The Inhabitants of Ice Age Europe

By: Nancy Minugh-Purvis

Originally Published in 1992

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Early European Origins

The first inhabitants of Europe were not native to the region. Some 5 to 6 million years ago, hominids (members of our biologi­cal family) evolved in Africa from an ancestral population of apelike creatures that also gave rise to today’s chimpanzees, our closest liv­ing relatives. These earliest African hominids—very different looking than ourselves—are given the scien­tific name Australopithecus to sepa­rate them from the genus Homo to which we, and other hominids more closely related to us, belong (see box on hominid taxonomy).

The differences between ourselves and the early australo­pithecines were major. Their brains were small, their teeth were large, and in many ways they looked more like living chimpanzees than hu­mans. But in one very fundamental way, even these earliest members of Australopithecus were clearly ho­minids: they were fully bipedal crea­tures, who stood and walked erect, freeing their hands for full-time ma­nipulative purposes such as the use of tools.

Between its appearance some 5 to 6 million years ago, and its eventual extinction as a group, the genus Aus­tralopithecus evolved into a number of species. One of these, which ap­peared between 4 and 2.5 million years ago, has been given the name of early Homo, or Homo habilis. Its de­scendent, Homo erectus, was probably the first hominid to reach Europe.

Artits reconstruction of an early hominid using its hand to drink from a stream.
Fig. 1. An artist’s reconstruction of the earliest Europeans. This painting by the Czech artist Zdenek Burian shows ow the inhabitants of the area of Heidelberg, Germany, might have appeared during Middle Pleistocene times. It was inspired by the famous Middle Pleistocene hominid fossil, the “Heidelberg jaw,” discovered by workmen in the Mauer sandpit in 1907.

Scientific Nomenclature and Hominid Taxonomy

A system for classifying organisms is called a taxono­my. One such system for scientifically naming living and previously living organisms was devised by the Swedish naturalist Carols Linnaeus in his historic 1758 publication, Systema Naturae. Under this system, which is still in use today, all organisms are referred to by a two-part name. The first part names the genus, a group of species with many common characteristics. The second name denotes the species to which an or­ganism belongs. Living things are grouped together into a single species if they have the capacity to interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Obviously, this objective criterion cannot be applied to extinct organisms, mak­ing it necessary for paleontologists to use anatomical similarities in deciding which fossils should be grouped together as a species.

Since the time of Linnaeus, it has become common to add a third part to the scientific names of many or­ganisms, in order to identify the subspecies to which they belong, Modern humans have the trinomial, or three-part name, Homo sapiens sapiens, indicating that we belong to the genus Homo, the species sapiens, and the subspecies sapiens. In Latin, this name means “wise, wise man.” All living humans belong to this sin­gle subspecies.

In tracing the evolution of Ice Age Europeans, sever­al different groups, or taxa, of the genus Homo need to be considered, including the following.

Early Homo (Homo habilis): The earliest form of Homo appeared in Africa approximately 2.5 million years ago. It possessed a brain not much larger than a chimpanzee’s, and fairly large teeth. However, it made tools and is believed to have lived, full-time, on the ground. Some palecanthropologists believe that the hominid brain began its evolution into the very large organ which it is today when early Homo became fully terres­trial. Without the need to climb trees, early Homo par­ents could carry helpless infants. This permitted the survival of babies born in a more premature state, al­lowing for greater brain growth to occur both before and after birth.

Five drawings of homini skulls in profile.
Fig. 2a-e. (a)Early Homo, (b) Homo erectus, (c) early Homo sapiens, (d) Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, and (e) Homo sapiens sapiens

Homo erectus: Homo erectus evolved in Africa approx­imately 1.6 million years ago. It is notable for its fairly large brain size, and for smaller teeth and larger body size than its predecessors. Approximately 1 million years ago, some Homo erectus populations left Africa and began to colonize the Old World (Fig. 3). By 400,000 years ago, Homo erectus had evolved into the earliest members of our species, the first Homo sapiens

Homo sapiens: Early HOMO sapiens shared so many anatomical similarities with late Homo erectus that the exact time of the transition from one to the other is dif­ficult to pin down. Anatomically, Homo sapiens may be distinguished from Homo erectus by its larger brain, smaller teeth, and less massive face. The first European Homo sapiens lived from approximately 400,000 to 125,000 years ago.

Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or Neanderthals (Fig. 4) lived in Europe and the Middle East between 125,000 and 35,000 years ago. They are considered archaic Homo sapiens by paleoanthropologists because of the large number of biological and behavioral traits which they shared in common with living Homo sapiens. At the same time, however, they were sufficiently different from ourselves to warrant placement in the separate sub­species Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. Neanderthals had large faces, powerful limbs, and extremely large brains which often exceeded the modern human aver­age of 1450 millilitres.

Homo sapiens sapiens, or modern humans, appeared in Europe between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago, re­placing the Neanderthals who had lived in that region for perhaps as long as 90,000 years. Although the earli­est Homo sapiens sapiens were not completely modern in every aspect of their anatomy, their overwhelming bi­ological and behavioral similarities to living humans warrants their inclusion in our own subspecies.

Impression of a foot print in the ground.
Fig. 3a. Ancient impression of a fleeting moment. In 1965 French prehistorian Henry de Lumley uncovered this 400,000-year-old print of a human foot at Terra Anata, a site in the city of Nice, on the French Riviera. It is the oldest human footprint known from Europe.

Contour drawing of a footprint inmpression.
Fig. 3b. Contour drawing of the footprint.

Homo erectus was different from its predecessor, early Homo, in a number of ways. Its brain was significantly larger, up to 1,250 millilitres in ca­pacity. Its overall body size was also larger, within the modern human range, in contrast to the short earlier australopithecines and Homo habilis. The teeth of Homo erectus were small­er, suggesting a greater reliance on tools than on teeth for important ac­tivities. This is also seen in the tools associated with these hominids, which are more refined than those found with early Homo. Overall, Homo erectus had far more sophisti­cated means for dealing with its envi­ronment than did earlier hominids, and these skills must have figured prominently in its eventual coloniza­tion of much of the Old World.

Until approximately 1 million years ago, hominids evolved exclu­sively within the confines of the African continent. Then, Homo erec­tus began to push beyond its bound­aries into other regions of the Old World. With this expansion of the hominid range, the first people ar­rived in Europe no later than 900,000 years ago. These immigrants of African ancestry probably came by way of the Middle East (Fig. 5).

The Middle East provides the logi­cal route of passage from Africa into Europe for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the Straits of Gibraltar are very deep. Even during times in the earth’s history when a far greater proportion of the earth’s total water supply was tied up in massive conti­nental ice sheets than today, ocean water levels have never dropped low enough to expose a land bridge connecting Gibraltar and north Africa. This would have made entry into Europe by foot from the west impossible.

The earliest signs of human ar­rival in the prehistoric record of the Middle East come from `Ubeidiya, Is­rael, an open air site on the west bank of the Jordan River dated to ap­proximately 1 million years ago. The highly fragmentary hominid fossil E found at `Ubeidiya almost certainly represent ancestors of the people who initially populated Europe. They have the extremely thick crab• nial bones found in Homo erectus, bulb the fossils are so poorly preserved that it is difficult to be completely certain of their identity. Neverthe­less, their presence in Israel at this date indicates that by this time hominids had ventured out of Africa towards Asia Minor. Pushing north. ward through the Jordan River Val ley, perhaps pursuing game of merely following their adventure some curiosity, their descendents eventually traversed the land bridge which emerged at the Dardanelle during periods of lowered sea level and reached Europe. A shore 100,000 years later, they had not only arrived along the northern shores of the Mediterranean, but had already penetrated far into the rugged continental interior.

Top half of a skull fragment showing large, protruding browridge, eye sockets, and nose socket.
Fig. 4. Staring out from under a massive browridge, this Neanderthal face from the Krapina rock shelter in Croatia was excavated at the turn of the century. The fossil-bearing deposits at Krapina yielded the remains of dozens of individuals, making it the richest of any known Neanderthal site. Although this specimen is fairly complete, most of the Krapina Neanderthals are broken bone fragments and teeth. Gouges and charring on some of these fossils have led several scientists to speculate that the Krapina people – many of them children – were the victims of an ancient cannibalistic massacre.

The time from 730,000 to 125,00( years ago is called the Middle Pleistocene epoch by geologists and paleontologists. Although hominids entered Europe well before Middle Pleistocene times, our earliest glimpses of them come not from their bones and teeth, but from investigation of their behavior left behind a the earliest known European archaeological sites. Le Vallonet Cave on the French Riveria and the open-air site of Soleihac in the rugged interior of the French Massif Central have yielded artifacts suggesting the presence of Homo in Europe by 900,000 years ago. Actual fossil re­mains of these earliest Europeans have only been recovered from later in the paleontological record, from sites dating well within the 730,000 to 125,000 year time range of the Middle Pleistocene itself (Fig. 1).

Early European Evolution

The fossil evidence for Middle Pleistocene Europeans is known from several sites in eastern, central, and western Europe, all located below the 51st parallel. However, as is often the case with hominid fossils, they are disappointingly sparse and extremely poorly dated, making their study a difficult undertaking.

Like all human ancestors living during Middle Pleistocene times, the earliest Europeans had extremely large faces with broad cheekbones. Their brains were larger than those of earlier species of Homo, and were inclosed in a massive skull. A large ridge of bone extended across the tops of their bony eye sockets, about where our eyebrows are today (Fig. 7). The back of the skull was particu­larly thick, probably because the neck muscles attached there had to be unusually strong to lift the heavy face. The widest part of the skull was low, just above the ears, so that it had the shape of a flattened penta­gon when viewed from the rear. Al­though very few limb and trunk bones are known from these Middle Pleistocene Europeans, one portion of a pelvis from Arago, France, in­cludes features reminiscent of those seen in its Homo erectus contempo­raries from elsewhere in the Old World.

However, there are also some dif­ferences between the European Mid­dle Pleistocene people and the fossils known from other areas of the Old World at this time. For example, the back portion of a skull found at Swanscoinbe, England, in the gravels of the Thames River, has a curious oval depression on the outside of the back of the braincase. The signifi­cance of this feature is unknown, but we find it in the braincases of later ancient Europeans, the Nean­derthals, as well. Likewise, the flat­tened, backward projection of the rear of the skull, known as an occipi­tal bun or chignon because of its re­semblance to a roll of hair worn at the back of a woman’s head, is found in an early fossil skull from Biache ­Saint-Vaast, a site in northern France. This too foreshadows the Neanderthals and other subsequent European populations.

Map of major fossil sites in Europe.
Fig. 5. From Africa to Europe. One natural route for hominids finding their way from Africa to Europe (indicated by arrow) would have been via the Great Rift Valley system, which extends from eastern Africa north into present-day Israel. Various famous fossil sites mentioned throughout this article are also shown.

These early Europeans of the Middle Pleistocene had huge faces, with jaws that projected so far for­ward that even though’ their teeth were larger than ours, they did not fill the entire horizontal part of the jaw. Instead, there was a gap between the back teeth and the vertical part of the jaw. In two specimens from Arago, France, and another from the site of Petralona, Greece, this for­ward projection is further accentuat­ed by the swollen appearance of the middle part of the face, from the nose to the cheekbones. Both of these traits, too, are typical of the later Neanderthals of Europe.

Even the teeth show unusual dif­ferences from contemporary Homo erectus elsewhere in the Old World, further evidence that unique local evolutionary changes were occurring within European populations. In sev­eral lower jaws known from this time, the cheek teeth, or molars, are swollen internally and have stubby roots. This condition, known as tau­rodontism, is particularly exaggerat­ed in later Europeans (Fig. 8). Moreover, the back teeth, or molars and premolars, were shrinking in the hominids of Europe—a trend found throughout the Old World over this time period. But in European fossils, the front teeth were enlarging at the same time. This trend too became even more pronounced among the later Europeans known as Nean­derthals.

Finally, there may have been a marked difference in the appear­ance of males and females, far more than is true of people today. It ap­pears that during Middle Pleistocene times, male and female Europeans were quite different in overall body size and muscularity, a tendency which characterized Europeans until only 10,000 to 20,000 years ago.

Paleoanthropologists are current­ly divided as to whether these Middle Pleistocene Europeans should be classified as late Homo erectus, or their descendant, early Homo sapiens. For example, one skull from Bilz­ingsleben, Germany, appears very similar to a well-known Homo erectus specimen from east Africa. Other fossils, however, are more like Homo sapiens in possessing thinner bones in the braincase and other more modern traits. Whatever their scien­tific name, these fossils provide nu­merous clues pointing to the evolution within Europe of a very un­usual archaic group of ancient peo­ple, the Neanderthals.

Chronology showing the type of human fossil and corresponding hundred of thousands of years ago.
Fig. 6. Chronology of European Ice Age fossils.

The Neanderthals

By Upper Pleistocene times, which began 125,000 years ago, ho­minid fossils become increasingly more common in the European pa­leontological record. Many more sites are known, and they contain more and better preserved fossils. In addition, the fragile remains of chil­dren, nearly unknown from the European Middle Pleistocene, are rather common in the Upper Pleis­tocene (Fig. 9). This increase in ho­minid fossils could reflect a greater hominid population density in cer­tain areas of Europe during this time. Or, it could have resulted from a new and very human behavioral pattern: intentional burial of the dead. But the people represented by these fossils did not look human in the modern sense; they were archaic members of our species, given the scientific name Homo sapiens nean­derthalensis (see box, Neanderthal or Neandertal?).

Neanderthals were strikingly dif­ferent in appearance than ourselves. Their long, narrow faces were domi­nated by a strong browridge and a large nose set in a swollen midfacial area which projected out over a re­ceding chin. Short in stature, barrel-chested, and extraordinarily well-muscled (Fig. 10), these.stocky people successfully inhabited most areas of the European continent below the 52nd parallel for nearly 100,000 years.

Although scientists have been studying the many peculiar aspects of Neanderthal anatomy for over a century (the first recognized Nean­derthal was discovered near Dussel­dorf in the Neander Valley, Ger­many, in 1856), this endeavor continues in earnest today. This is for two reasons. First, we want to learn as much as possible about these people who successfully adapt­ed to the hardships of life during the

European ice ages. Second, by com­paring Neanderthal to modern human biology, we may eventually understand a bizarre and still unex­plained event which occurred in Eu­rope between 35,000 and 30,000 years ago: the highly successfully Ne­anderthals disappeared.

Two early hominid skulls, mostly complete, pieced from fragments. The right skull is much taller along the top.
Fig. 7. Middle Pleistocene faces. These specimens from Steinheim, Germany, and Arago, France, are unusually complete. While both demonstrate the large face and prominent browridge characteristic of early Europeans, the Steinheim fossil (left) is believed to have belonged to a female individual and the Arago face to a male.

Neanderthal Biology

In trying to understand wheat made the Neanderthals so success­ful, paleoanthropologists study their adaptations, the biological and be­havioral patterns that enable an or­ganism’s survival in its particular environment. Over the years, several investigators have suggested that the distinctive features of Neanderthal are specializations that evolved to en­able them to better cope with the windy, dry, freezing environmental conditions which dominated Europe for much of their existence. Biological evidence for this comes in, nearly all areas of the Neanderthal skeleton, including the skull, trunk and extremities.

One researcher, the late Carleton S. Coon, suggested that the peculiar Neanderthal face, with its volumi­nous nasal aperture and large, puffed-out cheek regions, was a spe­cialized anatomical complex for warming frigid air to prevent it from chilling the brain and lungs (Coon 1962). The extensive mucous mem­branes lining the wide nose would, additionally, have moistened the arid, dusty air of glacial times.

The limb skeletons of Nean­derthals also suggest that they were cold-adapted people. Just as with arc­tic populations today, such as the Inuit of North America, the lower segment of Neanderthal arms and legs was shorter than the upper seg­ment. This design conserves body heat by reducing the potential amount of exposed surface area available for heat dissipation through the skin. The Neanderthal’s stocky build would also have con­served body heat.

Yet another feature which can perhaps be explained as a cold cli­mate adaptation is the most intrigu­ing of all aspects of Neanderthal biology: their large brains (estimated by measuring the internal volume of fossilized brainless), which equaled or slightly exceeded the average modern human brain in size. Howev­er, just because Neanderthal brains were somewhat larger than our own does not mean that they were more intelligent. Average brain size among modern human populations and individuals varies widely within a range of approximately 1,100 to 2,000 millilitres and cannot be taken as an indicator of relative intelli­gence. For metabolic reasons, how­ever, modern human populations living in colder regions tend to have larger cranial capacities, on average, than those in tropical environments.

X-ray of a neanderthal child's lower jaw, showing three teeth, in profile, parts of the tooth labelled.
Fig. 8. An x-ray of a Neanderthal child’s lower jaw from Devil’s Tower, Gibraltar. This specimen shows the enlarged dental pulp chambers and roots found in taurodontism, a common trait among Neanderthals.

This correlation again points to the possibility that Neanderthals pos­sessed a strong biological adaptation to the cold climate of Ice Age-Eu­rope.

The cold adaptation hypothesis also supports the idea that Nean­derthals evolved strictly within the confines of Europe, a notion sug­gested by the paucity of their re­mains outside of this fairly cir­cumscribed geographical area. One unanswered question then is, if the Neanderthals were indeed well adapted to cold climates, why did they never penetrate into Siberia or Scandinavia as the early Himo sapiens sapiens did? Was it because their pop­ulations remained fairly small, so that there was no need to push into new territory? Or does it suggest that they did not have the technology to survive the even greater extremes of cold in these regions?

Many paleoanthropologists have begun to suspect that the distinctive Neanderthal morphology might be the result of a very different process, related to a less sophisticated tech­nology rather than cold adaptation. We know Neanderthals used their front teeth for utilitarian purposes, such as holding objects while work­ing with them, far more than do modern humans. This is obvious from the extreme, rounded wear and fine microchipping seen on their front teeth (Fig. 11). Using the front teeth as a vise to hold or pull objects would transmit considerable force through the face. This could explain, in part, the extreme forward projection of the Neanderthal midfa­cial region, with its flattened cheek­bones and large nose. It could also explain the impressive development of the Neanderthal temporalis mus­cle (Fig. 12). Even the strong bony browridges over their eyes may have provided buttresses for distributing biomechanical stress, generated by using the teeth as tools, through the facial bones.

Another part of the Neanderthal skeleton which suggests their teeth were being used for strenuous work over and above food processing is the neck region of the vertebral column. Here, the bony prominences project far backwards, indicating that they were once connected by very strong muscles and ligaments, capable of supporting the head and neck against strong pulling.

Drawing of a neanderthal child skull pieces together from fragments.
Fig. 9. The Engis child, the first Neanderthal specimen discovered. Late in 1829, Dr. Paul Schmerling, a Dutch physician turned paleontologist, conducted systematic excavations of ancient animal remains at the Engis Caves, some 8 miles southwest of Liege, Belgium. His efforts were rewarded with discoveries of many Ice Age fossils, including the first hominid fossil remains ever discovered: several beautifully preserved parts of a 4-5 year old Neanderthal child (reconstructed in the drawing) and the faceless cranium of a more modern adult. While scientific attention focused on the adult, the pieces of the Engis Neanderthal child were boxed, shelved, and forgotten for nearly 100 years, leaving Schmerling forver unaware that he had discovered an archaic variety of Homo.

Some clues as to why Nean­derthals might have needed to use their teeth as tools have been of­fered by Erik Trinkaus, a paleoan­thropologist at the University of New Mexico. His reconstructions, based on the enlarged muscle attachment areas as well as joint surfaces on their fossilized upper limb bones, in­dicate that their arms were consider­ably stronger than those of most modern humans. Trinkaus suggests that Neanderthals were able to grip objects in their hands more power­fully but less precisely than modern humans, and therefore also used their teeth. However, his interpreta­tion has not gone unquestioned, be­cause we know that the earliest Homo sapiens sapiens in the Middle East were making and using the same tools as the Neanderthals there, de­spite their less muscular and more modern upper limb anatomy.

Components of both the cold adaptive hypothesis and the facial stress hypothesis might, of course, account for Neanderthal morpholo­gy. However, some aspects of Nean­derthal adaptation do not fit into either of these models.

Ralph Holloway, a paleoneurolo­gist at Columbia University, has stud­ied Neanderthal brain endocasts (see Fig. 13) and found no evidence that their brain was in any way more primitive than our own. Instead, he finds that the majority of adult Nean­derthal specimens exhibit the mod­ern human pattern of left cerebral dominance, indicating that they, like most of us, were righthanded.

Holloway’s studies of the endocra­nial casts of Homo sapiens nean­derthalensis do show one puzzling difference, however. They possessed a larger amount of tissue in the rear, or occipital area, of their brains, that area of the cerebral cortex in charge of vision, than do modern humans. Research on the remains of Nean­derthal children has shown that the majority of Neanderthal brain growth was completed very early in life just as in modern humans. The only exception was in the growth in the occipital region, which occurred quite late in the growth period during adolescence. This pattern was not unique to Neanderthals; it is seen in the remains of early Homo sapiens sapiens from Europe as well (Trinkaus and Le May 1982; Min­ugh-Purvis 1988). Since that time, however, modern humans have lost this pattern, but the evidence for the great similarity between brain growth in Neanderthals and early Himo sapiens sapiens, as well as our­selves, suggests that striking similari­ties must have existed between Neanderthal and our own cognitive and behavioral systems.

Before Neanderthals, very few ex­amples of older adults are known from the prehistoric record. But many of the Neanderthal fossils which have been discovered be­longed to oldsters, well past their bi­ological prime at the time of their deaths. These old Neanderthals suf­fered from many of the same ail­ments affecting elderly persons today. There is conspicuous evi­dence of arthritis in the joints of their limbs and back, and many are missing most of, if not all, their teeth. Yet these individuals survived, disabled, for some time prior to their deaths. Oldsters without teeth must have been eating prepared foods which could be easily ingested without chewing, and those affected with severe arthritis were probably assisted or even cared for by other members of their social group, a be­havior we tend to regard as uniquely human among primates. Even more striking is the evidence that such care did not end at death. Several Neanderthals, some elderly, others in their prime, and still others young children or infants, have been found in what appear to have been deliber­ate, perhaps even ceremonial, buri­als.

A drawing of neanderthal skeleton and human skelton side by side in profile for comparison. The neanderthal skeleton is more bent forward and shorter.
Fig. 10. Comparison of Neanderthal (left) and modern human skeletons. From 1911 to 1913, the French pathologist Marcellin Boule publisehd a detailed description of an elderly Neanderthal found in what many prehistorians consider a ritual grave, at the site of La Chapelle-aus-Saints, France. Using that specimen, Boule generated a reconstruction of teh Neanderthal skeleton, depicted here. Although some details of Boule’s reconstruction (such as the bent knees) are now known to be incorrect, many, such as the prominent bony processes in the neck region of the vertebral column and the barel-chested thorax, accurately represent these extinct hominds.

Another difficult question con­cerns whether Neanderthals pos­sessed language. This fundamental human characteristic is linked to many other types of symbolic behav­ior. Thus, it is extremely important to determine whether this was part of the Neanderthal behavioral reper­toire if we wish to assess or perhaps use it as a gauge of their humanness. The biological evidence for the evo­lution of language comes from two distinct areas: the brain and the speech apparatus. Holloway’s studies of Neanderthal brain endocasts give every indication that their neural cir­cuitry for language capacity was well evolved. However, it is just as diffi­cult to document and analyze the anatomy of the vocal apparatus as it is to study the anatomy of the brain from the fossil record.

The vocal tract consists of a com­plex of structures including the teeth, palate, tongue, and larynx or voice box. Unfortunately, most of the anatomy of these areas is soft tis­sue and cartilage, which like the brain, do not fossilize. To study the Neanderthal capacity for speech, we must again rely heavily on indirect evidence: the areas of vocal tract soft tissue attachment to bones, such as the skull base, and a small, horse­shoe-shaped bone, the hyoid, which rests just underneath the lower jaw high in the throat (see Fig. 9 in Chase’s “Language in the Ice Ages”). These areas are so delicate and pre­served so rarely that, for example, only a single hyoid bone is known from the entire hominid fossil record.

The single known hyoid bone was discovered in 1983 with the remains of a Neanderthal skeleton from the Israeli site of Kebara. Because the hyoid of the Kebara Neanderthal is unambiguously modern in form, it suggests that European Nean­derthals may have had hyoids of sim­ilar shape and, by extension, the capacity for articulate speech. Mea­ger though it is, the evidence from both the brain and the vocal tract shows that Neanderthals most cer­tainly possessed a fairly sophisticated form of verbal communication that we would consider language.

Close up of front teeth of a neanderthal showing wear that rounded the teeth.
Figure 11a. Excessive tooth wear was common among Neanderthals. The extreme rounded wear seen on so many Neanderthal front teeth may be a result of using them to assist the hands in gripping and pulling objects.

The First Modern Humans Appear in Europe

Suddenly, between about 35,000 and 30,000 years ago, Neanderthals vanished from Europe. Their disap­pearance may have been linked to a new type of hominid which, accord­ing to some evidence, had been evolving in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa throughout the Upper Pleistocene. These were the earliest members of our own sub­species, Himo sapiens sapiens. They appeared in Europe curiously late, around the time that the skeletal morphology seen in the European fossil hominid record began to change from the Neanderthal to the modern human pattern.

A few sites are known which date to the time of this transition from Neanderthals to modern humans. One, at Mladac Moravia (Czech Re­public), has yielded the remains of several partial skeletons. The Mladec bones are not fully anatomically modern, but rather have a numbers of modern human traits mixed with archaic features reminiscent of Ne­anderthals, such as a thick, large browridge and protruding occipital area. In the Balkans, at the site of Is it correct to think that when Neanderthals disappeared they be­came totally extinct, with no surviv­ing children—totally replaced by the newly arrived Himo sapiens sapiens? Or is it perhaps more accurate to as­cribe the Neanderthal disappear­ance to interbreeding with these more modern immigrants until their genes became so completely ab­sorbed that they were no longer rec­ognizable as having come from a Ne­anderthal stock? This remains one of the major debates of modern pa­leoanthropology, a debate which will probably continue for some time, given the minimal amount of direct evidence available from the fossil record.

Where modern humans came from, and the nature of their adaptations which permitted them to so quickly replace the Neanderthals, is also under debate. Unlike Nean­derthals, the limb segment propor­tions of these early Homo sapiens sapiens do not exhibit a cold climate adaptation despite the fact that they inhabited Europe during the coldest interval of the entire Upper Pleis­tocene. Nor do they exhibit the dis­tinctive, specialized facial features that slowly evolved during the Middle and Early Upper Pleistocene of Europe, culminating in Neanderthal craniofacial morphology.

View of a jaw and set of teeth from above showing the wear of the teeth.
Fig. 11b. This individual, from Shanidar, Iraq, utilized his teeth so extensively that the dental crowns are completely worn away, leaving on the exposed, worn tops of the rooth roots for chewing.

Neanderthal or Neandertal?

Neanderthal, as the term is spelled here, is also com­monly spelled without the “h.” This is because Tal, the German word for valley, was formerly spelled Thal. When changes in German orthography at the turn of the century resulted in the respelling of this word as Tal, the ‘h’ was removed from “Neandertal” by some experts, while the old spelling “Neanderthal” was continued by others. Both spellings of the familiar name are considered equally acceptable by the scientific community, and the use of the “h” in this article simply reflects the preference of the guest editor (who pulled rank on the author). Nev­ertheless, because the scientific name predates the spelling change, the conventions of taxonomic nomen­clature dictate that the “h” must be retained in the scien­tific name Homo sapiens neandenhalensis

Krapina, Croatia, the faceless brain-case of a child was unearthed at the turn of the century. It, too, presents a mixture of Neanderthal and mod­ern features. Later-in-time central European sites, such as the spectacu­lar cemetery of the Predmosti mammoth hunters in Moravia, demonstrate that Neanderthal char­acteristics like the occipital bun continued in European popula­tions for thousands of years after the last known Neanderthals disappeared (Fig. 14).

In western Europe, the fossil record at the time of the transition is equally sparse. A very late Ne­anderthal, who died approximately 32,500 years ago, is known from the site of St. Césaire, France. Although the skull of this individual shows some modern features, including a high forehead and even a chin, the stout, strongly curved bones of the skeleton’s limbs are unmistakably those of a Neanderthal. The next good fossil hominid re­mains from western Europe belong to the earliest known modern humans from this region: the people buried at the fam­ous site of Cro-Magnon, France, about 30,000 years ago. No fossils are known from the time gap sepa­rating St. Césaire and Cro-Magnon in western European fossil deposits, and without a continuous record, it is impossible to know whether some genetic mixing, as was probably occurring in east­ern Europe, occurred in the west as well, or whether the Neanderthals of France, Bel­gium, and Iberia met a more sudden demise due to disease or other fac­tors connected with the arrival of modern humans to their region. One paleodemographer, Ezra Zub­row, has calculated that it would only take 30 generations, or 1,000 years, for Neanderthal populations to have completely disappeared if the incom­ing modern humans had even a slight adaptive advantage over them (Zubrow 1989).

Drawing of a skull in profile showing where muscles attach to the skull.
Fig. 12. Using the teeth as tools. The horizontal orientation of the back or posterior part of the temporalis muscle resists forces transmitted through the front teeth. This muscle was undoubtedly very well developed in Neanderthals, as seen from the very enlarged, hook-shaped form of the coronoid process of their lower jaw. Part of the zygomatic arch has been removed in this drawing in order to expose the insertion of the temporalis muscle into the mandible.

MtDNA: The Genetic Data for Human Evolution

The mitochondrion, the organelle responsible for the production of energy within the cell, contains its own genetic material, known as mitochondria DNA or mtDNA. Unlike the DNA found in the nucleus of the cell, which is inherited from both parents, mtDNA is inherited only from the mother. Thus, it provides a genetic record of an individual’s maternal ancestry.

Due to a high mutation rate and other factors, mtDNA evolves very quickly: five to ten times faster than the DNA of the cell nucleus. This makes it highly suitable for the examination of recent evolutionary events. By estimating the average mutation rate of mtDNA in the laboratory, and comparing the differ­ences found in the mtDNA of living human populations, research first conducted by the late Allan Wilson at UCLA, Berkeley, and his colleagues, and more re­cently by Mark Stoneking at Pennsylvania State Uni­versity, suggested that all living humans evolved from an African ancestry—from an African “Eve,” approxi­mately 200,000 years ago. This controversial finding, if correct, would have provided the first non-fossil evi­dence that modern humans were already living before Neanderthal times. However, the statistical methods used to calculate this divergence time have been strongly questioned, leaving the mtDNA findings to date highly improbable. Future research will doubtless clarify this interesting new line of inquiry into human evolution.

Endocranial cast of a neanderthal brain case.
Fig. 13. Naturally occuring endocranial cast from Ganovce, Czechoslovakia. Endocranial casts are positive replicas of the brain case, cast from molds of the internal surface of a skull cavity, and can be used to study, indirectly, the brains of extinct species. They are usually produced in the lab with modern casting materials. This naturally occuring endocranial cast from a Neanderthal was discovered in 1926. Such specimens are extremely rare.

Several lines of evidence have re­cently led to a renewal of the view, originally suggested in the late 1930s, that the European Nean­derthals were replaced by modern immigrants from warmer latitudes, such as Africa or the Middle East. New dates for the sites of Skhúl and Qafzeh in Israel have suggested that this may be the case. There, early modern human remains actually predate local Neanderthals. This is supported by fossil remains from southern Africa which, if correctly interpreted, suggest the presence of modern humans in that region over 100,000 years ago. However, genetic research which has utilized compar­isons of mitochondria) DNA (see box on genetic data) in living human populations to suggest that all modern humans originated in Africa around 200,000 years ago has recently been challenged.

If modern humans did indeed evolve in Africa over 100,000 years ago, then the Neanderthals must be considered unique to Europe and vicinity: a regional specialization which disappeared as the ubiquitous Homo sapiens sapiens steadily moved into their range. In contrast to the views of 19th century prehistorian, and our own views of only fifteen years ago, we now recognize %pat, for much of the past 1 million years, the entire time period since the arrival of hominids in Europe, the region was an evolutionary backwater. More and more evidence now points to a pattern of hominid evolution in Eu­rope which, isolated by climatic ex­tremes, digressed from the course of events elsewhere and resulted in the emergence of the Neanderthals. But the question of whether these archa­ic Homo sapiens, who survived the rig­ors of Upper Pleistocene Europe for at least 70,000 years, became totally extinct with the arrival of Homo sapi­ens sapiens or whether today’s Euro­peans represent, in part, their living descendents must, for the present, remain unanswered.

Skull of an early homo sapiens sapiens in profile.
Fig. 14. An early Homo sapiens sapiens from the mass grave at Predmosti, Czechoslovakia. Although not as strongly built as a Neanderthal, this individual clearly possess many archaic features, such as a bulging area at the back of the skull and fairly strong browridges.

Fig. 15. Reconstructions of the Krapina Neanderthal people. Krapina National Park, Republic of Croatia.

Cite This Article

Minugh-Purvis, Nancy. "The Inhabitants of Ice Age Europe." Expedition Magazine 34, no. 3 (November, 1992): -. Accessed May 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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