Such was its creativity, collective organisation, and cultural adaptability that, migrating from Africa 85, years ago, it spread rapidly across the world and eventually colonised its remotest corners.
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This new species was Homo sapiens — modern humans — and it was destined to out-compete all other hominids and drive them to extinction. The Hominid Revolution, which began around 2. The Hunting Revolution Somewhere in Africa, , years ago, lived a woman who is the common ancestor of every human being on earth today.
She is the primeval progenitor of the entire species Homo sapiens — modern humans. We know her as 'African Eve'.
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It is DNA analysis that has revealed this, confirming and refining the conclusions reached by other scientists based on the evidence of fossilised bone. DNA is the chemical coding within cells which provides the blueprint for organic life. Similarities and differences can be studied to see how closely various life forms are related. Mutations occur and accumulate at fairly steady rates. This allows geneticists not only to measure biological diversity within and between species, but also to estimate how much time has passed since two groups separated and ceased interbreeding.
Mutations in our DNA therefore constitute 'fossil' evidence of our past inside living tissue. Two skulls and a partial skeleton found at Omo in Ethiopia in have been dated to c. The new species looked different.
Early humans had long, low skulls, sloping foreheads, projecting brow ridges, and heavy jaws. Modern humans have large, dome-shaped skulls, much flatter faces, and smaller jaws. The change was mainly due to increased brain size: Homo sapiens was highly intelligent. Big brains make it possible to store information, think imaginatively, and communicate in complex ways.
Language is the key to all this.
The world is classified, analysed, and discussed through speech. African Eve was a non-stop talker. Because of this, in evolutionary terms, she was adaptable and dynamic. Homo sapiens had this unique characteristic: unlike all other animals, including other hominids, she was not restricted by biology to a limited range of environments.
Thinking it through, talking it over, working together, Homo sapiens could adapt to life almost anywhere.
Biological evolution was therefore superseded by cultural evolution. And the pace of change accelerated. Handaxe-wielding Homo erectus had remained in Africa for 1.
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In a fraction of that time, the descendants of African Eve were on the move. Or some of them were. The genetic evidence appears to show that the whole of Asia, Europe, Australia, and the Americas were populated by the descendants of a single group of hunter-gatherers who left Africa about 3, generations ago — around 85, BP. Why did people move?
Almost certainly, as hunter-gatherers, they went in search of food, responding to resource depletion, population pressure, and climate change. They were adapted for this — adapted to adapt. Designed for endurance walking and running, they were capable of long-distance movement. Their manual dexterity made them excellent tool-makers.
Their large brains rendered them capable of abstract thought, detailed planning, linguistic communication, and social organisation. They formed small, tight-knit, cooperative groups. These groups were linked in loose but extensive networks based on kinship, exchange, and mutual support.
They were, in the sense in which archaeologists use the term, 'cultured': their ways of getting food, living together, sharing tasks, making tools, ornamenting themselves, burying the dead, and much else were agreed within the groups and followed set rules. This implies something more: they were making conscious, collective choices. You talk things through and then you decide. The challenges of the endless search for food often posed alternatives.
Some groups will have made a more conservative choice: stay where you are, carry on as before, hope for the best. Others will have been more enterprising, perhaps moving into unknown territory, trying new hunting techniques, or linking up with other groups to pool knowledge, resources, and labour. A dominant characteristic of Homo sapiens, therefore, was an unrivalled ability to meet the demands of diverse and changeable environments.
Initially, they would have migrated along resource-rich coastlines and river systems.
But they seem soon to have spread into the hinterland; and wherever they went, they adapted and fitted in. In the Arctic, they hunted reindeer; on the frozen plains, mammoth; on the grasslands, wild deer and horses; in the tropics, pigs, monkeys, and lizards. Toolkits varied with the challenges. Instead of simple handaxes and flakes, they manufactured a range of 'blades' — sharp-edged stone tools longer than they were wide which were struck from specially prepared prismatic cores.
They also made clothes and shelters as conditions demanded. They used fire for heating, cooking, and protection. And they produced art — paintings and sculptures of the animals they hunted. Above all, they experimented and innovated. Successes were shared and copied. Culture was not static, but changeable and cumulative. Homo sapien s met environmental challenges with new ways of doing things, and the lessons learned became part of a growing store of knowledge and know-how.
Instead of modern humans either evolving biologically or dying out when environmental conditions changed, they found solutions in better shelters, warmer clothes, and sharper tools. Nature and culture interacted, and through this interaction, humans became progressively better at making a living. In some places, for a while, Homo sapiens coexisted with early humans. Between c. There is DNA evidence for some interbreeding — and, by implication, social interaction — but the main story seems to be the slow replacement of one species by the other.
The Neanderthals eventually died out because they could neither adapt nor compete as the climate changed, as Homo sapiens populations grew, and as the big game on which all hominids depended were over-hunted. Stone-tool technology seems to shadow this species displacement.
Neanderthal fossils are associated with Mousterian flakes. Cro-Magnon fossils as Homo sapiens remains are known in European archaeology are associated with a range of sophisticated Aurignacian blades. The terms reflect two tool-making traditions recognised in the archaeological record. But that is not all. The new culture was diverse and dynamic, producing, in the course of time, spear-throwers, the harpoon, and the bow, and domesticating the dog for use in the hunt.
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Second, about , years ago, again in Africa, certain hominids evolved into modern humans, creatures with larger brains and a greater capacity for tool-making, collective labour, social organisation, and cultural adaptation to different environments. Third, about 10, years ago, under the impact of climate change and food shortages, some communities made the transition from hunting and gathering to farming.
Fourth, about 6, years ago, new techniques of land reclamation and intensive farming allowed some communities in favoured locations to increase their output substantially by moving from hoe-based cultivation to plough-based agriculture. I call these transitions revolutions to signal the fact that they were relatively abrupt: moments in history when the steady drip-drip of evolutionary development suddenly tipped over into qualitative change — from walking on all fours to walking on two legs; from a hominid of limited intellect to one of exceptional ability; from a way of life based on foraging or hunting for food to one based on producing it; and from hoe-based to plough-based farming.