5. The Middle Paleolithic

The Middle Paleolithic Era began about 300,000 years ago and ended approximately 30,000 years ago. It should always be remembered that there can be vast dating differences that vary from region to region. Nevertheless our ancestors are beginning to appear more familiar and behave in recognizably more modern ways. The Middle Paleolithic was Neanderthal’s time. We know him, he is in our DNA. His reign lasted hundreds of thousands of years during the most volatile and deadly eras of climate change we have ever known.  Y chromosomal Adam made his appearance about 350,000 years ago.  We showed up on the African scene about 195,000 years ago, followed by Mitochondrial Eve 150,000 years ago. As a species we were on our way, migrating out of Africa twice: 100,000 years ago and again 70,000 years ago. Behavior modernity was launched and our species slowly replaced Neanderthal and Homo erectus. The theories abound. How did all of this happen?

Cultural awareness seems to have kicked in. A burial site in Croatia has been date to 130,000 years; another in Israel at 100,000 years. Is it possible we and our relatives had begun to contemplate concepts such as an afterlife? Evidence of ritual is beginning to appear in the Middle Paleolithic with caches of ochre that might have been used for body paint. Beads and bracelets have been found, and rock art. Even Homo erectus had his moments rendering artistic pieces out of elephant bone with Acheulean tools.

The Middle Paleolithic brings us to tool specialization that allows us to hunt big game and catch large fish. Seafood of all types is an enormous nutritional windfall. We are smoking and drying food for preservation and storage. Widespread use of fire provides warmth against subarctic cold of ice ages, protection against predators, and cooking food a staggering 250,000 years ago.

We are seeing signs of group wide cooperation and greater social organization. Our society is both complex and responsible. It is egalitarian, it provides for its elders and infirm. Food is distributed equally to insure the survival of every group member. The entire band is now sharing in the butchering of meat and preparing food. Gender based division of labor doesn’t exist yet; some of you will see this as a good thing. But it should be noted that when the gender division of labor appeared in the Upper Paleolithic it brought greater efficiency to acquiring food and resources, and a greater investment in offspring. This type of cooperation and social structure may well have allowed Homo sapiens to outcompete Neanderthal.

About 120,000 years ago we begin trading for rare materials and other commodities, securing greater survival for all the bands in a given network. We are exchanging information; we are becoming exponentially smarter in every way that counts.

About 300,000 years ago Neanderthal developed a prepared core technique with his stone tools. By doing so he increased the efficiency of his tools by permitting more controlled and consistent flakes. Neanderthal continued to make Mousterian tools until 30,000 years ago. The same tools were being produced in Africa by anatomically modern humans. It is possible that acculturation of modern humans by Neanderthal began as early as 130,000 years ago.  Homo sapiens soon invented projectile weapons such as stone tipped spears. Neanderthal is not known to have taken up these techniques and continued to hunt by ambush and close encounter; continuing to suffer terrible injuries as a consequence. Modern humans derived the more evolved Aterian tools from the Mousterian industry with stone that was bifacially worked, leaf shaped, and tanged.

I find it a dazzling intrigue that we co-existed with other species of humans. But these archaic varieties were to begin being marginalized by our presence about 70,000 years ago. Even so, non-modern varieties survived until about 30,000 years ago and possibly as recently as 10,000 with the Red Cave People of China. And we seemed to like them well enough to insure that the DNA of Neanderthal and Denisovan peoples persists today in our own. It is now known the Neanderthal provided us with out stout immune system. We enjoyed a significant evolutionary leap too. The brain of Homo erectus measured about 900 cubic centimeters. Homo sapiens reached 1300 cubic centimeters before beginning the decline in brain size we see today. Developing an extensive use of language furthered social structure and organization by allowing communication between as many as 120 band members as compared to chimpanzees that can only manage 50 at best. It is beginning to appear as though Homo sapiens are here to stay. Perhaps we should visit our archaic human relatives next.

Homo heidelbergensis moved throughout Africa, Europe and Asia 600,000 years ago and possibly as far back as 1,300,000 years ago. He survived until 200,000 to 250,000 years ago. Candidates of Homo heidelbergensis descendants include Homo sapiens in Africa, Homo neanderthalensis in Europe, and the Denisovan people of Asia. Homo heidelbergensis had a bigger brain than ours. At 5’7” he was taller than Neanderthal, and some 500,000 to 300,000 year old remains found in South Africa show that he stood taller than us too at 7 feet in height. His language skills although primitive were more complex than those of H. ergaster. He used stone tools, red ochre, had the auditory sensitivity of modern humans, and was distinctly right-handed. Homo heidelbergensis may well have been the first to haft points to shafts 500,000 years ago, suggesting that he handed down the knowledge to Neanderthal and modern humans. He is an interesting fellow with two branches of offspring: Neanderthal diverged from him about 300,000 years ago in Europe, and Homo sapiens diverged from him 200,000 to 100,000 years ago in Africa. One of these days our linage might appear this way: H. heidelbergensis> H. rhodesiensis> H. idaltu> H. sapiens sapiens. Homo heidelbergensis is thought by some to have been the first to bury his dead. A vast quantity of bones 350,000 years old was found in Northern Spain with which was buried a magnificent red quartzite ax that could well have been an offering. Two other finds caught my attention. In Suffolk, England remains were found that appear to be a cross between H. heidelbergensis and H. antecessor. They are fabulously old at 700,000 years. Homo heidelbergensis left eight wooden throwing spears in Germany that are dated to 300,000 years. Although not a great deal is known about H. heidelbergensis, the artifacts found indicate he was definitely a man with a plan and forwarded our evolution in a very big way.

Not much is known about Homo rhodesiensis either. He lived in Africa 300,000 to 125,000 years ago, and is believed by some to be the African version of H. heidelbergensis. One of the skulls found had numerous cavities in its teeth with pitting that suggests significant infection before the victim’s death. It is highly possible that this individual died from the consequence of dental disease or chronic ear infection. As many of us have experienced, both these conditions are a serious problem even today. It makes me wonder if Homo rhodesiensis’ weak link was his teeth and that alone spelled doom for him as a species.

The Denisovan people are thought to have shared a common ancestor with both Neanderthal and humans about a million years ago. And yet they have distinctly different DNA requiring their own classification as a species. The studies have been exciting because the cave in which the Denisovans were found had remained quite cold and had preserved their DNA extremely well. Genetics has provided us with the knowledge that Denisovan people interbred with both Neanderthal and humans. All three species left evidence of having lived at one time in Denisova Cave.

The Red Deer Cave People are the youngest known prehistoric people, still here 11,500 to 14,500 years ago. Although they are mix of both archaic and modern human features they didn’t look as we do today and are thought to have been a more primitive species…whatever that means. It is not yet known if they were a distinct species or a cross between Denisovans and modern humans. So far, it doesn’t appear that they contributed to the gene pool of modern humans before becoming extinct.

Neanderthal is certainly one of my favorite relatives. And I suspect he liked us too, providing about 4% of our gene pool including a huge boost to our immune system. Neanderthal lived well during some of the worst climate history our planet has ever known, possibly as long as 600,000 years. Some believe he was simply absorbed into our species and might not have become extinct at all. But no matter how it turns out Neanderthal didn’t disappear until about 24,500 years ago. He was no slouch either technologically speaking with tool industries that spanned the Mousterian, Chatelperronian, Aurignacian, and Gravettian techniques. As an infant Neanderthal was born with the same size brain as ours but by the time he reached adulthood his brain was significantly bigger. He knew the details of his world intimately and that knowledge provided him with a brain of great capacity.

Neanderthal lived through the last glacial period that persisted for over 100,000 years. Unfortunately the damage done to Neanderthal sites by these same glaciers has limited our knowledge of his world. The best preserved sites have been found just south of the glaciation line (50th parallel), a region that includes most of Europe from the south coast of Britain, east to Siberia. The total population of Neanderthal in this range was probably about 70,000 individuals. The sites show us that cold adapted animals were a big part of his life and he dealt with the cold far better than our species could ever hope. We didn’t make it beyond Israel while the ice ruled. The climate in Europe began to fluctuate in a big way about 55,000 years ago and peaked about 30,000 years ago. Even as Neanderthal followed those cold adapted animals north, he opened up territory into which we were able to move. As the cold adapted species began to fail chances are Neanderthal did too. The population shift took place over a ten thousand year period and certainly gave our species an edge while Neanderthal struggled to adapt, and ultimately failed, to the loss of the megafauna he was so well adapted to hunt.  His need for energy rich dense protein necessary to surviving subarctic cold was biologically hardwired. Chances are he couldn’t manage a diet of the increased plant species evolving in the warmer climate. Forests were systematically being replaced by grasslands. Neanderthal’s ambush techniques for hunting would not have worked in those wide open spaces. He never mastered projectile technology of spear throwers and arrows. Having biologically adapted to requiring more calories the scarcity of customary food could well have contributed enormously to Neanderthal’s extinction.

Neanderthal created complex social groups and by doing so developed complex language skills. His tools were technologically perfect for his glacial environment. He built dwellings out of mammoth bones that were warmed by indoor hearths. The improved techniques of dating cave paintings are now beginning to reveal that some of the art was Neanderthal simply because it predates Homo sapiens presence in Europe.

The DNA studies are increasingly telling, revealing that both of us have 99.5% of our DNA in common. We undoubtedly shared an ancestor about 800,000 years ago. Curiously, African Homo sapiens have virtually no Neanderthal DNA which suggests that interbreeding didn’t occur until Homo sapiens reached Europe.

In addition to climate change and absorption by modern humans, there are other extinction theories. Competition is one. It has been proposed that Neanderthal was first marginalized and eventually driven into extinction by the Aurignacians. There was also a volcanic super eruption about 40,000 years ago that might have contributed as well. In my opinion it was likely all of the above. I doubt that just one of these things could have driven such a successful species into extinction after a 600,000 year success story.

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