The Rise of Archaic Homo sapiens

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January 21, 2013 Tags: 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 Rise of Archaic Homo sapiens

Note: In Dr. Kidder's ongoing series tracing the history of the human fossil record, the last few posts focused on homo erectus. Today's post marks the transition from homo erectus to archaic homo sapiens, which took place more than a half-million years ago.

Beginning around 1.6 million years ago, the first large-brained hominin appeared on the landscape. This was Homo ergaster. Homo ergaster had a modern skeleton and more advanced food-gathering methods than previous hominins. It was also the first hominin to make it out of Africa, its earliest remains having being found in Dmanisi, in the Republic of Georgia and, a bit later, in several places in southern Europe.

Our best understanding is that this form gave rise to Homo erectus around a million years ago, and that by 700,000 years ago, Homo erectus was firmly established as the dominant (if not the only) hominin on the landscape. From the river valleys in Indonesia, to the open savannas in Africa, to the caves in China, India and Europe, this hominin had mastered fire, standardized stone tool technology and incorporated hunting into its daily life. Through the approximately million-year heyday of Homo erectus, the Acheulean tool technology—focused on the hand axe—remained unchanged. But, yet again, change was on the horizon: beginning around 600 to 700 thousand years ago, new hominin forms appear in the archaeological record, all having certain common characteristics that represent advancements over those found in Homo erectus. These were the first, still-archaic Homo sapiens.

Cranial capacity in these new hominins increased from the Homo erectus average of 900 CC3 to an average of 1100 CC3, with the heads becoming larger and more vaulted. The maximum cranial width was now midway up the sides of the vault, rather than near the ears as was the case with Homo erectus. In fact, some of the archaic Homo sapiens crania are among the largest skulls found. Faces are also larger; as are front teeth, and the faces do not project out as much as with prior types, having a more orthognathic (flatter) appearance. The extensive brow ridges—which formed a continuous bar in Homo erectus—are now divided in the middle, above the nose. As with every other stage of human evolution, we must start with the primary fossil remains before discussing their taxonomic status; and that means beginning with the record preserved in Africa.


Figure 1: Bodo (from Bräuer, 2012)

As Bräuer notes (Bräuer, 2012), hominins that are distinctly different from their Homo erectus precursors appear on the landscape in Africa between 600 and 700 thousand years ago. While only a partial cranium, the find of Bodo, in east Africa, possesses the largest face of any hominin yet recorded. This individual has alternatively been described as “developed Homo erectus” and “Early Archaic Homo sapiens,” and has been dated to around 600,000 years ago (Figure 1). Despite its size, this cranium represents a shift toward a form in the direction of modern humans; a less scooped face, a brow ridge that is now separate rather than one continuous bar, and a cranial capacity of slightly over 1300 CC3.

Figure 2: Kabwe (Cast)

Perhaps one of the most famous (and complete) skulls that has ever been discovered came from the Broken Hill mine in what was then known as Rhodesia. Known for decades as Broken Hill 1 (Figure 2), it is now more commonly called Kabwe. This is a visually stunning skull, with a very large face and enormous brow ridges. The cranial capacity is around 1100 CC3 and the head is sloping and long. This cranium is thought to be around 300,000 years old. Very similar to Kabwe, at least in cranial morphology, is the find from Saldanha (Figure 3). This has a low, sloping forehead, large supraorbital tori and a very sharply-angled rear of the vault. It has been estimated to be around 400 thousand years old.

Figure 3: Saldanha (Cast)

From the site of Laetoli, which yielded the phenomenal footprints of one of our earliest ancestors, Australopithecus afarensis, comes a cranium described by Magori and Day (1983) as “…Homo sapiens but of an archaic variety” (Figure 4) This skull shows many similarities to Saldanha and Kabwe, being long and low with prominent brow ridges. The date for this hominin places it late in the sequence (120,000 plus or minus 30,000), but this date is based on an assumed correlation with beds at Olduvai and may not be correct. While it is clearly archaic, an associated face shows considerable reduction in size, toward the modern condition, suggesting that, at least for some populations, selection for smaller facial features was occurring and did not go in concert with comparable changes in the vault.

Figure 4: Laetoli Hominid 18 (From
Magori and Day, 1983)

This pattern is also evident in a find from North Africa, from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Here was unearthed the Jebel Irhoud (or Ighoud) 1 cranium (Figure 5). Dated to approximately the same time as the given date for LH18, this cranium still has quite prominent brow ridges and is long and low but the face is considerably reduced and pulled in under the forehead.

Figure 5: Jebel Irhoud 1

It is clear that African post-Homo erectus morphology was in a state of flux for some time—possibly several hundred thousand years, judging from the wide morphological variability that we find. It is this variability that had led many researchers to use the “archaic Homo sapiens” designation (see below), since the task of drawing relationships based on derived and primitive traits has revealed few clues in the overall evolution of these hominins. We know that they are getting more modern over time because we see this in individual skulls but the overall pattern is difficult to quantify.

It must be remembered that, for most of this time period, the variability that we speak of is seen in the cranium. This is for two reasons: first, remains other than the cranium are scant and often fragmentary; second, what we do have of such post cranial remains are not appreciably different from anatomically modern humans. At approximately one million years ago, our ancestors attained what is basically a modern skeleton. These hominins are obligate bipeds, some are between five and six feet tall, and their bone structure is modern.


Figure 6: Gran Dolina Material

In recent decades, there has been a bit of a renaissance of work in Europe and many critical discoveries have been made that shed light on the evolution of these forms and the origins of perhaps the most well-known variant of archaic Homo sapiens, the Neandertals. One of the most impressive fossil hominin and archaeological sites in Europe comes from the town of Atapuerca, in northern Spain. This site contains material stretching from just over a million years ago down to 300 thousand years. Discovered in 1981, the Atapuerca cave system contains three major sites, the Gran Dolina, the Sima del Elefante and the Sima de Los Huesos. Systematic excavation turned up stone tools in 1991 (Rodríguez et al., 2011). Of particular note, however, was the huge quantity of human fossil remains that stretch for almost the entire vertical distance at the site. Morphologically, these hominins are quite varied. The Gran Dolina cave, which is the earliest of the group, yielded hominin remains that date to around 800,000 years ago. These remains (Figure 6), which consist of cranial, facial and dental materials, suggest a mix of primitive and modern traits. The dentition is large, a carryover from Homo erectus, while the facial skeletons show some modern characteristics in that parts of the face are everted, as in modern humans. Other characteristics are derived in the direction of Neandertals, however. The nasal bones stick out, a trait not found in Homo erectus. This combination of traits has led the researchers to hypothesize that these remains reflect the last common ancestor to modern humans and Neandertals (Arsuaga et al., 1999). It is not clear at present, though, that we can say for sure what the morphology of these hominins represents.

Figure 7: Atapuerca 5

Further up in time come the remains from the site of Sima de Los Huesos. These remains are likely between 300 and 400 thousand years old. According to the describers of the fossil skeletal material found there, these remains “document an early stage of Neanderthal evolution.”(Arsuaga, Martinez, Gracia, Carretero, & Carbonell, 1993). Among the over 4000 remains found at the site are two complete and one partially complete skull (Figure 7). The skulls are notable for their massive brow ridges and faces. Further, the facial skeletons are quite unlike that found in the Gran Dolina. These skulls are characterized by what is known as midfacial prognathism, a trait exemplified by the later Neandertals. It is as if someone has grabbed the nose and pulled the face out from the middle.

Figure 8: Ceprano

Another find of great antiquity in Europe comes from the site of Ceprano, (Figure 8) midway between Rome and Naples, in Italy. It is a partial cranium with associated crude bifaces that are little more advanced than the Developed Oldowan tools crafted by the hominins that preceded it (Ascenzi, Biddittu, Cassoli, Segre, & Segre-Naldini, 1996). This hominin has been dated to around 800,000, placing it half a million years after the archaeological material at Pirro Nord. (See the previous post in this series, Out of Africa (The First Time) for more on Pirro Nord.)

Figure 9: Petralona (Photograph by David Brill)

One of the most important finds from Europe comes from the site of Petralona near the town of Thessaloniki, in Greece. Discovered in 1960, this is one of the most complete fossil human crania in existence and has an estimated cranial capacity of over 1200 cc. This skull is very large and long, with a sloping forehead, large eye orbits and rugose (ridged and wrinkly) features. In many ways, it is a dead ringer for SH5 from Atapuerca, having a very pneumatized (puffy) face that is pulled out from the midline of the skull and very strong brow ridges (Figure 9). These similarities suggest a generalized pan-European form between 300 and 500 thousand years ago. Like the Atapuerca skull, this one has what can be called “incipient” Neandertal morphology and, given that Neandertal remains have been found in the Greek isles and in nearby Italy, it is reasonable to suggest that there was widespread positive selection for these traits. Any gene flow between these populations would have further reinforced these changes.

Figure 10: Steinheim

From Germany come two more important finds: the Mauer mandible and the Steinheim calvaria. The Steinheim find is considerably smaller than the Petralona individual and is very gracile in appearance. The skull is quite fragmentary, having been crushed postmortem (Figure 10). Like many of its contemporaries, it has a long, low skull. It does, however, show general rounding of the back of the cranium and a more flattening of the face.

Figure 11: Mauer Mandible

The Mauer mandible is large, suggesting a massive individual. It has no clear Neandertal traits, instead resembling a generalized archaic Homo sapiens form. Discovered in 1908 during a mining operation, this find has been dated at around 500,000 years (Figure 11). Like the Steinheim skull, though, it has characteristics advanced over Homo erectus, with teeth intermediate in size between that form and the Neandertals that followed. It is this fossil that is the hypodigm of Homo heidelbergensis—that is, the sample from which the characters of that population is to be inferred.

Figure 12: Arago

From France comes the important skull from the site of Arago (Figure 12). The cranial remains consists only of the face and frontal bone (the rest has been reconstructed on the figure to the left) but the face is relatively undistorted, revealing a morphology similar to that of SH5 from Atapuerca and Petralona, with heavy brow ridges and large maxillary sinuses. A mandible and partial pelvis were discovered along with the cranial remains. Through biostratigraphy and uranium series dating, the find is thought to be between 300 and 400 thousand years old, making it contemporary with those similar remains.

Archaic Homo sapiens: A Taxonomic Mess

One of the greatest challenges facing students of human evolution comes at the tail end of the Homo erectus span. After Homo erectus, there is little consensus about what taxonomic name to give the hominins that have been found. As a result, they are assigned the kitchen-sink label of “archaic Homo sapiens.”

Tattersall (2007) notes that the Kabwe skull bears more than a passing resemblance to one of the most prominent finds in Europe, the Petralona skull from Greece. In turn, as I mentioned above, the Petralona skull is very similar to one of the most complete skulls from Atapuerca, SH 5, and at least somewhat similar to the Arago skull.

Further, it is noted that the Bodo cranium from Africa shares striking similarities to the material from Gran Dolina (such as it is). This suggests that, as was the case with Homo erectus, there is widespread genetic homogeneity in these populations. Given the time depth involved, it is likely that there was considerable and persistent gene flow between them. Tattersall (2007), argues that, since the first example of this hominin form is represented by the Mauer mandible, the taxonomic designation Homo heidelbergensis should be used to designate these forms. This would stretch the limits of this taxon, however, since it would include the later forms from Africa as well. If there was considerable migration and hybridization between these populations, it could be argued that a single taxon makes sense. However, at present, there is no definitive material evidence for such migration, or widespread agreement on calling all these hominins anything other than “archaic Homo sapiens.”

Next, East Asian Archaic Homo sapiens.


Arsuaga, J.-L., Martinez, I., Gracia, A., Carretero, J.-M., & Carbonell, E. (1993). Three new human skulls from the Sima de los Huesos Middle Pleistocene site in Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain. [10.1038/362534a0]. Nature, 362(6420), 534-537.
Arsuaga, J.-L., Martínez, I., Lorenzo, C., Gracia, A., Muñoz, A., Alonso, O., et al. (1999). The human cranial remains from Gran Dolina Lower Pleistocene site (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain). Journal of human evolution, 37(3‚Äì4), 431-457.
Ascenzi, A., Biddittu, I., Cassoli, P. F., Segre, A. G., & Segre-Naldini, E. (1996). A calvarium of lateHomo erectusfrom Ceprano, Italy. Journal of human evolution, 31(5), 409-423.
Bräuer, G. (2012). Middle Pleistocene Diversity in Africa and the Origin of Modern Humans. In J.-J. Hublin & S. P. McPherron (Eds.), Modern Origins (pp. 221-240): Springer Netherlands. Magori, C. C., & Day, M. H. (1983). Laetoli Hominid 18: an early Homo sapiens skull. Journal of human evolution, 12(8), 747-753.
Rodríguez, J., Burjachs, F., Cuenca-Bescós, G., García, N., Van der Made, J., Pérez González, A., et al. (2011). One million years of cultural evolution in a stable environment at Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain). Quaternary Science Reviews, 30(11‚Äì12), 1396-1412.
Tattersall, I. (2007). Homo ergaster and Its Contemporaries. In W. Henke & I. Tattersall (Eds.), Handbook of Paleoanthropology (pp. 1633-1653): Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

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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wesseldawn - #76131

January 21st 2013

Good article James. Further to that is the recent discovery taken of cross sections of mandible bone fiber that revealed notable differences of jaw force between Australopithecus afarensis and Homo Erectus(?)...the weaker jaw bone paved the way for speech.

We cannot (and must not) ignore the bones for that would be bad science. Of interest to myself however, is how the bones fit with the Biblical picture.

I personally find no quibble between the bones and Genesis, as I’ve stated so many times here that man (ruddy) was “of the dust/ground”, which is no different from saying that “life originated in the primodial soup”!

According to my research of the Bible (using the repetitive algorithm) I discovered that man/ruddy was strictly an animal (soul) in it’s formative stages. It was able to change as a result of entering the garden where it (soul) got God’s image.

The way the algorithm tells the story is that man (both male and female/asexual) left the garden for a time and the woman was produced (it gave birth to her). Thereafter, it was referred to as strictly male (Adam), all the female genes had been pooled into its offspring (Eve).

I am assuming (because of the unusualness of the garden itself) that man in this state was no longer the same creature it had been when it entered the garden. As a result of having gained a supernatural spirit it was able to change. The male (somewhere in between animal and human) left offspring (Neanderthal) behind when it returned to the garden with its daughter.

And the reason why we do not see primates changing in this manner today is because they never got God’s image.


PNG - #76134

January 21st 2013

Jim, what do you think of the perspective in this paper (or at least the abstract - I don’t have access to the paper)?They think way too many hominin species have been defined and that everything since Australopithecines is Homo sapiens. 

Number of ancestral human species- a molecular perspective.

Jimpithecus - #76135

January 21st 2013

The ultimate lumpers.  Wow.  This is similar to a position that palaeoanthropologist Milford Wolpoff promoted a few years back.  Let me read the article and see what I think.  Thanks for the link.

Norman - #76155

January 22nd 2013


When you are finished with this series are you going to be able to put all of these articles together into a book. In my estimation it would be a wonderful resource to give to friends to peruse or to just have around as a great reference.


Jimpithecus - #76162

January 22nd 2013

That is the plan.  When I was originally approached about doing this series the idea was to tie them all together in one scholarly article at the end.  Thank you for the very nice comments.

Seenoevo - #76158

January 22nd 2013

“Our best understanding is that this form gave rise to Homo erectus around a million years ago, and that by 700,000 years ago, Homo erectus was firmly established as the dominant (if not the only) hominin on the landscape… this hominin had mastered fire, standardized stone tool technology and incorporated hunting into its daily life.”

I would imagine some current day tribes deep in the Amazon or in darkest Africa have not advanced much, if at all, beyond mastering fire, standardizing stone tool technology and incorporating hunting into daily life.

Are these homos erectus?

Jimpithecus - #76169

January 23rd 2013

No, they are modern human, as defined by their physical appearance.  The reason that they have not progressed technologically is more a result of their limited population size and culture, as opposed to their intelligence level. 

Annie - #76173

January 24th 2013

I remember when I was in high school, our professor in History told us about homo sapiens and how they survived for million of years ago.

Jon Garvey - #76174

January 24th 2013

Would you seek help writing your dissertation from this woman???

Jimpithecus - #76182

January 24th 2013

Even if you extended out Homo sapiens to the beginning of archaic Homo sapiens, that is 600 thousands years.

Jon Garvey - #76185

January 25th 2013

Jim that’s outrageous - only yesterday I saw a rerun of that film with Racquel Welch, and it was clearly entitled “One Million Years BC”! Don’t they teach you palaeontologists anything?

Jimpithecus - #76193

January 25th 2013

Oh yeah, forgot about that one.  Isn’t that the one with the giant tsunami at the end that never quite seems to reach landfall?  I think Ringo Starr’s Caveman is a better representation.  ; )   Sorry I can’t find the emoticons on this interface.

PNG - #76195

January 25th 2013

Those Homo erectus babes sure were hot.

Jon Garvey - #76204

January 26th 2013

And now they have jobs helping people write dissertations. Sorry to divert this serious and sensible thread.

GJDS - #76196

January 25th 2013

“The reason that they have not progressed technologically is more a result of their limited population size and culture, as opposed to their intelligence level.”

You need data to support this ascertian - it is a tenet of current evolution theory that population growth is a driving factor for the development of current human beings. Yet there are numerous examples where indigenous populations were consderable, their culture developed over thousand’s of years (Australia, New Guenea, jusit to name some). Yet they survived and according to your criteria they are technologically undeveloped and could not have continued in your evolutionary path. They were in fact prevented by white populations driving many to extinction (this over a few hundred years). Consider your native Americans and the decimation of large populations of humans and animals by the white people. 


PNG - #76197

January 25th 2013

What’s your point? And what does this have to do with evolution, as distinct from cultural development? Technological progress is no doubt a function of many things. Jared Diamond has argued that a lot depends on what animal and plant species are available to a people. Horses are easily domesticated and very capable. Tapirs were apparently a pain in the neck to try to domesticate. Agriculture based on the different wheat varieties supported the rise of large hierarchical civilizations that eventually invented writing. Teosinte took more development to become maize in the new world, and that may partly account for the later development of Central American civilization, but why did the New World civilizations never invent the wheel, except as part of toys? Hard to say. Diamond tells of an American Indian leader who, merely observing that white men could record their language in writing and never learning to write English himself, nonetheless set about inventing a written form of his own language. All he needed was the idea - he had the intelligence.

PNG - #76198

January 25th 2013

New partial genome sequence of an early modern human in China:

DNA analysis of an early modern human from Tianyuan Cave, China

GJDS - #76199

January 26th 2013

The point is that you equate increase in population, ability to obtain food, and artifacts, as part of the reason why some species survived, evolved, and thus you try and come up with a lineage of descent. Here we have numerous examples where natives lived in harmony with nature, population grew at their rate, they were fed, and until the white race came to disturb them, they continued without (any data on) variation, over many thousand of years - I think someone reported Australian natives may have lived without significant change for more then 40,000 years. This is simply one additional question you cannot answer without becoming combative. Why do scientist report that North America had an ecologically sound region until the white race destroyed it? And what population sizes do you postulate before they become ‘advanced’ (although you will now claim this is not evolution - until someone comes along and says it is - and it goes on).

PNG - #76200

January 26th 2013

Why does asking you what your point is constitute combativeness? You are the one who characterizes people who (might) disagree with you as “insane,” “imbeciles” etc.

GJDS - #76201

January 26th 2013

I do not know what happened but this post was not supposed to go on line before I completed it - I cannot correct it and I guess I made my point.

Jimpithecus - #76223

January 28th 2013

This simply is not so.  There is plenty of evidence that the Native Americans hunted many species to extinction even before the white man got there.  While it is quite true that climate change was partly responsible it was only partly responsible.

Jimpithecus - #76225

January 28th 2013

We have This idealized view of Native American culture and the fact of the matter is they were humans just like everyone else.  As far as your other point is concerned, Chris Stringer, in his most recent book, argues strongly that the reason Tasmanian culture devolved technologically is because they had a population fall-off and the population that remained simply could not maintain the technological edge.  Technological advancement is only maintained with an effective population size.  When a population gets small there is not enough cooperation and more of an emphasis on survival.  Consequently, the technology is simply not passed on from generation to generation. 

You have the opposite going on in the upper Paleolithic where you had increasing population size from one generation to the next.  Because you had increased cooperation, you had increased innovation and the tool types change dramatically and they change more quickly.  It is not that the people are more intelligent, it is simply that there are more of them and, together they spur technological innovation.

Jon Garvey - #76402

February 6th 2013

Jim - Sorry for the late reply: I’ve been locked out by software. I find your argument for the development of human technological and cultural accomplishments interesting, because it suggests that most of what we value in our human situation is post-evolutionary.

How one explains it is another question, but given evolution’s propensity to adjust to the immediate situation, rather than future possibilities, it makes for a rather interesting story, doesn’t it? There would seem no very good reason why adaptations suited to survival on the savannah in a small band should prove effective in mastering physics, writing sonatas or reasoning out the attributes of God once the population passes a threshold.

GJDS - #76202

January 26th 2013

Again I restate my point, and I cannot see any words like ‘insane’ and ‘imbeciles’ in my post, so perhaps you have answered you own question regarding combative. Nonetheless, what of the points I have raised? Are you now going to more references, or can you simply state your point of view?

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