The Origin of Modern Humans: The Fossil Evidence, Part 1

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June 16, 2014 Tags: History of Life, Human Origins

Today's entry was written by James Kidder. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

The Origin of Modern Humans: The Fossil Evidence, Part 1

Note: In this ongoing series, James Kidder writes about human evolutionary history. Today, and on two following Mondays, James discusses the evidence for the origins of modern humans by exploring key paleoanthropological discoveries from around the world.

The origin of modern humans is, perhaps, the thorniest area of palaeoanthropological research in existence. Much of this has to do, obviously, with the fact that it is we who are the subject of this research. As humans, we are taught at an early age that we are special, privileged, and important. Further, in conservative Christian thought, we are taught that we are God’s special creation, the products of his labors on the sixth day and the direct descendants of an original pair of humans, Adam and Eve. Throughout the Bible, we learn of this special relationship and how God desires us to be his people.

As a result of these perspectives, Christians have struggled with the science of human origins more so than other disciplines. To reinforce our uniqueness, it has become common among evangelical Christians to distance “us” from those that are not quite “us.” The issue of human origins has gained considerable traction in Christian circles, even reaching the pages of Christianity Today. The major scientific issue at hand is whether we as modern humans can be directly connected to the hominins we encounter in the fossil record that conventional palaeoanthropology identifies as archaic Homo sapiens.

As we have traveled through prehistory with this series, encountering hominins with varying degrees of cultural capacity and morphological “humanness,” we find that the difficulty with which we reject those that came before us as being ancestral to us becomes more acute as we near our own time. Put simply, the closer we get to modern humans, the more like “us” the fossils, and their associated trappings, become.

As we discovered in our examination of the Neandertals and other late archaic Homo sapiens, brain size was nearly the same, if not larger than our own, stone tool technologies were very advanced, approximating, as we shall see, those associated with modern humans, and behavioural customs became more recognizably human. But where, exactly, did we come from? Is there evidence for the earliest modern humans in the Holy Land? Is there a sharp break between those that preceded us, and us? Was there a time when there were only two humans on the planet?

The evidence for the origins of modern humans falls into three distinct categories: palaeoanthropological, archaeological, and genetic. Each of these will be dealt with separately and then assessed jointly—the post you’re reading, in three parts, will look at the paleoanthropological evidence from around the world.

Palaeoanthropology: The Fossil Record

It is important to understand that, with regard to the fossil record concerning the origins of modern humans, the scope of the information is enormous. As with most of this self-same record, though, completeness of individual specimens is lacking. A site may have hundreds of small to large bone fragments comprising the partial remains of many individuals but few to no complete specimens. It is from complete specimens (or at least complete crania) that we gain our greatest knowledge of comparative anatomy. As an example, the fact that the Zhoukoudian Homo erectus remains were so important was not because there were hundreds of bone fragments representing 40 individuals but because, when reconstructed, there were eight complete skull caps and associated faces which yielded considerable data regarding morphological diversity within that population. Thus, while evidence concerning the origins of modern humans is spread out over several hundred sites in the Old World, this review will only cover the most complete specimens.


Omo 1 skull
Figure 1: Omo 1

Omo 1

The earliest fossil to be attributed to anatomically modern Homo sapiens anywhere is the Omo 1 skull, excavated in 1967 at the Omo Kibish site in southern Ethiopia, north of Lake Turkana. Originally dated to between 120 and 130 thousand years before the present (ky BP) by uranium/thorium dating, this skull has been recently been re-dated to 195 ky BP by argon/argon dating (McDougall, Brown, & Fleagle, 2005). While this date has largely been accepted as being reliable, visual observation of the fossil in question (Figure 1) suggests that some guesswork has gone into actually determining its morphology. While the rear of the vault is clearly rounded, like that of modern humans and what is preserved of the brow ridges are reduced, very little of the face has been preserved. Nonetheless, the weight of the evidence suggests that it is more modern than not.

BOY-VP-16/1 skull
Figure 2: BOU-VP-16/1


The Herto remains from the site of Bouri, located in the Afar triangle in northern Ethiopia, also provide evidence of “post archaic” humans. These remains consist of two adults and one child and have been dated to 164 ky BP by Argon/Argon dating (White et al., 2003). These individuals are, on balance, modern human in morphology but with some archaic traits (Figure 2). The brow ridges remain large and projecting, while the back of the head protrudes, creating a flattened cranial base. On the modern side, the cranial capacity is large, the cranial walls are straighter and more house-shaped than those found in archaic Homo sapiens and the face is orthognathic, or pulled in, rather than the prognathic condition found in archaic Homo sapiens and especially Neandertals. Recall in Neandertals, the facial morphology appears as if someone grabbed the nose and pulled outward. The orthognathic condition is that found in modern humans.

Klasies River Mouth

This is a cave that looks out onto the Indian Ocean, at the tip of South Africa, near Humansdorp, in the Province of Eastern Cape. This site has three levels, one of which contained human remains dated to between 80 and 100 ky BP. The remains consist of five mandibles and assorted cranial fragments. Two of the mandibles have well-developed chins and one of the cranial fragments, a part of the frontal bone, just above the eyes, has a brow ridge that is modern in shape. On the strength of this information, the overall morphology of the sample is deemed modern.

Skull: Jebel Irhoud 1
Figure 3: Jebel Irhoud 1

Jebel Irhoud

The Moroccan site of Jebel Irhoud, in the southwest section of the Atlas Mountains, yielded two nearly complete adult crania and one juvenile mandible, dated to around 160 ky BP. While the cranial characteristics of the adult (Figure 3) are notably archaic, the face is quite modern in appearance, showing few to no archaic traits at all. Also importantly, examination of the juvenile mandible revealed a growth pattern only associated with modern humans. This pattern suggests an expanded childhood and development, at a time when most of our learned behavior is disseminated.

Taken in total, the African remains suggest a transition from archaic Homo sapiens to modern Homo sapiens that took place over the course of approximately 100 thousand years and involved different areas of the head and face. As we shall see, this pattern remains constant throughout the Old World remains that document this transition. The timing also has importance for the relationship between these modern humans and archaic Homo sapiens throughout the Old World. At a point where Neandertals, the last great phase of archaic Homo sapiens, were just coming into their own in Europe, the modern human form was gradually emerging in super- and sub-Saharan Africa.

Join us next week for part 2 of this post!

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James Kidder holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from the University of Tennessee (UT). He currently employed as an instructor at UT, and as a science research librarian at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He has been involved in the Veritas Forum at UT and runs the blog "Science and Religion: A View from an Evolutionary Creationist/Theistic Evolutionist."

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tiopapo - #85798

June 17th 2014

What is “ky” mean? 

Jimpithecus - #85800

June 17th 2014

Thousand years.

Gregory - #85802

June 17th 2014

Do you not consider yourself a post-modern human being, James? I do (though probably I’m a decade or so younger than you). If you don’t, do you allow even for the posibility of a legitimate ‘post-modern’ category for human beings, iow, non-‘modern human’? Modernity sure seems already (at least in non-palaeontological fields) to have passed ‘us’ by. The ancient fossils you picture above and in this series surely don’t seem to be ‘who we are now,’ in the 21st century.

Btw, are you still sitting “on the fence” about historical (you say ‘literal’) Adam and Eve, as you said previously in this series or has your position changed?

In case you haven’t already read these:

Will this series eventually address polygenism and multi-regional origin(s) of humans?

“Is there a sharp break between those that preceded us, and us? Was there a time when there were only two humans on the planet?”

The first question prompted my return question above about ‘modern’ and ‘post-modern,’ no matter how ‘sharp’ or ‘dull’ the break is it does still seem like a ‘break’. Put an iPod in a Neanderthal’s hands and you’ll see what is meant.

The 2nd question is tricky: a biological-anthropolocial question or a theology-invited question or both? E.g. John Stott’s homo divinus, as reported on this site. Does that not speak of ‘only two humans’ carefully enough for the audience of ‘evangelicals’ in your view?

p.s. I’m not an ‘evangelical.’

‘Gradualism’ – “The doctrine that evolutionary change is gradual and does not go in jumps. In modern palaeontology it is the subject of an interesting controversy over whether the gaps in the fossil record are artefactual or real. Journalists have blown this up into a pseudo-controversy over the validity of Darwinism, which they say is a gradualist theory. It is true that all sane Darwinians are gradualists in the extreme sense that they do not believe in the de novo creation of very complex and therefore statistically improbable new adaptations like eyes. This is surely what Darwin understood by the aphorism ‘Nature does not make leaps.’ But within the spectrum of gradualism in this sense, there is room for disagreement about whether evolutionary change occurs smoothly or in small jerks punctuating long periods of stasis. It is this that is the subject of the modern controversy, and it does not remotely bear, one way or the other, on the validity of Darwinism.”

Jimpithecus - #85833

June 20th 2014

I am sitting on the fence because I have always grown up with the notion that it was a scriptural truth that Adam and Eve were real people and that their existence was central to the understanding of Christ’s salvation.  It has been suggested to me (George Murphy, Pete Enns, Denis Lamoreux) that Christ’s salvation need not hinge on an acceptance of a literal Adam. 


I don’t know what a post-modern human being is.  As far as the WW Howells dataset is concerned, we are modern humans, a morphological form that has been around for approximately 160-190 thousand years. 

Based on what we know of Neandertals, we have every reason to suspect that they would be able to figure out how an ipod works.  Have you ever put an ipod in the hands of a ninety year-old?  Not much different. 

I am not sure that I agree with Stott’s Homo divinus, simply because, if I understand it correctly, it necessitates a situation where there are quite a few “humans” running around on the landscape that were not part of God’s plan.  What of them?  Further, his model seems also to necessitate a sharp break whereas modern evolutionary theory posits nothing of the sort. 

Gregory - #85853

June 23rd 2014

Thanks for your candid answer, James.

My simple question then to you is: What distinguishes your ‘anthropology’ from ‘heathen anthropology’? (I chose the term ‘heathen’ because W.W. Howells, who you cited, wrote a book about heathens.) In other words, what would Adamic or Abrahamic or Christian, i.e. religious anthropology look like? It is my guess (and as I said, I am not an ‘evangelical’) that is what your audience of USAmerican evangelicals most wants to hear.

Even taking A&E not ‘literally,’ nevertheless, cutting them off from the Abrahamic (Jewish, Christian & Muslim) faiths entirely as historically non-existent or ‘un-real’ would be catastrophic. Imo, a credible Christian anthropology requires accepting the ‘reality’ of A&E one way or another and this is something that distinguishes ‘anthropology’ as a field from biology or genetics, which needn’t be ‘reflexive’ about A&E. Indeed, why should biology or genetics actually ‘care’ at all?

Murphy, Enns and Lamoureux are not anthropologists. That is worth noting at the start. However, what they are putting forward in their anti-historical Adam and Eve (AHA&E) opinions is a kind of in-the-closet anthropology that is iconoclastic to traditional Abrahamic theology. Personally, I hope their AHA&E views are just a passing phase that perhaps they will grow out of eventually. Other features of their work is more reasonable that that one.

Falk, Haarsma & Applegate said this:

“nothing in evolutionary biology precludes the possibility that God began a covenantal relationship with a real, historical first couple who brought about spiritual death as a result of their disobedience.”

Do you agree with that? Both Kemp and Bonnette, to whom I linked you above and before, accept that as a properly catholic/Catholic understanding, having taken into account much of the same ‘physical evidence’ as you have. Indeed, there might be fruit in enabling more ‘catholic/Catholic’ voices here at BioLogos for cooperative discourse with evangelicals:

Let me just add that I sympathise with you, James, because you seem to have so little help around you in anthropology, i.e. from anthropologists to involve ‘divinitas’ in your disciplinary conversations, indeed to help you with building a responsible Adamic, Abrahamic and/or Christian anthropology. Please correct me if that perception is wrong. Anthropology is usually surveyed as amongst the most relativistic and atheistic (or eclectically non-dogmatic) knowledge fields in today’s Academy. This is not to suggest that anthropology necessarily leads students to atheism or skepticism, but perhaps that those who are attracted to it as a field of study are more likely to already be skeptics or ‘freethinkers,’ i.e. non-religious.

When I speak of ‘human,’ as a social scientist today, James, I mean something quite different from what you appear to mean with your ‘strictly physical’ approach to homo sapiens. To me, ‘post-modern’ as well as ‘late modern’ are cultural categories that applies to just about everyone living in developed countries today. Thus, when I use the pronoun ‘us’ regarding contemporary human beings, I don’t mean either pre-Adamites or non-Adamites, which you seem to have no problem calling ‘human’.

To you, ‘modern human’ is a ‘strictly physical’ category that is theologically neutral on a purely functional level for palaeoanthroplogists. While to me it is when cultural anthropological accounts of human origins (and processes) are on the table that the discussion gets interesting and inspiring. That is the realm in which your religious faith might distinguish your anthropological work from that of your atheist and anti-theist colleagues. In this series, however, you have showed palaeoanthropology as nothing inspiring, but that can somehow be combined with apologetics on this evangelical website. Iow, evangelical anti-YECism.

“quite a few ‘humans’ running around on the landscape that were not part of God’s plan. What of them?”

The term ‘human’ seems to carry more than one meaning in that case. If you put forward a palaeontological meaning at the cost of theology, what does that get you? And when does it start to cost, James?

Here’s a USAmerican anthropologist, likely a friend of/to BioLogos (or, at least, one of the authors in the “Perspectives of an Evolving Creation” book), who recognises that we now live in a ‘postmodern’ world: - “Dr. Hurd’s passion is to train students to live as the people of God in our postmodern world.” Nevertheless, Hurd appears to have been largely swallowed in his anthropological approach up by evolutionary philosophy (including not being able to distinguish the science from the ideology), the same as with most in the PEC collection.

Asking how *not* to be swallowed up by evolutionary philosophy or the universalising Epic of Evolution narrative, as some liberal theologians call it, would enable a welcome (though difficult) dialogue at BioLogos. Would you be up for it or interested to watch it as anthropologist observer if it ever comes, James?

Imo, there simply needs to be more than the ‘physical’ or ‘palaeo’ going on in any responsible religious anthropology. It would not surprise me if you agree. In that context, an ‘old’ Earth with ‘real’ A&E seems to be the only responsible way forward, in keeping with ‘orthodox/Orthodox’ or ‘catholic/Catholic’ Christian theology. Let us hope that the far-too-many YECist evangelicals also eventually figure this out, hopefully without jumping off the ledges of their faith.

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