By about half a million years ago, human fossils had diverged from older Homo erectus skeletons in their enlarged, rounder, and less angular skulls. African and European skulls of half a million years ago were sufficiently similar to skulls of us moderns that they are classified in our species, Homo sapiens, instead of in Homo erectus. This distinction is necessarily arbitrary, since Homo erectus evolved into Homo sapiens. However, these early Homo sapiens still differed from us in skeletal details, had brains significantly smaller than ours, and were grossly different from us in their artifacts and behavior. Modern stone-tool-making peoples, such as Yali's great-grandparents, would have scorned the stone tools of half a million years ago as very crude. The only other significant addition to our ancestors' cultural repertoire that can be documented with confidence around that time was the use of fire.
No art, bone tool, or anything else has come down to us from early Homo sapiens except for their skeletal remains, plus those crude stone tools. There were still no humans in Australia, for the obvious reason that it would have taken boats to get there from Southeast Asia. There were also no humans anywhere in the Americas, because that would have required the occupation of the nearest part of the Eurasian continent (Siberia), and possibly boat-building skills as well. (The present, shallow Bering Strait, separating Siberia from Alaska, alternated between a strait and a broad intercontinental bridge of dry land, as sea level repeatedly rose and fell during the Ice Ages.) However, boat building and survival in cold Siberia were both still far beyond the capabilities of early Homo sapiens.
After half a million years ago, the human populations of Africa and western Eurasia proceeded to diverge from each other and from East Asian populations in skeletal details. The population of Europe and western Asia between 130,000 and 40,000 years ago is represented by especially many skeletons, known as Neanderthals and sometimes classified as a separate species, Homo neanderthalensis. Despite being depicted in innumerable cartoons as apelike brutes living in caves, Neanderthals had brains slightly larger than our own. They were also the first humans to leave behind strong evidence of burying their dead and caring for their sick. Yet their stone tools were still crude by comparison with modern New Guineans' polished stone axes and were usually not yet made in standardized diverse shapes, each with a clearly recognizable function.
The few preserved African skeletal fragments contemporary with the Neanderthals are more similar to our modern skeletons than to Neanderthal skeletons. Even fewer preserved East Asian skeletal fragments are known, but they appear different again from both Africans and Neanderthals. As for the lifestyle at that time, the best-preserved evidence comes from stone artifacts and prey bones accumulated at southern African sites. Although those Africans of 100,000 years ago had more modern skeletons than did their Neanderthal contemporaries, they made essentially the same crude stone tools as Neanderthals, still lacking standardized shapes. They had no preserved art. To judge from the bone evidence of the animal species on which they preyed, their hunting skills were unimpressive and mainly directed at easy-to-kill, not-at-all-dangerous animals. They were not yet in the business of slaughtering buffalo, pigs, and other dangerous prey. They couldn't even catch fish: their sites immediately on the seacoast lack fish bones and fishhooks. They and their Neanderthal contemporaries still rank as less than fully human.
Human history at last took off around 50,000 years ago, at the time of what I have termed our Great Leap Forward. The earliest definite signs of that leap come from East African sites with standardized stone tools and the first preserved jewelry (ostrich-shell beads). Similar developments soon appear in the Near East and in southeastern Europe, then (some 40,000 years ago) in southwestern Europe, where abundant artifacts are associated with fully modern skeletons of people termed Cro-Magnons. Thereafter, the garbage preserved at archaeological sites rapidly becomes more and more interesting and leaves no doubt that we are dealing with biologically and behaviorally modern humans.
From Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. © 1997 Jared Diamond.
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