A105 Lectures 22-23: April 14-16, 1997:

"Archaic Homo", Neanderthals, and the origins of modern humans

Evolution and spread ofHomo erectus:

Between 1.8 million years ago and 200,000 years ago, we find fossil evidence of robust, large-brained descendents of early Homo erectus in many different regions of the Old World. The overall trend is similar on all the major continents, although there are some interesting differences between regions. Entire period is characterized by Acheulian technology.


Early fossils of Homo erectus (also known as H. ergaster), such as the Nariokotome Boy, are followed by fossil specimens that have larger brow ridges, robust face, long skulls with low foreheads, and brain sizes that average around 1200 cc (so they fall within the modern human brain size range). Some researchers refer to these specimens as "archaic" Homo sapiens, because of their large brain size but robust shape. Others now include them in a species called Homo heidelbergensis. Examples of these later fossils include:


Homo erectus fossils have been found at several early sites in Java, with dates between 1.6 and 1.8 million years ago. The first "Java Man" fossils were identified as Homo erectus by Eugene DuBois at the end of the 19th century. Recent arguments have been made that some of the Homo erectus fossils from Java date to only 30,000 years ago (which would mean that H. erectus survived on these islands long after modern humans had colonized the area), but this claim is still very controversial. H. erectus fossils have also been found at several sites in China, such as the "Peking Man" specimens from Zhoukoudien Cave, dating to close to 500,000 years ago. These specimens of H. erectus have smaller brains sizes (averaging 1100 cc) and longer, skulls that are narrower behind the brow ridges than the "archaic" fossils from Africa and Europe.

A good example of a larger-brained "archaic" Homo (or H. heidelbergensis) is the skull from the site of Dali, China, which has a prominent brow ridge, small face, more rounded skull, than the earlier H. erectus fossils (still has a small brain size of ~1100cc) and dates to about 200,000 bp.

Current debate focuses on whether "Dali Man" was a direct descendent of earlier Asian H. erectus, or descended from western archaics who migrated into the area.


Classic H. erectus has never been found in Europe. The earliest human fossils come from the early levels of a cave site called Atapuerca, Spain, in levels with reversed paleomagnetism, and thus older than 780,000 years ago. These early Atapuerca specimens look like the archaic Homo populations of Africa, with very big brows and brain sizes averaging 1200cc. Other good examples of archaic Homo (H. heidelbergensis) populations in Middle Pleistocene Europe that are discussed in your text include:

Later levels from the "Pit of Bones" site at Atapuerca, Spain, dating to around 300,000 bp, contain over 30 individuals of archaic Homo populations with very large brains (ranging from 1100-1400cc), that also have features shared with later neanderthal populations in Europe. This suggests that populations of Homo that invaded Europe by 1 million years ago, stayed, adapted to the fluctuating Ice Age conditions of these northern areas, and eventually evolved into neanderthals, biologically adapted and specialized for life in the region. These were the folks who lived at sites like Boxgrove, England.


The last of the archaic populations of Homo lived in W. Europe, E. Europe and Near East after 200,000bp, surviving until at least 35,000 bp (the youngest date associated with a neanderthal fossil). Examples of sites discussed in text and section (video): Gibralter, La Ferrassie, Shanidar, Tabun, Kebara. There is a current, unresolved debate about whether neanderthals were human enough to be included in our own species (Homo sapiens neandertalensis) or put into their own species (Homo neanderthalensis).

Anatomical distinctions:

Cultural context of neanderthals: more questions than answers!

Early Anatomically Modern Humans:

The earliest fossil evidence for humans that appear anatomically modern has been found in Africa and the Near East, at sites dating to around 120,000 years ago. Your text notes that some of the African fossil "moderns" have questionable provenience... this is true. But recent finds at sites like Klasies River demonstrate that anatomically modern populations were present in sub-Saharan African before 120,000bp. More complete fossil specimens of moderns have been found in the Near East at sites like Skhul and Qafzeh (Israel). Thus, early moderns are contemporaries of the neanderthals, and their territories overlapped in the Near East for over 40,000 years... fossils of neanderthals and moderns are found in neighboring caves.

Anatomical distinction:

Cultural context: Early moderns are associated with the same type of Middle Paleolithic, Levallois technology as neanderthals were. Some archaeologists have argued that archaeological sites suggest early moderns chose different locations for their sites, and used the landscape in different ways, but this is debateable for sites before 40,000 years ago.

WWW links to descriptions and images of early Hominid Fossils and Early Archaeology:


Return to A105 Home Page
Calendars | Readings | Lectures | Assignments | Exams

Human Origins and Evolution in Africa Home Page

Jeanne Sept's Personal Home Page

Last updated: 17 April 2000
URL: http://www.indiana.edu/~origins/teach/A105/lectures/A105L22L23.html
Comments: sept@indiana.edu
Copyright 2000 Jeanne Sept

do not reproduce without prior written permission

IU Bloomington Home Page