Homo Sapiens

The appearance of Homo sapiens is momentous: here, at last, is recognizable humanity, however raw in form. Yet this evolutionary step is another abstraction. It is the end of the prologue and the beginning of the main drama, but we cannot usefully ask precisely when this happens. It is a process, not a point in time, and it is not a process occurring everywhere at the same rate. All we have to date it are a few physical relics of early humans of types recognizably modern or closely related to the modern. Some of them may well overlap by thousands of years the continuing life of earlier hominids. Some may represent false starts and dead ends, for human evolution must have continued to be highly selective. Though much faster than in earlier times, this evolution is still very slow: we are dealing with something that took place over perhaps two hundred thousand years in which we do not know when our first true ‘ancestor’ appeared (though the place was almost certainly Africa). It is not ever easy to pose the right questions; the physiological and technical and mental lines at which we leave Homo erectus behind are matters of definition, and during tens of millennia that species and early specimens of Homo sapiens both lived on the earth.

The few early human fossils have provoked much argument. Two famous European skulls seem to belong to the period between two Ice Ages about two hundred thousand years ago, an age climatically so different from ours that elephants browsed in a semi-tropical Thames valley and the ancestors of lions prowled about in what would one day be Yorkshire. The ‘Swanscombe’ skull, named after the place where it was found, shows its possessor to have had a big brain (about 1300 cc) but in other ways not much to resemble modern man: if ‘Swanscombe man’ was Homo sapiens, then he represents a very early version. The other skull, that of ‘Steinheim man’, differs in shape from that of Homo sapiens but again held a big brain. Perhaps they are best regarded as the forerunners of early prototypes of Homo sapiens, though creatures still living (as their tools show) much like Homo erectus.

The next Ice Age then brings down the curtain. When it lifts, a hundred and thirty thousand or so years ago, in the next warm period, human remains again appear. There has been much argument about what they show but it is indisputable that there has been a great step forward. At this point we are entering a period where there is a fairly dense though broken record. Creatures we can now call humans lived in Europe just over a hundred thousand years ago. There are caves in the Dordogne area which were occupied on and off for some fifty thousand years after that. The cultures of these peoples therefore survived a period of huge climatic change; the first traces of them belong to a warm interglacial period and the last run out in the middle of the last Ice Age. This is an impressive continuity to set against what must have been great variation in the animal population and vegetation near these sites; to survive so long, such cultures must have been very resourceful and adaptive.

For all their essential similarity to ourselves, though, the peoples who created these cultures are still physiologically distinguishable from modern human beings. The first discovery of their remains was at Neanderthal in Germany (because of this, humans of this type are usually called Neanderthals) and it was of a skull so curiously shaped that it was for a long time thought to be that of a modern idiot. Scientific analysis still leaves much about it unexplained. But it is now suggested that Homo sapiens neandertbalis (as the Neanderthal is scientifically classified) has its ultimate origin in an early expansion out of Africa of advanced forms of Homo erectus, possibly a million years ago. Across many intervening genetic stages, there emerged a population of pre-Neanderthals, from which, in turn, the extreme form evolved whose striking remains were found in Europe (and, so far, nowhere else). This special development has been interpreted by some as a Neanderthal sub-species, perhaps cut off by some accident of glaciation. Evidence of other Neanderthalers has turned up elsewhere, in Morocco, in the northern Sahara, at Mount Carmel in Palestine and elsewhere in the Near East and Iran. They have also been traced in Central Asia and China, where the earliest specimens may go back something like two hundred millennia. Evidently, this was for a long time a highly successful species.

Eighty thousand years ago, the artifacts of Neanderthal man had spread all over Eurasia and they show differences of technique and form. But technology from over a hundred thousand years ago, and associated with other forms of ‘anatomically modern humans’, as scholars term other creatures evolved from advanced forms of Homo erectus, has been identified in parts of Africa. Moreover, it was more widely spread than that of Neanderthal man. The primeval cultural unity had thus already fragmented, and distinct cultural traditions were beginning to emerge. From the start, there is a kind of provincialism within a young humanity.

Neanderthal man, like the different species which specialists refer to as anatomically modern, walked erect and had a big brain. Though in other ways more primitive than the sub-species to which we belong, Homo sapiens sapiens (as the guess about the first skull suggests), he represents none the less a great evolutionary stride and shows a new mental sophistication we can still hardly grasp, let alone measure. One striking example is the use of technology to overcome environment: we know from the evidence of skin-scrapers they used to dress skins and pelts that Neanderthals wore clothes (though none have survived; the oldest clothed body yet discovered, in Russia, has been dated to about thirty-five thousand years ago). Even this important advance in the manipulation of environment, though, is nothing like so startling as the appearance in Neanderthal culture of formal burial. The act of burial itself is momentous for archaeology; graves are of enormous importance because of the artifacts of ancient society they preserve. Yet the Neanderthal graves provide more than this: they may also contain the first evidence of ritual or ceremony.

It is very difficult to control speculation, and some has outrun the evidence. Perhaps some early totemism explains the ring of horns within which a Neanderthal child was buried near Samarkand. Some have suggested, too, that careful burial may reflect a new concern for the individual which was one result of the greater interdependence of the group in the renewed Ice Ages. This could have intensified the sense of loss when a member died and might also point to something more. A skeleton of a Neanderthal man who had lost his right arm years before his death has been found. He must have been very dependent on others, and was sustained by his group in spite of his handicap.

It is tempting but more hazardous to suggest that ritualized burial implies some view of an after-life. If true, though, this would testify to a huge power of abstraction in the hominids and the origins of one of the greatest and most enduring myths, that life is an illusion, that reality lies invisible elsewhere, that things are not what they seem. Without going so far, it is at least possible to agree that a momentous change is under way. Like the hints of rituals involving animals which Neanderthal caves also offer here and there, careful burial may mark a new attempt to dominate the environment. The human brain must already have been capable of discerning questions it wanted to answer and perhaps of providing answers in the shape of rituals. Slightly, tentatively, clumsily - however we describe it and still in the shallows though it may be - the human mind is afloat; the greatest of all voyages of exploration has begun.

Neanderthal man also provides our first evidence of another great institution, warfare. It may have been practised in connection with cannibalism, which was directed apparently to the eating of the brains of victims. Analogy with later societies suggests that here again we have the start of some conceptualizing about a soul or spirit; such acts are sometimes directed to acquiring the magical or spiritual power of the vanquished.

Whatever the magnitude of the evolutionary step which the Neanderthals represent, however, they failed in the end as a species. After long and widespread success they were not in the end to be the inheritors of the earth. Effectively, Neanderthal survivors were to be genetically ‘vanquished’ by another strain of Homo sapiens, and about the reasons for this we know nothing. Nor can we know to what extent, if at all, it was mitigated by some genetic transmission through the mingling of stocks.

The successor both to Neanderthal man and the archaic human forms among whom he first appeared was Homo sapiens sapiens, the species to which we all belong. Biologically, it has been outstandingly successful, spreading all over Eurasia within a hundred thousand or so years of its first appearances in Africa (they are dated to about 135,000 bc) and eventually all over the world. Its members are from the start anatomically identifiable modern humans, with smaller faces, a lighter skull and straighter limbs than the Neanderthals. From Africa they entered the Levant and the Middle East, duly progressing to central and further Asia, and eventually reaching Australasia in about 40,000 BC. By then, they were beginning to colonize Europe, where they were to live for thousands of years beside the Neanderthals. In about 15,000 BC they crossed a land bridge across what was to be the Bering Strait to enter the Americas.

Much remains speculative in assessing the reasons for the timing and pattern of the diffusion of Homo sapiens sapiens and palaeoanthropologists remain cautious about the fossil record; some of them do not like to assert without qualification that remains more than thirty thousand years or so old are indeed those of our species. Nevertheless, most agree that from about fifty thousand years ago to the end of the last Ice Age in about 9000 BC we are at last considering plentiful evidence of men of modern type. This period is normally referred to as the ‘Upper’ Palaeolithic, a name derived from the Greek for ‘old stones’. It corresponds, roughly, to the more familiar term ‘Stone Age’, but, like other contributions to the chaotic terminology of prehistory, there are difficulties in using such words without careful qualification.

To separate ‘Upper’ and ‘Lower’ Palaeolithic is easy; the division represents the physical fact that the topmost layers of geological strata are the most recent and that therefore fossils and artifacts found among them are later than those found at lower levels. The Lower Palaeolithic is therefore the designation of an age more ancient than the Upper. Almost all the artifacts which survive from the Palaeolithic are made from stone; none is made from metal, whose appearance made it possible to follow a terminology used by the Roman poet Lucretius by labelling what comes after the Stone Age as the Bronze and Iron Ages.

These are, of course, cultural and technological labels; their great merit is that they direct attention to the activities of man. At one time tools and weapons are made of stone, then of bronze, then of iron. None the less, these terms have disadvantages, too. The obvious one is that within the huge tracts of time in which stone artifacts provide the largest significant body of evidence, we are dealing for the most part with hominids. They had, in varying degree, some, but not all, human characteristics; many stone tools were not made by men. Increasingly, too, the fact that this terminology originated in European archaeology created difficulties as more and more evidence accumulated about the rest of the world which did not really fit in. A final disadvantage is that it blurs important distinctions within periods even in Europe. The result has been its further refinement. Within the Stone Age scholars have distinguished (in sequence) the Lower, Middle and Upper Palaeolithic and then the Mesolithic and the Neolithic (the last of which blurs the division attributed by the older schemes to the coming of metallurgy). The period down to the end of the last Ice Age in Europe is also sometimes called the Old Stone Age, another complication, because here we have yet another principle of classification, simply that provided by chronology. Homo sapiens sapiens appears in Europe roughly at the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic. It is in Europe, too, that the largest quantity of skeletal remains has been found, and it was on this evidence that the distinction of the species was long based.

For this period in Europe much has been done to classify and group in sequence cultures identified by their implements. The climate was not constant; though usually cold, there were important fluctuations, probably including the sharp onset of the coldest conditions for a million years somewhere about twenty thousand years ago. Such climatic variations still exercised great determinative force on the evolution of society. It was perhaps thirty thousand years ago that the climate changes began which later made it possible for human beings either to enter the Americas, crossing from Asia by a link provided by ice or by land left exposed because the ice-caps contained so much of what is now sea-water and the sea-level was much lower. They moved southwards for thousands of years as they followed the game which had drawn them to the last uninhabited continent. The Americas were from the start peopled by immigrants. But when the ice sheets retreated, huge transformations occurred to coasts, routes and food supplies. This was all as it had been for ages, but this time there was a crucial difference. Man was there. A new order of intelligence was available to use new and growing resources in order to cope with environmental change. The change to history, when conscious human action to control environment will increasingly be effective, is under way.

This may seem a big claim in the light of the resources early men possessed, judging by their tool kits and weaponry. Yet they already represent a huge range of capacities if we compare them with their predecessors. The basic tools of Homo sapiens were stone, but they were made to serve many more precise purposes than earlier tools and were made in a different way, by striking flakes from a carefully prepared core. Their variety and elaboration are another sign of the growing acceleration of human evolution. New materials came into use in the Upper Palaeolithic, too, as bone and antler were added to the wood and flint of earlier workshops and armouries. These provided new possibilities of manufacture; the bone needle was a great step in the elaboration of clothing, pressure flaking enabled some skilled workmen to carry the refinement of their flint blades to a point at which it seems non-utilitarian, so delicately thinned have they become. The first man-made material, a mixture of clay with powdered bone, also makes its appearance. Weapons are improved. The tendency, which can be seen towards the end of the Upper Palaeolithic, for small flint implements to appear more frequently and for them to be more regularly geometrical suggests the making of more complex weapon points. In the same era come the invention and spread of the spear-thrower, the bow and arrow, and the barbed harpoon, used first on mammals and later to catch fish. The last shows an extension of hunting - and therefore of resources - to water. Long before this, perhaps six hundred thousand years ago, hominids had gathered molluscs for food in China and doubtless elsewhere. With harpoons and perhaps more perishable implements such as nets and lines, new and richer aquatic sources of food (some created by the temperature changes of the last Ice Ages) could now be exploited, and this led to achievements in hunting, possibly connected with the growth of forests in post-glacial phases and with a new dependence on and knowledge of the movements of reindeer and wild cattle.

It is tempting to see support of this in the most remarkable and mysterious evidence of all which has survived the men of the Upper Palaeolithic: their art. It is the first of its kind of whose existence we can be sure. Earlier men or even manlike creatures may have scratched patterns in the mud, daubed their bodies, moved rhythmically in the dance or spread flowers in patterns, but of such things we know nothing, because of them, if they ever happened, nothing has survived. Some creature took the trouble to accumulate little hoards of red ochre some forty or sixty thousand years ago, but the purpose of doing so is unknown. It has been suggested that two indentations on a Neanderthal gravestone are the earliest surviving art, but the first plentiful and assured evidence comes in paintings on the walls of European caves. The first were made over thirty thousand years ago and their number swells dramatically until we find ourselves in the presence of a conscious art whose greatest technical and aesthetic achievements appear, without warning or forerunner, almost mature. They continue so for thousands of years until this art vanishes. Just as it has no ancestor, it leaves no descendant, though it seems to have employed many of the basic processes of the visual arts still in use today.

Its concentration in space and time must be grounds for suspicion that there is more to be discovered. Caves in Africa abound with prehistoric paintings and carvings dated as far back as twenty-seven thousand years ago and were being added to well into the reign of England’s Queen Victoria; in Australia there was cave-painting at least twenty thousand years ago. Palaeolithic art is not, therefore, confined to Europe, but what has been discovered outside Europe has, so far, been studied much more intermittently. We do not yet know enough about the dating of cave paintings in other parts of the world, nor about the uniqueness of the conditions which led to the preservation in Europe of objects which may have had parallels elsewhere. Nor do we know what may have disappeared; there is a vast field of possibilities of what may have been produced in gesture, sound or perishable materials which cannot be explored. None the less, the art of western Europe in the Upper Palaeolithic, all qualifications made, has a colossal and solid impressiveness which is unique.

Most of it has been found in a relatively small area of south-western France and northern Spain and consists of three main bodies of material: small figures of stone, bone or, occasionally, clay (usually female), decorated objects (often tools and weapons) and the painted walls and roofs of caves. In these caves (and in the decoration of objects) there is an overwhelming preponderance of animal themes. The meaning of these designs, above all in the elaborate sequences of the cave-paintings, has intrigued scholars. Obviously, many of the beasts so carefully observed were central to a hunting economy. At least in the French caves, too, it now seems highly probable that a conscious order exists in the sequences in which they are shown. But to go further in the argument is still very hard. Clearly, art in Upper Palaeolithic times has to carry much of a burden later carried by writing, but what its messages mean is still obscure. It seems likely that the paintings were connected with religious or magical practice: African rock painting has been convincingly shown to be linked to magic and shamanism and the selection of such remote and difficult corners of caves as those in which the European paintings have been traced is by itself strongly suggestive that some special rite was carried out when they were painted or gazed upon. (Artificial light, of course, was needed in these dark corners.) The origins of religion have been hinted at in Neanderthal burials and appear even more strongly in those of the Upper Palaeolithic peoples which are often elaborate; here, in their art, is something where inferences are even harder to resist. Perhaps it provides the first surviving relics of organized religion.

The birth, maturity and death of the earliest artistic achievement of mankind in Europe occupies a very long period. Somewhere about thirty-five thousand years ago appear decorated and coloured objects, often of bone and ivory. Then, three or four millennia later, we reach the first figurative art. Soon after that we reach the peak of the prehistoric aesthetic achievement, the great painted and incised cave ‘sanctuaries’ (as they have been called), with their processions of animals and mysterious repeated symbolic shapes. This high phase lasted about five thousand years, a startlingly long time for the maintenance of so consistent a style and content. So long a period - almost as long as the whole history of civilization on this planet - illustrates the slowness with which tradition changed in ancient times and its imperviousness to outside influence. Perhaps it is an index, too, of the geographical isolation of prehistoric cultures. The last phase of this art, which has been discerned, takes the story down to about 9000 BC; in it, the stag more and more replaces other animals as subject-matter (no doubt thus reflecting the disappearance of the reindeer and the mammoth as the ice retreated) before a final burst of richly decorated tools and weapons brings Europe’s first great artistic achievement to an end. The age which followed produced nothing approaching it in scale or quality; its best surviving relics are a few decorated pebbles. Six thousand years were to pass before the next great art.

We know little about the collapse of this great human achievement. The light is never more than dim in the Upper Palaeolithic and the darkness closes in rapidly - which is to say, of course, over thousands of years. Nevertheless, the impression left by the violence of the contrast between what was before and what came after produces a sense of shock. So relatively sudden an extinction is a mystery. We have no precise dates or even precise sequences: nothing ended in one year or another. There was only a gradual closing down of artistic activity over a long time which seems in the end to have been absolute. Some scholars have blamed climate. Perhaps, they argue, the whole phenomenon of cave art was linked to efforts to influence the movements or abundance of the great game herds on which the hunting peoples relied. As the last Ice Age ebbed and each year the reindeer retreated a little, men sought new and magical techniques to manipulate them, but gradually as the ice sheets withdrew more and more, an environment to which they had successfully adapted disappeared. As it did, so did the hope of influencing nature. Homo sapiens was not powerless; far from it, he could adapt, and did, to a new challenge. But for a time one cultural impoverishment at least, the abandonment of his first art, was a consequence of adaptation.

It is easy to see much that is fanciful in such speculation, but difficult to restrain excitement over such an astonishing achievement. People have spoken of the great cave sequences as ‘cathedrals’ of the Palaeolithic world and such metaphors are justified if the level of achievement and the scale of the work undertaken is measured against what evidence we have of the earlier triumphs of man. With the first great art, the hominids are now left far behind and we have unequivocal evidence of the power of the human mind.

Much else that is known of the Upper Palaeolithic confirms the sense that the crucial genetic changes are behind and that evolution is now a mental and social phenomenon. The distribution of major racial divisions in the world which last down to early modern times appears already broadly fixed by the end of the Upper Palaeolithic. Geographical and climatic divisions had produced specializations in skin pigment, hair characteristics, the shape of the skull and the bone structure of the face. In the earliest Chinese relics of Homo sapiens the Mongoloid characteristics are discernible. All the main racial groups are established by 10,000 BC, broadly speaking in the areas they dominated until the great resettlement of the Caucasian stocks, which was one aspect of the rise of European civilization to world domination after ad 1500. The world was filling up during the Old Stone Age. Men at last penetrated the virgin continents. Mongoloid peoples spread over the Americas and had arrived in Patagonia by 6000 BC. Twenty thousand or so years earlier, humans had spread widely through Australia, after reaching that continent by a combination of island-hopping sea voyages and land bridges which later disappeared. Homo sapiens was already a venturesome fellow at the end of the last Ice Age, it seems, only Antarctica among the continents still awaiting his arrival and establishment (as it would wait until the year 1895 of our own era).

Yet the Upper Palaeolithic world was still a very empty place. Calculations suggest that twenty thousand humans lived in France in Neanderthal times; this becomes possibly fifty thousand out of perhaps ten million humans in the whole world twenty millennia ago. ‘A human desert swarm ing with game’ is one scholar’s description of it. They lived by hunting and gathering, and a lot of land was needed to support a family.

However questionable such figures may be, if they are agreed to be of this order of magnitude it is not hard to see that they still mean very slow cultural change. Greatly accelerated though Man’s progress in the Old Stone Age may be and much more versatile though he is becoming, he is still taking thousands of years to transmit his learning across the barriers of geography and social division. A man might, after all, live all his life without meeting anyone from another group or tribe, let alone another culture. The divisions which already existed between different groups of Homo sapiens open a historical era whose whole tendency was towards the cultural distinction, if not isolation, of one group from another, and this was to increase human diversity until reversed by technical and political forces in very recent times.

About the groups in which Upper Palaeolithic man lived there is still much unknown. What is clear is that they were both larger in size than in former times and also more settled. The earliest remains of buildings come from the hunters of the Upper Palaeolithic who inhabited what are now the Czech and Slovak republics and southern Russia. In about 10,000 BC in parts of France some clusters of shelters seem to have contained anything from four to six hundred people, but judging by the archaeological record, this was unusual. Something like the tribe probably existed, therefore, though about its organization and hierarchies it is virtually impossible to speak. All that is clear is that there was a continuing sexual specialization in the Old Stone Age as hunting grew more elaborate and its skills more demanding, while settlements provided new possibilities of vegetable gathering by women.

Cloudy though its picture is, none the less, the earth at the end of the Old Stone Age is in important respects one we can recognize. There were still to be geological changes (the English Channel was only to make its latest appearance in about 7000 BC, for example) but we have lived in a period of comparative topographical stability which has preserved the major shapes of the world of about 9000 BC. That world was by then firmly the world of Homo sapiens. The descendants of the primates who came out of the trees had, by the acquisition of their tool-making skills, by using natural materials to make shelters and by domesticating fire, by hunting and exploiting other animals, long achieved an important measure of independence from some of nature’s rhythms. This had brought them to a high enough level of social organization to undertake important cooperative works. Their needs had provoked economic differentiation between the sexes. Grappling with these and other material problems had led to the transmission of ideas by speech, to the invention of ritual practices and ideas which lie at the roots of religion, and, eventually, to a great art. It has even been argued that Upper Palaeolithic man had a lunar calendar. Man as he leaves prehistory is already a conceptualizing creature, equipped with intellect, with the power to objectify and abstract. It is very difficult not to believe that it is this new strength which explains the last and greatest stride in prehistory, the invention of agriculture.

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