When it comes to the evolution of human beings, there is a lot of ground to cover. Fully modern human beings belong to the subspecies Homo Sapiens Sapiens, and evolved from the Australopithecine, (also known as archaic Homo sapiens) a subspecies from Africa that no longer exists today. However, there are still some Scientists that believe that today’s fully modern humans are also related to the subspecies Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, although there is now genetic evidence which points to the fact that the DNA of modern humans and that of Neanderthals deviated nearly 500,000 years ago, thereby making the subspecies Homo sapiens a much more direct ancestor. Modern humans, also known as Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH), evolved from the earlier Homo Sapiens nearly 200,000 years ago. Much of the differences between the different sub-species of Homo Sapiens can be seen by analyzing fossil evidence.
For example, today’s modern humans can be easily distinguished from archaic Homo sapiens based on a wide number of different anatomical/skeletal features. The skeletons of early archaic Homo sapiens included very prominent and protruding layers of bone in the brow area above the eyes, as well as skeletal features that indicated that they lived extremely physically demanding, grueling lifestyles. In contrast, today’s modern humans have all but lost the very prominent brow ridge, and modern humans also have much more noticeable chins and vertical foreheads, which contrasts with the sloped forehead and almost non-existent chins of archaic Homo Sapiens. Scientists believe that the vertical forehead of modern humans allows for larger brains, as well as providing humans with an important form of communication through brow and forehead movements (Bradshaw Foundation, 2013). In other words, the differences between modern humans differ and our ancestors extend beyond our physical appearances.
When it comes to the human Y-Chromosome, recent analysis has suggested that modern humans are much younger than scientists once believed (approximately 200,000 years old), and that contrary to the societal constructs of today (i.e. race, nationality, sex, religion, etc.), all humans are biologically related and descendants of the same early humans. Studies based off of samples taken from human beings all across the world show that the differences between humans as being so minor that they are biologically insignificant. Robert Dorit, an Assistant Professor of Biology at Yale University worked with other researchers from Harvard and the University of Chicago studying the Y chromosome and its significance. Dorit and his colleagues findings caused him to conclude that “If we all descended from a recent common ancestor, and if the history of human population is a history of movement and gene flow, then the differences between us, as socially striking as we may wish to make them, are largely irrelevant from a biologist’s standpoint” (Klein & Takahata, 2002). Furthermore, another very interesting fact that has come out of Y-chromosome analysis, is that contrary to earlier theories regarding human evolution, and due to the fact that there is such a lack of genetic variation among the humans studied, Dorit states that it is “...impossible for us to reconstruct the geographic location of our last common ancestor” (Klein & Takahata, 2002, p. 283). This is an interesting fact, given that so many commonly refer to Africa as the being the birthplace of civilization.
When it comes to the physical features that are used to distinguish fully modern Homo sapiens from other Homo Sapiens, there are of course quite a few to speak of. As mentioned previously, the skulls of modern humans differ quite greatly from other members of the Homo genus, with fully modern Homo sapiens having more pronounced chins with smaller and flatter foreheads. Another obvious key difference in anatomy is that modern humans are able to walk straight and upright, while our early ancestors were more hunched over in their physical stance. In addition to these differences, early humans are noted to be light in weight and rather short compared to modern humans. Early humans were actually very tiny, weighing an average of only 70 pounds with an average height between 3 ft. 4 in. to 4 ft. 5 in. However, the most striking and obvious differences between early Homo Sapiens and Modern Homo Sapiens is still that of the head. Modern-day humans have obviously developed much larger brains and the faces of today’s human (as well as the teeth and jaw structure) are also much smaller than that of our early ancestors. In terms of the differences in brain size, “Early transitional humans had brains that on average were about 35% larger than those of Australopithecus africanus. In fact, it is beginning with Homo habilis (1.4-1.9 million years ago) that our ancestors finally had brains that were consistently bigger than that of the great apes” (O’Neil, 1999-2012). In addition, early humans are known to have had smaller teeth that indicate that they lived off of a diet comprised of much softer foods than those of earlier human ancestors.
When it comes to analyzing the unique behavioral traits of modern humans and those of early Homo Sapiens, there are many to speak of. One of the most interesting things about human evolution has been the ability of humans to utilize our larger brains and use it for the purposes of innovation. Humans, unlike our early ancestors the Australopithecines, evolved to become far more proficient when it came to creating tools and technologies to aid in the long-term survival of the species. Some key behavioral traits that modern humans have come to embrace and heavily rely upon are language and the use of abstract thought and creativity. While there is still considerable debate as to when and where language was first invented and developed, there is evidence that points to our archaic human ancestors (who were known to live in tribes or groups of 120 individuals or more) utilizing language in order to maintain some sort of organization among the respective group. When looking at the idea of language and its inception, many point to the fact that it derived out of necessity, due to the fact that humans were beginning to cluster in ever larger groups. In fact, “The earliest members of our species appear around 500,000 years ago, and the equations would predict group sizes of 115 to 120 for them, with grooming times of around 30 to 33 percent. The conclusion seems inescapable: the appearance of our own species, Homo sapiens, was marked by the appearance of language” (Dunbar, 1998, p.112). In other words, once humans began to be able to communicate more effectively, our abilities to work together also increased as well.
In other words, language was born out of necessity and thanks to the evolution of larger brains, humans were able to think more deeply and communicate more effectively than ever before. Other examples of early human skills and inventions include the vast amount of cave paintings, pottery, tools (some showcasing their ability to create and use symbolism with engraved “art” on them), and architecture have been discovered all over the world. In addition, one of the most important human advances of all time has been the hugely important invention of agriculture, which has clearly played an enormous role in sustaining human life since it first began. The Neolithic period is known to most as the last part of what is commonly referred to as “The Stone Age”, taking place from approximately 10,200 BC and 2,000 BC. (Jurmain, et al., 2011, p. 427). This period is widely thought to have begun in what is now the West Bank in Israel, and is cited as being the era in which tools and technology became much more widespread.
The advancements in technology allowed the Neolithic to do a great deal of farming, of which they are known to have grown wheat and other grains, as well as also keeping goats, sheep, pigs, cows, and even dogs. It was also during the Neolithic era that pottery became much more practiced and prevalent in certain parts of the world (Bellwood, 2005, pgs. 49-55). The Neolithic era is also credited with being the period in which humans began creating permanent or semi-permanent settlements, leading to the creation of what we now regard as civilization. The world’s first town appeared in 9000 BC in an area known as the Levant, but that is now referred to as Jericho, which is actually located in modern-day Israel. It is quite interesting to imagine what the first settlement must have been like: chock-full of people, animals, and new ideas flourishing all around.
Given what we now know, it is clear that the advent of agriculture allowed humans to live and work together in greater numbers, and to abandon their once nomadic lifestyles. The interconnectedness of their lives thereby created civilization and society based on their respective commonalities. Soon the early human civilizations were coming together to trade goods and eventually came to rely on one another. The first examples of civilizations appeared in the Levant, which was located in what is now the West Bank in Israel. In addition to the rise of civilization in the Levant, the first settlements that were able to provide homes to thousands of people appeared around the 31st century BC in a place called Memphis. The settlement of Memphis was located where now modern-day Egypt exists, as well as the ancient city of Uruk, which is located near what would later be known as Babylon, and inside the borders of the country which we now know today as Iraq. This fact is made all the more interesting based on the high-profile of Iraq in our own media in recent years.
In closing, an anthropologist would likely define civilization as any place where a mass of people live and work together toward a collective good. Technology allowed for a much broader and more diverse future for humans, and afforded them the ability to settle down and make permanent homes for themselves. The future looked bright and these early communities began to flourish as new ideas began to be exchanged among their respective citizens.
Bellwood, P. (2005). First farmers: The origins of agricultural societies. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Bradshaw Foundation. (2013). Homo sapiens. Retrieved from http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/origins/homo_sapiens.php
Dunbar R. (1998). Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Jurmain R., Kilgore L., Trevathan W. & Ciochon R.L. (2011). Introduction to physical anthropology(2011-2012 ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.
Klein, J. & Takahata N. (2002). Where do we come from?: The molecular evidence for human descent. New York: Springer-Verlag New York, LLC.
O’Neil D. (1999-2012). Early transitional humans. Retrieved from http://anthro.palomar.edu/homo/homo_1.htm