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Go forth and multiply

A Neanderthal Child

Homo habilis
seems to have lived in groups from an early period, as indicated by camp sites found in Tanzania, dating to 2 million years ago. Remains of roughly the same age have also shown strong evidence that Homo habilis constructed shelter, even huts. Not soon after – perhaps 1.7 million years ago, a more robust form of man appeared: Homo erectus – upright man.

Homo erectus had two great advantages over his predecessors. Firstly, his tools were rather more sophisticated than the rough implements that Homo habilis used. He was able thus to hunt, rather than scavenge, as his ancestors had done. Even so, remains of burnt berries found in
China, suggest that mankind still made greater use of fruits and plants than he did for meant, to supply his nutritional needs. But even greater was the invention of fire. Fire, Prometheus’ gift to humankind, discovered about 1 million years ago was seminal in that it gave man the ability to protect himself from other animals, to shape the landscape, to warm himself at will, and of course, to cook. This was a definite nod of approval for the continued and ever more confident development of humanity.

All these advantages enabled Homo erectus to leave Africa, and move now throughout the world, passing the Middle East, and swerving to Europe and Asia. Early man settled throughout Asia fairly quickly. Archaeological evidence of human settlement in Asia ranges from 1.3 million years old in Java, to about 500,000 years old in Northern China. What has been found of early tools in Europe suggest that man laid foot there first, about 1 million years ago, although later tools have been found ranging from 700,000 to 400,000 years old. Wooden hut remains discovered in France are indicators of the fact that by this period (roughly 400,000 BC) man was building more sophisticated accommodation than the rough habitations that Homo habilis had managed. But in spite of such advantages, human skulls some of them half a million years old are a bleak reminder of the difficulties our ancestor must have faced daily in their struggle to survive: nasty fractures are a giveaway of the daily hazard that hunting (mainly with wooden spears) presented. Elephants, deer, horses, wild cattle and even rhinoceroses formed part of Europe’s early human inhabitants.

Undeterred, the evolution of humanity continued to produce much more recognisably “human” forms of Neanderthal and, our own progenitor, Homo sapiens sapiens – “wise, knowing man”. His very appellation gives good reason for optimism in the continued development of our species. It is almost certain that modern man originated in Africa, though Neanderthal skulls have been found mainly in Europe, parts of the Middle East, and south-western Asia, mainly dating from the period of the last ice age, 70,000 – 30,000 years ago.

Contrary to common belief, in spite of his rough facial features – a pronounced prow and a large brain casing (with a larger brain than modern man!) – Neanderthal wasn’t the clumsy, hairy buffoon so often caricatured. His hands were much like ours, and a Neanderthal child found in Gibraltar shows a striking similarity to any modern European child today. More striking still, Neanderthal wasn’t driven out, nor was he killed, but it was in fact a process of interbreeding that saw him absorbed by Homo sapiens sapiens. This is evidenced by skulls which show a hybrid of Neanderthal features and those of early modern man. Like more modern forms of man, Neanderthal had religious inclinations. Careful burials, and more gruesomely, evidence of cannibalism are some of the tell-tale signs.

It was to be Homo sapiens sapiens who would rule the earth. DNA evidence suggests that Homo sapiens sapiens, originating from Africa, is the ancestor of all the world’s races today, with phenotypic features evolving as a result of climate and environment rather than fundamental difference in DNA. It is a moving thought that all mankind can be traced to a few dozen human beings, who issued from Africa and traversed the world from there. Cave paintings and every more sophisticated hunting methods, show that Homo sapiens sapiens was indeed a “thinking man”.

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