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Homo Sapiens

Art & culture of modern humans
Anatomy, painting, language

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Living reconstruction of Homo sapiens sapiens in the Neanderthal Museum (Erkrath, Mettmann)
Living reconstruction of modern Homo sapiens, the only surviving species of humans. Image by Neanderthal-Museum, Mettmann. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Homo sapiens: Apex Human

Homo sapiens, our own species, is the only extant human on the planet. We are the apex human species: the most intellient of all the hominins, as well as the most innovative and by far the most artistic.

Early humans - like Homo erectus - produced the occasional creative flicker, but H. sapiens produced a torrent of hunter-gatherer art that dazzles even today.

Even Neanderthals and Denisovans, our most recent predecessors, were unable to compete, because sophisticated rock art was simply not within their capability.

Proof of H. sapiens' status as the apex human also comes from its array of new stone tools, its specialized implements made out of ivory, antler and bone, and its new hunting technologies.

[Note: The name Homo sapiens - meaning 'wise man' - was first coined by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) in his book Systema Naturae (1735).]

How Many Variants of Homo sapiens Exist?

Answer: Archaeology recognizes two basic types of H. sapiens: archaic and modern.

But even this classification is unable to properly delineate the differences between fossils which combine modern and archaic characteristics - as many do.

So, in practice, there is a third 'intermediate' variant, involving fossils that are neither wholly archaic nor wholly modern but are evolving on a spectrum from archaic to modern.

When Did Homo sapiens First Emerge?

Answer: We don't know, exactly. Current thinking is that archaic humans probably first appeared about 350,000 years ago, while fully modern humans appeared about 200,000 years ago.

Intermediate species emerged during the intervening period.

Where Did Homo sapiens First Appear?

Answer: In East Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia) and South Africa.

Although experts agree that our species originated in Africa, evidence is emerging that the modern variant developed throughout the continent of Africa, rather than just in the east and south.

What's more, it is even suggested that this development may also have occurred out of Africa, perhaps in the Middle East.

How are Homo sapiens Fossil Remains Dated?

By using a mixture of relative and absolute dating technologies. For details, see: Dating Methods in Archaeology.

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What Makes Homo sapiens Different From Other Species?

Answer: Because H. sapiens has a unique set of anatomical features that distinguishes them from their prehistoric relatives and other extant primates.

Body Size and Shape

Brain Size

Skull

Teeth and Jaw

Limbs and Pelvis

Skin, Hair, and Eyes

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Differences in Anatomy Between Archaic and Modern Homo sapiens

Cranial Structure

Archaic Homo sapiens had a more robust skull with a pronounced brow ridge, more akin to their predecessors like Homo heidelbergensis.

Their braincase was elongated and less rounded compared to the globular shape observed in modern humans.

By comparison, modern Homo sapiens possess a skull with a high forehead, reduced brow ridge, and a distinct chin, features absent in the archaic variant.

Brain Size

Archaic Homo sapiens had a brain size comparable to that of modern humans, ranging between 1200 to 1400 cubic centimeters, but the internal organization was different.

Modern human brains, especially the frontal lobe, have evolved to support complex cognitive tasks, symbolic thinking, and intricate language structures.

Facial Features

The faces of archaic Homo sapiens were more protruding, with larger noses and more robust jaw structures. Modern humans, in contrast, have a flatter face with a retracted jaw.

Postcranial Anatomy

Archaic forms had a more robust skeletal structure, with thicker bones and more pronounced muscle attachment areas.

Modern humans display a more gracile skeleton, indicative of changes in lifestyle, diet, and mobility.

When Did Archaic and Modern Humans First Appear?

With new archaeological and dating evidence appearing every year, we can only give a snapshot of past events, as follows:

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What are the Oldest Homo sapiens Fossils?

The oldest fossils of H. sapiens discovered so far, include:

In Africa:

Outside Africa:

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When Did Homo sapiens Leave Africa?

Answer: Due to a lack of fossils, it is impossible to fix either the date or the numbers of modern H. sapiens, involved in the early migrations out of Africa.

We know some modern H. sapiens left around 210,000 years ago, these early migrations are thought to have been limited in both range and numbers of migrants, although new dating technologies could overturn these assumptions.

After all, Homo erectus managed to leave Africa in numbers, a million years earlier.

The situation becomes clearer from about 120,000 years ago, when modern humans are known to have left Africa for the Middle East.

This was followed by a major wave of migration around 70,000 years ago, possibly connected with the Toba volcanic eruption in Sumatra about 74,000 years ago.

Where Did Homo sapiens Go To After Leaving Africa?

Answer: H. sapiens colonized every continent, and eventually displaced all other indigenous species of humans, who duly became extinct.

However archaeogenetics data informs us that they coexisted and possibly interbred with other hominin species, like the Neanderthals in Europe, and Denisovans in Asia and Oceania.

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How Did Homo sapiens Revolutionize Art?

Answer: By creating a wealth of innovative cave art, which dominated Stone Age culture and completely overshadowed the rudimentary art works of other species. See, for example:

H. sapiens were the only hominin to create figurative paintings of animals.

They painted mainly horses and bison, but also woolly mammoths, rhinos, lions, aurochs, ibex, red deer, reindeer, cave bears and the like.

They also painted a range of fish (halibut, pike, salmon), and even an insect (cricket).

Caves with exceptional animal art, include:

Chauvet Cave 36,000 BC
Extraordinary lions, rhinos and horses

Lascaux Cave 19,000 BC
Huge black bulls and much more

La Pileta Cave 18,000 BC
Famous black halibut

Altamira Cave 15,000 BC
See the famous multicoloured bison ceiling

Ekain Cave 14,000 BC
The finest horses panel in all prehistory

Niaux Cave 13,000 BC
Unforgettable black weasel, executed in ten brushstrokes

Homo sapiens also developed a form of abstract pictographs, consisting of about 32 abstract signs and symbols, including: tectiforms, spirals, triangles, circles, and more.

See for example 'the inscription' at La Pasiega Cave, which may represent the first attempt at written communication.

Homo sapiens also produced a series of tiny venus figurines - possibly fertility figures - carved from mammoth ivory, antler, or various types of soft stone. Examples have been found from the Côte d'Azur to central Siberia.

H. sapiens also produced a vast amount of outdoor art around the world. See, for instance, the aborginal rock art on the Burrup Peninsula (Murujuga) in NW Australia, and the rock engravings in the Coa Valley, Portugal.

Where Was Most Cave Art Created?

Answer: To date, the densest concentration of cave painting has been found in the zone of Franco-Cantabrian art, which served as a refuge from freezing temperatures during the last Ice Age.

Why Did Homo sapiens Create Art?

Answer: Paleolithic art was created by Homo sapiens not for decorative purposes or for public viewing, but for private viewing at ceremonies conducted in deep cave sanctuaries.

For more on this, see: What is the Meaning of Cave Art?

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Did Homo sapiens Revolutionize Tool-making?

Yes. In addition to their cultural advances in areas like painting and sculpture, H. sapiens revolutionized tool-making around the world.

The Stone Age witnessed long periods with little change in tool manufacture. But the tempo increased dramatically after modern Homo sapiens arrived in Europe around 55,000 BC.

Here is a brief summary.

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Was Homo sapiens the First Human to Use Language?

Answer: Perhaps. It was either H. sapiens or H. neanderthalensis.

The latest studies - embracing genetic, archaeological, and palaeontological data - indicate that language first evolved somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa between 150,000 and 50,000 years ago.

This is roughly coterminous with the evolution and development of modern Homo sapiens, although Neanderthals were similarly equipped for speech.

Recent studies into the development of language indicate there are three stages in the evolution of syntax.

Neanderthals are believed to have reached stage 2. This means their speech was more complex than proto-language but not quite as evolved as the language of modern H. sapiens.

This analysis is also supported by evidence of sudden surges in exchange networks, which are believed to mark progress in the evolution of language.

Other experts argue that the Neanderthal brain had not developed the cognitive ability needed for modern speech, even if the physical equipment for speech (and listening to speech) was sufficiently developed.

Findings of a 2022 study conducted by the Max-Planck-Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics shows that a Neanderthal brain gene (called TKTL1) is linked to slower creation of neurons in the brain.

When inserted into mice, scientists found that the Neanderthal gene led to the production of fewer neurons, especially in the frontal lobe of the brain, where most cognitive functions occur.

Clearly, this offers a clue as to why our brains might have outperformed those of Neanderthals.

Summary

In terms of cognitive ability, artistic skills, tool technology, and communication skills, Homo sapiens was in a different class to all earlier hominins.

Although we may lack an understanding of exactly how Homo sapiens developed from archaic to modern, it is clear our species stands at the apex of human evolution.

Next: Australopithecus the apex pre-human.

References

(1) Armitage SJ, Jasim SA, Marks AE, Parker AG, Usik VI, Uerpmann HP (January 2011). 'The southern route out of Africa: evidence for an early expansion of modern humans into Arabia'. Science. 331 (6016): 453–456.
(2) Lewin, R.; Foley, R. A. (2004). "Principles of Human Evolution". (2nd ed) UK: Blackwell Science. p. 311. ISBN 0-632-04704-6.
Marwick, Ben (2003). "Pleistocene Exchange Networks as Evidence for the Evolution of Language". Cambridge Archaeological Journal. 13: 67–81.
(3) Nitecki, Matthew H; Nitecki, Doris V (1994). "Origins of Anatomically Modern Humans." Springer. ISBN 1489915079.
(4) Pinson, Anneline; et al. (2022) 'Human TKTL1 implies greater neurogenesis in frontal neocortex of modern humans than Neanderthals.' Science 2022 Sep 9. 377 (6611).
(5) Reich, David (2018). "Who We Are And How We Got Here – Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past." Pantheon Books. ISBN 978-1101870327.
(6) Stringer, C (2012). "What makes a modern human". Nature. 485 (7396): 33–35.

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