Dominique Duquet

The discoveries of the 21st century

Since the beginning of the 2000s, a great commotion took place in the study of the human lineage. Up to the point that one can speak of a true “revolution of our origins.”
These recent discoveries can be summarized around three major axes:

1. The genealogy of our ancestors has been greatly enriched. At the beginning of the 21st century, the discovery of Toumai and Orrorin gave the surprise; (hominids of 6 million years) because not only were they the oldest fossils of the human lineage, but they revealed that they were already bipeds, about 2 million years earlier than anticipated until then. Other discoveries have come to enrich our family tree.

2. The cultural evolution scenario shocked. Human fossils tell the story of hominization. Fossils of tools and art tell the story of humanization. And there have also been great changes because the manufacture of stone tools has advanced 800,000 years. We are sure from a spectacular discovery of 2015: it is perhaps an Australopithecus, contemporary of Lucy or of Small Foot, and not an old Homo who manufactured the first stone tools.
Another major discovery: symbolic practices appeared perhaps long before the appearance of
cave arts (40,000 years); 1,000,000 to 200,000 years ago, Sapiens and Neandertal no doubt used natural dyes to paint their bodies and engrave enigmatic signs on stone blocks.

3. A third revolution took place, less known, just as fundamental, of evolution models. The classical theory of evolution makes natural selection the engine of evolution. The principle is simple: mutations occur randomly and Nature makes a selection. According to this model, standing will appear in the savannah and the lineage brain would have developed to allow individuals to adapt to a very changing environment.

Evolutionists turn to other mechanisms today, such as the “cultural niche.” The species would have gradually adapted not to a natural environment, but to a social, technical and cognitive environment that has contributed to forging. This process of self-selection would have finally created a chain dynamic that has made the human lineage diverge from those of the other primates.
One of the human’s own things is precisely to have installed devices – social, technical, cultural, cognitive – that have progressively removed him from his roots.

 2000-2001 discoveries of Orrorin and Tournai. It was discovered in Kenya a very old hominid, Orrorin tugenensis, a bipedal ape of 6 million years ago. Orrorin means “the original man” in local mythology. The following year, Tournai discovery. Exhumation of a skull from a possible ancestor of the human lineage of 7 million years ago.

 2002 an ancient art of 90,000 years. In Blombos (South of Africa), small engraved red ocher blocks are dated more than 77,000 years ago. Perforated shells used as pearls were found in sites in the region, as well as in Algeria and Israel, more than 90,000 years ago. Then, in 2008, a true dye manufacturing kit will be found on the same site. Dated 100,000 years ago, it considerably delays the appearance date of symbolic thinking. In 2018, also in Blombos a small block of stone is discovered on which ocher crosses have been drawn.

 2003. In Atapuerca (Spain) skeletons dated more than 400,000 years ago are discovered. Along with the bodies, a magnificent mask named “Excalibur” due to its more than likely symbolic content, attributed to Homo heidelbergensis. Is it an offering in a collective grave? The man of Flores, a Homo erectus in the time of the Sapiens. In September 2003, on the island of Flores (Indonesia), the remains of nine old Homo small-sized (1 meter), along with stone tools and fire remains. The man of Flores (nicknamed the Hobbit) lived between -190,000 and -50,000 at the same time as the first Sapiens.

 2012 The most beautiful pottery in the world of 20,000 years ago. Ceramic fragments were discovered in China, in the cave of Xianrendong (Jiangxi Province). This ceramic precedes in 10,000 years the invention of agriculture, to which ceramics has been constantly associated.

 2013 A single species of ancient Homo. A 1.8 million-year-old skull discovered in Georgia (Dmanissi site) with traits common to different types of ancient Homo suggests that they all belonged to the same species: Homo erectus.

 2014 Signs recorded 500,000 years ago. In Indonesia, Homo erectus lived 500,000 years ago. One of them has engraved on a shell cross-shaped signs, from which their meaning escapes us, but the discovery of these signs goes back very far in the past from the signs of symbolic activities.

 2015 Discovery of stone tools dated 3.4 million years in East Africa, which precede the oldest known fossils of the genus Homo in 700,000 years.

 2015 A 130,000 year old necklace. A study shows that the oldest jewels in the world discovered in Croatia (eagle claws mounted on necklaces) have been made 130,000 years ago by Neanderthals.

 2016 176,500 years ago, Neanderthals practiced rituals inside the Gruniquel Grotto (Tarn-et-Garonne), as shown by the pieces of stalagmites in a circle. This was 140,000 years before the arrival of the Sapiens in the region.

 2017 Homo Sapiens were in Morocco 300,000 years ago. A skull of Homo Sapiens discovered in Morocco in the 1960s has been dated 300,000 years ago, which makes Homo Sapiens older in about 100,000 years. Homo Naladi This Homo erectus discovered in South Africa has lived around -250,000. He was 1.50 meters tall and weighed about 45 kilos, but his brain was no bigger than an orange. But he has deposited his dead inside hard-to-reach rooms located far away at the bottom of a cave (which means he could realize things and already practiced funeral rituals).
The great human bifurcation

The human line separated from that of the other hominids five to seven million years ago. This evolution can be summarized in four major stages, separated by major innovations.

Two centuries ago, around 1820 – 1830, we knew virtually nothing about our origins. The canonical history that prevailed was that of the Bible. Adam, the first man had been forged by God on the seventh day of Creation from a piece of mud …

That said, starting in the 18th century, a new vision of the origins of humanity had begun to emerge. In 1758, Carl von Linné proposed its classification of species. The man, renamed Homo sapiens, appeared as a species among the others. This was already reintroducing the human into the living world. At the same time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau published his “Discourses on the origin of inequalities” (1754). He proposed a theory of the emergence of the human, of language, of culture, of laws, which did not resort to God but to an evolutionary scenario.

In the early nineteenth century, in his zoological philosophy, the naturalist Lamarck explicitly considers man as born of a “four hands” who lived in trees.

The idea of an evolution of man from the animal is then well present and spreads in intellectual circles, even from within the Church.

One of the first to establish a prehistoric science is the Danish Christian Thomsen. In 1830, he published a “Guide to Scandinavian antiquities”, in which he classified the objects of prehistory into three periods: “the stone age”, “the bronze age” and “the iron age”. At the same time Jacques Boucher de Perthes, considered in France as the “father of prehistory”, discovers on the banks of the Somme River numerous stone tools that, according to him, had been carved by the hand of man in an “antediluvian” era (before the Flood). We will have to wait 20 years before the scientific world accepts this idea.
What do we know today about the men who made these tools? In 1856, the discovery of Neander, in Germany, of the fossil of a skull with primitive features brings a key element to the puzzle. After furious debates, the man called Neanderthal is recognized as the first witness of the existence of “prehistoric men.”

The discoveries continue then like that of the skull of a Homo erectus by Eugène Dubois in 1871 – the same year that Darwin publishes “The Descent of Man”. A prehistoric art (wall paintings, furniture art) is brought to light. These discoveries are fueled and stimulated by the theory of evolution that is imposed in the scientific world.

At the end of the 19th century, prehistory and archeology become lighthouse sciences. The race for human fossil vestiges, carved stones, ornate caves, begins. It is explored, searched, unearthed, classified, dated, speculated … Periodizations are refined (Middle or higher Palaeolithic, Achelense, Musterian, Gravedan, Magdalenian, etc.). Gradually the pieces of the immense puzzle of our origins are put in place …
A story in four eras: Two centuries later, where are we?

The history of the human lineage can be described in four major stages:

1) The first hominids (common ancestors of the great apes and the human line)
2) The time of the australopithecines (notably with Lucy and Little Foot)
3) The time of the ancient Homos (Homo habilis, Homo erectus, etc.)
4) Finally the time of Homo sapiens and its Neanderthal or Desinova cousins with whom it coexisted
1) The first hominids: today’s humans are the cousins (and not the descendants) of
Hermes Internacional Institute Bulletin – Number 50 – January 2020 – pág. 16
chimpanzees: we share with them a common ancestor who lived 5 to 7 million years ago. The first fossils close to this common ancestor have been found in the 2000s. They were the first representatives of the human lineage. The first was Orrorin, discovered in Kenya by the team led by Brigitte Senut. His femur allows to conclude that Orrorin was already biped. The following year, in 2001, another exceptional discovery displaces Orrorin: in the Chad desert, the team of the paleo anthropologist Michel Brunet discovers the skull of Toumaï (Sahelanthropus tchadensis), an ancient hominid of 7 million years. The great innovation of the first hominids compared to their peers, ancestors of today’s great apes, is standing.

2) The time of the australopithecus: 5 million years ago a new group of hominids, the australopithecus, appears. They formed a genus composed of many species. Its anatomical variety shows that evolution is neither linear nor unidirectional. Within the members of the Australopithecus, more archaic and other more modern features also coexisted.

The most famous: Lucy, discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia; around 1.10m, 25kg, adapted to standing, dead towards the age of 25 years. As of 2005, a reexamination of his skeleton has shown that Lucy was in fact a young male. Small Foot, another australopithecus that lived in South Africa at the same time, is to date the most complete australopithecus skeleton ever found.

In 2015, stone tools, called “carved tools”, came to light in southern Kenya, that is, intentionally fragmented to obtain cutting pieces, 3.3 million years old, 700,000 years older than those known until then.

This discovery shows that the manufacture of tools already exists with the australopithecines.
Surprising fact for a hominid in which the cranial capacity did not exceed 500 cm3, three times lower than the brain volume of current humans.

3) The ancient Homo: one of the ramifications of the Australopithecus family then gave birth to the first Homo, an evolution that necessarily developed in East Africa where the Australopithecus lived.

Homo habilis, who lived 2.5 million years ago, was long considered the oldest Homo. But in March 2015, the discovery of a piece of jaw dated 2.8 million years ago in the Afar region (Ethiopia) has delayed the birth of the genus Homo by more than 300,000 years. Homo habilis is then neither the first human nor the first to make tools (where his name comes from). As in the australopithecines, the genus of the first Homo is of great diversity.
One of the reasons for this diversification is due to its geographical dispersion. The Homo have indeed left the African cradle and reached Asia and then Europe to differentiate.

The ancient Homo shared all some common features, such as their cranial volume, between 550 and 700 cm3, their reduced canines and developed incisors suggesting an omnivorous feeding. None are small in size, as is often believed. The Turkana teenager, an Homo ergaster who lived 1.8 million years ago, was already 1.62m at 12 years old when he died. He would probably have reached 1.90m in adulthood.

The ancient Homo made stone tools according to Oldaway’s technique, which consists in breaking the stone to obtain a sharp angle. A technical jump then occurs, 1.5 million years ago, with the appearance of the oval-shaped mask carved on these two faces, it is a sophisticated tool in which manufacturing presupposes planning capabilities (to procure the appropriate pebbles) and a accurate and standardized representation of the form to be obtained. The invention of fire is another great discovery that is credited to the ancient Homo. We are certain that the fire was domesticated 800,000 years ago in the Middle East. This domain requires, again, highly developed cognitive abilities.

In two million years, the ancient Homo evolved a lot. Its cranial capacity increases, going to more than 1,000 cm3. In the upper Palaeolithic (around -300,000 years), they have more and more sophisticated tools that they obtain by elaboration (like the bifaz) or by cutting ribbons (“levalois” technique); they manufacture lances dated 500,000 years ago.

4) Homo sapiens appears: Homo sapiens, it is estimated today, dates back to -300,000 years. In addition, it appears in a region where it was not expected: the Moroccan desert. The first Homo sapiens had a brain volume of 1,350 cm3 (three times more than the first Homo). It is present in several continents. It coexists with other nearby species: Neanderthal man, Desinova man and Flores man. What were the relationships between these different species?

The “replacement theory” that had its time of glory in the 1990s assumed that Sapiens, upon arriving in Europe, had eliminated Neanderthal. But from the beginning of the 2000s, genetic analyzes and archaeological indexes suggest that miscegenation also took place. In other words, Neanderthal did not disappear altogether. Certain Neanderthals survived by crossing Sapiens, as genetic studies increasingly confirm.

From hominization to humanization

In retrospect, one thing is clear: the evolution of the human line was carried out as for most species according to a branched scenario and not a linear scheme.
What is most surprising in this evolution, is the very different trajectory of the human line compared to that of our cousins the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas or orangutans).

The hominization process (with standing and the evolution of the cranial volume) was accompanied by a “humanization” (appearance of language, sophisticated tools, burials, art). Understanding this process of humanization, that is, the emergence of the human spirit, is the object of new scenarios and models. Animal cultures, symbolic activities that go back in time, lead us to rethink the dynamics of evolution. In the same way the mechanisms that work in this evolution (natural selection, social selection, cultural selection) are now being completely redesigned. One hundred and fifty years after the birth of prehistory, it is without a doubt one of the main challenges in understanding our origins.
The two births of the Sapiens

The evolution of the Sapiens poses an enigma for prehistorians: that of the change between their anatomical evolution and their cultural evolution. From 300,000 to 100,000 years, the first Sapiens are “anatomically modern” (the cranial volume and general morphology are very close to us), but 100,000 years will have to wait for the first signs of symbolic activities with graves and 40,000 years to appear that the art of caverns that has long been considered as the sign of the emergence of symbolic thought emerges in many places on the planet. Why this change between anatomical evolution and cultural evolution?

Up to the threshold of the 2000s, prehistorians assumed that there had been a cognitive revolution 40,000 years ago (explained to some by cultural inventions and to others by a genetic mutation). This would have taken a decisive step in the Sapiens: the contemporary invention of language, symbolic cultures, art, religions … here again, recent discoveries have changed the game.

At the beginning of the 2000s, many discoveries attest to symbolic activities well before the leap of the Upper Paleolithic (-40,000). In the cave.. Other perforated shells (which served as earrings) have been seen elsewhere in Africa. In addition, the indicators prove that Neanderthal was also an artist, and he practiced undoubtedly rituals at the bottom of the caverns as evi-denced by the exceptional discovery of the Bruniquel cave.

The heirs of Homo erectus

60,000 years ago, four species of humans populated the Earth: Sapiens, Neanderthal, man of Flores and man of Desinova. Among them, only Sapiens has survived.

We are on April 6, -64615. Some tens of thousands of men populate the planet, more precisely Africa and Eurasia. Who are they? Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, men from Denisova and men from Flores. Four humanities coexist, at least, as new discoveries are still possible. Indeed, if Neanderthal has been known for over a hundred and fifty years, Flores and Denisova were known until the beginning of this century, respectively in 2003 and 2010. Of these multiple humanities, we – Homo sapiens – are the only survivors. Why did we succeed where others failed? Could it be a combination between the development of perfected language, a thriving symbolic thought and a spirit of cooperation beyond the nearest circle?

Neanderthal: west again

It seems that Neanderthal appeared about 350,000 years ago, in the ancient Palaeolithic, no doubt of an evolution of Homo heidelbergensis in Europe. Human type traditionally associated with the Middle Paleolithic (period of about 300,000 to 35,000 years), lived in Europe but left this continent for other territories; Neanderthals are discovered in the Middle East 120,000 years ago. They rubbed shoulders with the first Homo sapiens, known in this region 100,000 years ago. Neanderthal also took advantage of temperate times to get away from his place of origin. The anatomy of the Neanderthals and the severity of the climate required an important energy contribution, estimated between 4,000 and 6,000 kilocalories per day. Chemical analyzes have shown that they were large consumers of animal proteins with a regime close to that of the wolf. Its animal food resources were varied: in the cold season, reindeer, bison, horses and in temperate times wild boars and deer. The three large mammals were equally hunted: in Germany, spears dating back 300,000 years ago have been brought to light in Schoningen and an old 125,000-year-old beak was discovered in Lehringen, set in the thorax of an elephant. The wooden spears had a fire-hardened tip or were lined with a flint point.

Neanderthal, fossil collector

The few vestiges of symbolic expressions related to the Neanderthal are, in Europe, incisions in stone or bone objects and some ornaments. In one of Gorham’s grottoes in Gibraltar, some grooves of 39,000 years ago have been discovered on the ground in 2012.
Today, we cannot rule out the existence of symbolic expressions that have disappeared today, such as tattoos, body paintings, drawings on sand or on perishable surfaces (bark, skin, etc.), masks or ornaments.

An extraordinary discovery was made in 2016 in one of the Bruniquel caves (Tarn-et-Garonne) where, 176,000 years ago, the Neanderthals manipulated more than two tons of stalagmites to create circular-shaped structures. Their intentions are obviously unknown to us, but it is estimated that these are not strictly utilitarian. In addition, they are located far away from the current entrance of the cave (more than 300 meters), which shows that the Neanderthals used the lighting techniques necessary to work underground.
An extraordinary artistic bloom
All these forms of expression are modest in comparison to the extraordinary artistic flowering of Homo sapiens (mural art and furniture). This discovery must be taken into consideration during discussions about the Neanderthal’s abstraction abilities, while striving to maintain a balance between overvaluation and degeneration of their abilities. About twenty Neanderthal burials have been identified to date, of which one third are in the South West of France.

Secondary funeral practices are associated with burials: burial of the bodies on several occasions, removal of the skull after the disappearance of the meat; similarly, isolated skulls are sometimes found at the sites, suggesting a form of worship.

Neanderthal burials are mainly dated between 60,000 and 40,000 years, in the last phase of the Middle European Paleolithic. The sepulchral practices are, however, known from before, 120,000 years ago in the Middle East in Tabun (Mount Carmel, we note that Homo sapiens also buried their dead 110,000 years ago in the nearby cave of Skhul).

Towards a new world in Europe

Until about 37,000 years ago, Neanderthal is the only human in Europe. Then, in a few thousand years, it disappears, at the same time that Homo sapiens makes its entrance.
In Europe, the oldest fossil sapiens, dated between 42,000 and 37,000 years, is discovered in Oase, Romania. Homo sapiens arrive in a Europe that is in full change, a period marked by the manufacture of tools called “transition”.

At European level there was coexistence between Neanderthal and sapiens, during different periods of time according to the region; But coexistence does not necessarily mean cohabitation. For reasons we don’t know (better social cohesion? Better technology? Better demography?) Homo sapiens have won this competition.

Other hypotheses, which may be cumulative, have also been presented: epidemics, conflicts, etc. Anyway, Neanderthals definitely leave Homo sapiens after 30,000 years before our era.

Denisova, the unknown from Siberia

The Altai is a mountainous region located south of Siberia. In its Russian part is the Denisova grotto, excavated from 1970. This cavity had been occupied for more than 250,000 years and many human remains were discovered in different archeological corners.

Very few things are known about the physical appearance and culture of the Denisovans. But they have left traces of their passage in the genetic heritage of certain current humans. Studies have shown that from 4% to 6% of the genome of Papuans (New Guinea) come from Denisova, by crossing with Homo sapiens. Also, a gene of adaptation to the altitude present in the current Tibetans would be an inheritance of Denisova.

The mystery of Flores man in Indonesia

Grotto of Liang Bua, Flores Island, East Indonesia, in September 2003, Australian and Indonesian archaeologists made a surprising discovery: the remains of nine human beings of very small stature. Who are they? Its height is approximately 1 meter, that is to say, much lower than the smallest current humans and its weight is estimated at 25 kilograms. Its cranial capacity of less than 400 cm3 is equally very weak, within the range of chimpanzees and less than that of Australopithecus.

Homo floresiense, is perhaps a new species, different from Homo sapiens. According to its morphological characteristics, it would be a descendant of Homo habilis who achieved insular dwarfism due to its isolation. The island had never been linked to the continent, which means an arrival in Flores through many strokes in the sea. And a very early arrival, as shown by the presence of stone tools dated less than 800,000 years.

The origins of Homo Sapiens in Africa

As of 2017, it is known that Homo sapiens was present in Africa much earlier than he imagined, and in an unexpected region: Morocco. Archeology and genetics make it possible to reconstitute the trip that later took it to other continents.

It is in Africa that fossils that can be, for the first time, attributed to the species Homo sapiens are found between 300,000 and 200,000 years. At the same time, during the African Middle Stone Age, a new technique of carving the stone appears and one may wonder if there is no direct relationship between the appearance of this new human type and the diffusion of new techniques. It is in northwestern Africa, in Jebel Irhoud (Morocco), that the oldest footprints of Homo sapiens have come to light.

Jebel Irhoud’s men have been identified as Homo sapiens, because they share anatomical features such as short, flat and erect morphology with current humans. His teeth and jaw also have characteristics that qualify him as “modern.” However, due to other aspects, Jebel Irhoud’s men are still primitive. The case of his brain is notorious in which the size, although close to the current averages, had not yet acquired the characteristic globular shape of today’s man.

Throughout the Middle Stone Age, the forms increasingly closer to today’s men are seen to evolve in Africa. In terms of behavior, the manufacture of stone tools is increasingly diversified.
100,000 years before objects appear for the first time in which symbolic significance does not give rise to doubt. This is the case of the shells of marine gastropods that have been drilled to be suspended or attached. It is especially surprising to note the similarity of these objects brought to light in abundance in regions separated by enormous distances. These perforated shells appear at the same time in North Africa, in South Africa and in the Middle East, suggesting a spread throughout Africa and beyond.

The replacement of archaic populations in Eurasia.

Two important series of human fossils considered “ancient modern men” have come to light in Israel, in association with stone tools from the Middle Palaeolithic. The first, at the site of Mugahret-es-Skhul, near Haifa, dates between 130,000 and 100,000 years. The second comes from Jebel Qafzeh, in Galilee, and dates back between 110,000 and 90,000 years.

In the two deposits, there are the oldest intentional burials well dated. In Qafzeh, a young woman was buried with an infant at her feet; in another pit, a deer antler was deposited on the body of an infant. Perforated shells have also been discovered in the deposits of these caves, mainly in Skhul.
A fragmented jaw discovered in Mislaya, in Israel, 180,000 years ago, could represent another marker of the ancient presence of our species at the gates of Africa. In short, certain stone tools of the Middle Paleolithic of the Arabian peninsula remind those of contemporary North-East Africa, on the other side of the Red Sea, and also indicate the frequent connections between Africa and the Middle East.

The departure of Africa from Homo sapiens is not a punctual phenomenon in which it is easy to provide a date. It is also a succession of expansions in Eurasia.

The replacement of local archaic populations has not been total. Paleo genetic research has shown that a small part of the genome of current non-African men is in fact inherited from the Neanderthals and Denisovians. However, beyond a few generations after the first encounters, the effects of this hybridization quickly faded.

The expansion of Homo sapiens

Over the past 40,000 years, and because all other human forms have disappeared, Homo sapiens completes the colonization of emerging lands. The techniques that he is able to develop from now on allow him to adapt to increasingly extreme environments.

Since before the last glacier peak (21,000 years ago), human populations have been farther north than any other before them. Dated 31,000 years ago, an archaeological site on the banks of the Yana River, in eastern Siberia, testifies to the human presence beyond the Arctic circle, towards 71 degrees north latitude. A few millennia later, emerging lands due to lower sea levels between Alaska and Asia were also populated.

Tens of thousands of years ago in Australia and in America the arrival of men has had a considerable impact on wildlife. Unlike tropical Africa and Asia, these two continents had not known a long coevolution of human populations and wildlife. In North America, 35 genera of mammals, such as mammoths and mastodons, disappear rapidly. But the carnivores, who competed with men for the acquisition of smaller prey, are also hit hard.

In a way, one can consider the expansion of man in the virgin territories and the extinction of the last populations of archaic hominids as the oldest first fruits of the “Anthropocene”, this period during which man has profoundly modified the environment of the planet.