Is it possible that modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) or our forerunners archaic modern humans (Homo sapiens, Cro-magnons, et al) were living close to 1 mya? Generally, we’ve believed that modern humans came onto the scene about 100 kya then with new discoveries that was extended back to 200 kya and recently with new finds in Morocco the timeline for modern humans has been extended back to 300 kya.
Back in December of 1997 Discover Magazine ran an article about a controversial discovery. That discovery was made in Spain in 1995 in a cave called Gran Dolina in the Atapuerca region of Spain. This fossil suggested that modern humans were much older than believed, by far, in fact. The fossil was from an 11 year old boy who looked like a modern human yet it was dated at 800 kyr (hundred thousand years old). How is this possible if modern humankind is only 200-300 kyr?
This discovery, however, is not alone because in 1932 the famous Dr Louis Leakey made an astonishing find of his own! This discovery was made around Lake Victoria in Kenya, Africa. Leakey found numerous fossils belonging to the Middle Pleistocene that were really no different from modern man. Problem was that the Mid Pleistocene was about one million years ago!! (actually from about 781 to 126 thousand years ago). His discoveries were dismissed (as expected) but Leakey always maintained that the dating was CORRECT!
Returning to the 1995 discovery made in Spain, the find was so shocking that even the discoverers were shocked by it! Never in a million years did they expect to find any ancient human ancestor remains that looked like modern humans! The team was led by Dr Juan Luis Arsuaga Ferraras who said that he and his team expected something big and primitive but never modern looking. “What we found was a totally modern face,” he told the Discover magazine writers. “The most spectacular thing is finding something you thought belonged to the present, in the past….we were very surprised when we saw it.”
This find in Spain in 1995 rekindled the controversy surrounding Dr. Leakey’s find in Kenya in 1935. Suddenly, the human evolutionary tree was swaying in a wind once again!! What both of these fossils meant was that the date for modern humans arrival on the scene had to be adjusted backwards just as is happening now with the latest finds in Morocco. Well………….not exactly! Things are sometimes found in anthropology and archaeology that don’t fit in with our notion of what things should be and when that happens they are typically ignored, denied, and stored away in the dusty back closet never to be discussed or brought out in the light again! But, SOMETIMES a little trick is used to explain such oddities as was the case with the 1995 modern looking skull of the 11 year old boy found in Spain. The mainstream could not except modern looking human ancestors existed 800 kyr so they conjured up a new species which they called Homo antecessor!! And that solved the “problem.” 🙂
Homo erectus is not so different from us and over the decades some researchers have taken particular notice of this. In fact, some researchers over the decades have called for H. erectus being classed as a version of Homo sapien (archaic modern human). In the November-December 2000 an article appearing in American Scientists magazine entitled “Doubting Dmanisi” by Pat Shipman caused a stir. A conference was also held on the same subject in that year. Known as the Senckenberg Conference participants got caught up into a flaming debate over the status of H. erectus! It all began with a presentation by Milford Wolpoff of the University of Michigan and Alan Thorne of the University of Canberra and colleagues. They argued rather strongly that H. erectus had no validity as a species and should therefore be eliminated as a classification all together!! All members of the genus “Homo”, they argued, from 2 mya to present are only variants and widely spread members of the genus Homo sapiens “with no natural breaks or subdivisions!”. Thus, the subject of the conference, Homo erectus, did NOT exist.
In short what these scientists were asserting was that Homo erectus is NOT a separate species from Homo sapiens but, rather, simply a race or variant of Homo sapiens! Participants also noted the huge gap between H. erectus and more primitive species such as Ardipithecus and Australopithecus (including H. habilis) and some even suggested that these more archaic species were apes, not men!
Entering into the debate Richard Leakey stated that the differences between H. erectus and modern humans is nothing more than “racial variance.” Referring to some features seen in H. erectus such as skull shape, face protrusion, brow ridges, et al Leakey said, “These differences are probably no more pronounced than we see today between the separate geographical races of modern humans.” Leakey wasn’t alone in his assertion. Dr William Laughlin of the University of Connecticut conducted some extensive anatomical examinations of Inuits and the people living on the Aleut Islands and he showed that these people were extraordinarily similar to H. erectus!! Laughlin concluded that all of these different people were nothing more than different races or species of MODERN MAN.
As a part of this debate there was also the article appearing in March of 1998 in New Scientist asserting that Homo erectus was an ANCIENT MARINER! In fact, asserted the article, H. erectus was sailing the waters 700 kya and that therefore H. erectus was NOT primitive! “When we consider the vast differences that exist between remote groups,” the article stated, “such as Eskimos and Bushmen, who are KNOWN to belong to the single species of omo sapiens, it seems justifiable to conclude that Sinanthropus (Peking Man, an erectus specimen) belongs within the SAME diverse species” (ie: Homo sapiens).
One of the primary reasons that H. erectus is classified as “primitive” is because of its cranial capacity (900-1100 cc). This is smaller than the average modern human male. Another reason is the thick browridges of LATER Homo erectus (as Dr John Hawks has noted earlier erectus had smaller browridges for some unknown reason). This said, it must be also noted that there are actually many people alive today who have the SAME cranial capacity as H. erectus!! For example pygmies and there are also people that have browridges. I must also point out that bigger cranial capacity does NOT always mean more intelligence and visa versa.
Researchers supporting the theory that H. erectus is just a variant of H. sapiens also point to Turkana Boy found in Kenya near Lake Turkana. Turkana Boy is classified as a H. erectus specimen. He was about 12 years old when he died and stood about 1.83 meters (6 feet) tall. American paleoanthropologist Alan Walker has noted that he doubts the average pathologist today probably could not tell the difference between the Turkana Boy fossils and a modern human male adolescent skeleton. Walker says he actually laughed when he saw the skull of Turkana Boy because “it looked so much like a Neanderthal.”
Finally, there is the “enigma” involving the Kow Swamp skulls I and V. Found in Australia by Alan Thorne and Phillip Macumber they first considered the skulls as those of Homo sapiens but they had many features of H. erectus. The reason they were first classified as H. sapiens is that they were dated at 10 kyr. If they had been identified as H. erectus then that would have meant that H. ERECTUS EXISTED UNTIL AT LEAST 10 KYA!!
All of this continues to be debated even today. In my many posts on this blog I have made my positions clear in connection with this ongoing debate. For example, I’m pretty sure H. erectus was a Mariner! And it would not surprise me in the least if we found clear evidence of H. erectus in the so called “New World.” Further, I have often wondered why the division between H. erectus and H. sapiens as many of the features seen in both are the same or similar. Slowly the appearance of H. sapiens is being pushed back from 100 kya to 150 kya to 200 kya and now with the discoveries in Morocco 300 kya. I am sure that this date for our species will be pushed back even further in the near future!