Lecture 11: Premodern Humans, H. heidelbergenis, Neanderthals

Homo Erectus to Premodern Humans

Overview, Time and Place

  • Homo erectus biologically and evolutionarily evolved rapidly while dispersing quickly from Africa. But it was a gradual process to evolve into Homo sapiens. There was one or more transitional species in this time period, called premoderns. The earliest if Homo heidelbergenis, who is an ancestor for Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. They overlapped with Homo erectus, but not as much in Africa, Europe or the Middle East where premoderns tend to replace Homo erectus due to competition. There was a lot of overlap in East Asia. Homo heidelbergenis transitioned away from Homo erectus around 600,000ya.
  • The increased trend was that as more species of Heidelbergenis came to be, they looked more similar. There were distinctive population traits in different regions, but overall there were enough similarities to be called one species.

Geological Periods an Climate Change

  • The Pliocene period started 1.8mya when Homo erectus first appeared to 10,000ya when only Homo sapiens were left.
  • Glaciation and desertification tend to go together, which effects migration and breeding so that there are pockets of isolation where groups get separated and cannot interbreed. There was a lot of migration and interaction in the interglacial periods, mostly in the Pliocene period


11-2Premoderns - Homo heidelbergenis

Transition from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens. In Africa Homo heidelbergenis was the ancestor of modern humans, and in Europe and the Middle East, of neanderthals.


Time and Place

  • 600,000ya (or earlier) to 125,000ya. Middle Pleistocene. In Europe (First group to occupy it), Africa, Asia.


1107a H heidelbergensis mapBiological Changes

  • Transitional from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens, so has features of both. Look more similar in Europe, Africa and Asia, not much in East Asia.
  • Had big brow ridges, a large occipital torus, lower foreheads especially in earlier species, bigger brain size (absolute and in comparison to body size), the brain case is more rounded compared to Homo erectus, the maximum weight is above the ears unlike Homo erectus, nose is more vertical, had a flatter face, smaller teeth and less robust than Homo erectus (including less robusticity of the skull).1109 Levallois

Cultural Changes

  • Tools - Starting to get smaller in size. Still Acheulian (west) and pebble tool (east). New technique: Levallois (300,000ya). Stone (500,000ya in South Africa) and wooden spears (Germany) hardened at the tip for thrusting. Took a lot of time, effort and planning to make a prepared core so they could make tools faster, more easily and more consistently.

  • Foods - More diverse. Started eating vegetables, small animals, etc.
  • Fire and shelters - Later part (400-300,000ya). Habitual use of fire at the same time as shelters (poles covered in hives and sticks, held by rocks) started (Lazaret cave, Terra Amata).
  • Disposal of the dead: not burial, but habitual disposal from 600,000ya. Bodo (skull which had cut marks on it where flesh was removed. Don't know if this suggests cannibalism for meat or if it was some sort of ritual), Atapuerca (cave in Spain where there were many individuals found), Sima de los Huesos (pit of bones).

Neanderthals - Homo Neanderthals

Time and Place

  • Ca 130,000 to ca 30,000ya or later. Middle Palaeolithic. In Europe and Western Asia. Central Asia only, but now as far as Siberia. Not Africa (didn't evolve in Africa like all other species did) or East Asia. Seemed to evolve from heidelbergenis 30,000ya or later. In the middle of this time period, there was an overlap with Homo sapiens.


1112 Neandertal mapBiological Changes

  • Referring to classic neanderthals, which are from the glacial period of 75,000ya, Europe.
  • Increased robusticity: very masculine, shorter but stronger than modern humans. Well adapted to the cold and glaciated landscape.

1111 Neandertal skulls

  • Cranium differences - Long, low robust skull, vertical forehead, large brow ridges which arch rather than forming a bar, projecting mid-face, small chin and a straight nose.
  • Brain size - Bigger than moderns both absolute and in comparison to body size.
  • Skeletal differences - robustness

How are they related to us?

  • DNA studies of Neanderthals:
  • Small but significant amount of interbreeding in the Middle East 80,000 - 50,000ya, when the first moderns came out of Africa. This happened very quickly, and they separated until interbreeding wasn't possible anymore.
  • They are closely related to us (some human populations showed traces of Neanderthal DNA), they are physically and behaviourally distinct, they are not a completely separate species, they are capable of interbreeding, and they are a distinctive side branch on their way to becoming a separate species.
  • Same for Denisovans in Central Asia. 1120 Mousterian assemblage

cultural changes

  • Tools - Creating diverse, more specialized tools which show an advance in technology. Mousterian and flake assemblage: ex. point, perforator, and scraper. Composite tools: hafting (easier to hold and use, and it's safer. Used for food and skin preparation and for building shelters). Ex. Hafted scraper. Levallois continued and improved (discoid).1119 hafted scraper
  • Foods - Big game hunters.
  • Fire/ shelter/ clothing - Habitual use of fire and shelters. High processing.
  • Language - Same complexity of language as us.
  • Burial - First group to deliberately bury using mortuary rituals (laid individual in the grave in a fetal position and covered them). Some were buried with grave goods, such as animals, bones and stone tools. Shows signs of status and importance. A case of cannibalism from Spain 50,000ya, (12 individuals). This is evidence for neanderthals being eaten by other hominins. Their bones were smashed for marrow and cut for flesh. This could have been associated with war, or could be a ritual where they passionately disposed of them.
  • Family structure - Males were closely related to the family, while females left their own and joined the male, showing a regular pattern of living and mating. Evidence in Shanidar cave in Iraq of an old, injured man who was cared for a long time. This shows compassion, caring and wanting family members to stay with you. Also, recognizing the worth and contribution of elders who are important in society because they hold wisdom, knowledge and memories to pass onto future generations.

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