potentially distinct species of hominin called Homo floresiensis, also known as the Hobbit, bucked the trend of bigger brains. Although H. floresiensis went extinct relatively recently, only around 12,000 years ago, it stood just over three feet tall and boasted a brain only half the size of its predecessor, Homo erectus, and one third the size of our modern brains. Yet the remains of H. floresiensis have been discovered alongside evidence of butchery with stone tools and cooking with fire. How, then, do we reconcile the Hobbit's small brain with evidence of such high intelligence? Is it structure, not size, that matters most? This is exactly the kind of evolutionary puzzle we need to solve to thoroughly understand the human brain and mind. The more we learn about the brains of early humans—and what those brains were capable of—the better we understand our modern minds.

Toward the end of his review, Gottlieb writes: "To confirm any story about how the mind has been shaped, you need (among other things) to determine how people today actually think and behave, and to test rival accounts of how these traits function. Once you have done that, you will, in effect, have finished the job of explaining how the mind works. What life was really like in the Stone Age no longer matters. It doesn’t make any practical difference exactly how our traits became established. All that matters is that they are there."

Once again, Gottlieb proposes that understanding "how the mind works" is more important than understanding "how the mind has been shaped"—that once you have achieved the former, you need not bother with the latter. One could take a supremely utilitarian approach to the study of the brain and mind, confining oneself to research with explicit practical applications. All Why questions are off the table! We only care about how the mind works. Just explain what happens and move on. No need to think about what any of it means. To be perfectly honest, that sounds unbearably boring to me. More fundamentally, understanding how the mind works and why it works that way are indivisible goals. The human brain's evolutionary past is not just some cute story we can leave on the shelf if we so please. Every cell in our brains—every moment of our mental lives—is intimately connected to the entire history of life on this planet.


Ferris Jabr is a contributing writer for Scientific American. He has also written for the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker and Outside.

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More photographs of sites and Palaeolithic Venus figures are always welcome!
If you would like a particular archaeological site to be covered here, if you have questions or comments,
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Note, however, that the Ägyptischen Museum München and the Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel permit photography of its exhibits for private, educational, scientific, non-commercial purposes. If you intend to use any photos from these sources for any commercial use, please contact the relevant museum and ask for permission.

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Some people have expressed interest in knowing a little bit about me. For those people, here is a potted biography:

I live in Australia, and I am a semi-retired high school mathematics/science teacher.

The Donsmaps site is totally independent of any other influence. I work on it for my own pleasure, and finance it myself. I started before there was an internet, when I thought I could do a better job of the small map on the end papers of Jean Auel's wonderful book, Valley of the Horses, by adding detail and contour lines, and making a larger version. I have always loved maps since I was a young boy.

I had just bought a black and white 'fat Mac' with a whopping 512 kB of memory (!), and no hard disk. With a program called 'Super Paint' and a lot of double work (hand tracing first the maps of Europe from atlases, then scanning the images on the tracing paper, then merging the scanned images together, then tracing these digital scans on the computer screen), I made my own black and white map.

Then the internet came along, the terms of my internet access gave me space for a small website, and Don's Maps started. I got much better computers and software over the years, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator for example, and my maps became colourised and had more detail. I did a lot of maps of the travels of Ayla from Jean Auel's books, and I gradually included other pages with more and more photos available from the web, and scanned from books or from scientific papers, since I was not happy with the quality generally available. I became very interested in the Venus figurines, and set out to make a complete record of the ice age ones. Along the way I got interested in archaeology for its own sake.

In 2008 my wife and I went to Europe, and when we arrived in Frankfurt at sunrise after the 24 hour plane trip from Sydney, while my wife left on her own tour with her sister, they visited relatives in Germany and Austria, I went off by myself on the train to Paris. Later that afternoon I took a train to Brive-la-Gaillarde, found a hotel and caught up on lost sleep. The next morning I hired a car, and over the next four weeks visited and photographed many of the original archaeological sites in the south of France, as well as many archaeological museums. It was a wonderful experience. My wife and I met up again later in the Black Forest, and cycled down the Danube from its source to Budapest, camping most of the way, a wonderful trip, collecting many photos, including a visit to Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic, as well as visiting the Vienna natural history museum. Jean Auel fans will realise the significance of that trip!

Luckily I speak French, the trips to France would have been difficult or impossible otherwise. No one outside large cities speaks English (or they refuse to). I was travelling independently, not as part of a tour group. I never knew where I was going to be the next night, and I camped nearly everywhere, except for large cities. I am a very experienced bushwalker (hiker) and have the required equipment - ultra lightweight tent, sleeping bag, stove, raincoat, and so on, all of which I make myself for use here when I go bushwalking, though for Europe I use commercial two person lightweight tents, since weight is not so much of a problem when cycling or using a car.

In 2012 we went to Canada for a wedding and to visit old friends, and I took the opportunity to visit the wonderful Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, where I took many photographs of the items on exhibit, particularly of the superb display of artefacts of the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest.

In 2014 my wife and I did another European cycling tour, from Amsterdam to Copenhagen, then from Cologne up the Rhine to the Black Forest, camping most of the way in each case, and taking many useful photos in museums along the way, including the museums at Leiden, Netherlands, and Roskilde in Denmark, and the National Museum in Copenhagen. Again, I later hired a car and did more photography and visited many more sites in France.

In 2015 I made a lone visit to all the major museums in western Europe by public transport, mostly by train, and that went very well. I had learned a lot of German while travelling with my wife, who is a fluent speaker of the language, and of all the European countries, Germany is my favourite. I feel comfortable there. I love the people, the food, and the beer. Germans are gemütlich, I have many friends there now.

I repeated the visit to western Europe in 2018, to fill in some gaps of museums I had not visited the first time, because they were either closed for renovation the first time (such as the Musée de l'Homme in Paris) or because I ran out of time, or because I wanted to fill in some gaps from major museums such as the British Museum, the Berlin Museum, München, the Louvre, the Petrie and Natural History Museums in London, the Vienna Natural History Museum, the important museum in Brno, and museums in northern Germany. It takes at least two visits, preferably three, to thoroughly explore the items on display in a major museum.

I spend a lot of time on the site, typically at least a few hours a day, often more. I do a lot of translation of original papers not available in English, a time consuming but I believe a valuable task. People and fate have been very generous to me, and it is good to give back a very small part of what I have been given. With the help of online translation apps and use of online dictionaries there are few languages I cannot translate, though I find Czech a challenge!

I will never be able to put up all the photos I have taken, each photo needs a lot of research, typically, to put it in context on the site. I do not have enough time left, life is short and death is long, but I am going to give it a good shot!

Life has been kind to me, I want for nothing, and am in good health. Not many in the world are as lucky as I am, and I am grateful for my good fortune.

My best wishes to all who read and enjoy the pages of my site.

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face
And may rain on a tin roof lull you to sleep at night.


  1. Waleis

    It even smacks of insanity, but without this the post would have turned out to be mundane and boring, like hundreds of others.

  2. Magrel

    It goes beyond all boundaries.

  3. Mahn

    The double understood as something

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