When did people become modern?

Development of Homo sapiens sapiensHow man became man

"The end of the Neanderthals is one of the really big puzzles at the time of research, because we are of the opinion that the Neanderthals' population was actually the most numerous just before the Neanderthals disappeared."

Jürgen Richter is Professor of Prehistory and Protohistory at the University of Cologne and spokesman for the Collaborative Research Center "Our Way to Europe".

"And about 40,000 years ago, when the Neanderthals then disappeared and modern humans appear, this population change takes place, by no means at a time when the Neanderthals were in any way in crisis, but quite the opposite: in the archaeological evidence it is largest population just where the Neanderthal is almost disappearing, in terms of time. "

But what could have caused the Neanderthals to become extinct?

Was he simply inferior to modern man?

Or wasn't he as "modern" as Homo sapiens sapiens?

The concept of modernity in archeology "has nothing to do with cars, airplanes and skyscrapers, as one might think at first glance," says Thorsten Uthmeier, professor of prehistory at the University of Erlangen, but rather with "special Forms of body decoration, expression of social position, the settlement areas should be structured in a certain way, fire pits, activity zones around them, sovereignty in dealing with resources, with food resources above all. The result was traditionally a list of innovations of a technological nature, which one then tried "... to work through at the various 45 - 35,000 year old sites.

"So an attempt was made to find the modern behavior at the places where it was found."

Concept with which one can record and evaluate behavior

Scientists have now established that this falls short of the mark.

"There is a colleague from Tübingen, Miriam Haidle, who has published this with some other colleagues, an expanded concept of how one can record and evaluate behavior at all if one is looking for it in the archaeological context of hunters and gatherers above all else."

Two aspects were in the foreground in these considerations:

"How is the cultural capacity of a species", for example, modern man can do something that Neanderthals cannot. And …

"The second term is the term of cultural performance, that is, what is actually actually implemented from the cultural potential, the performance."

The scientists have defined different stages:

"It starts with behaviors that we know from the animal kingdom, social behavior, the use of simple objects, which we can already observe quite well in chimpanzees, that then goes through the first stone artifacts, more complex stone artifacts, the use and control of Fire up to, that is important with the Neanderthals, shafts, where you connect two objects made of two different materials to form a new unit. Then there is a further step where you actually combine two unconnected components to create something new, and Very classic would be a needle with an eye, where a thread is pulled through, or the spear thrower, bow and arrow. And the highest level of these eight degrees of cumulative culture would be the creation of a mental superstructure from values, behavioral configurations, norms that one in a social Discourse and which one then lives within human coexistence ue approach that is more complex, more difficult. "

Figure of a Neanderthal man in the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, in front of him the striking skull roof of Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. (dpa / picture alliance / Horst Ossinger)

Modern behavior even before the appearance of anatomically modern humans

But these criteria were not only met by the Neanderthals but also by people who lived before them in today's Europe. This is shown by the oldest preserved hunting weapons, the Schöninger spears, which the then state archaeologist Hartmut Thieme found in the course of the lignite mining and which are dated to around 300,000 years.

"It has actually been shown in the last few years that actually all aspects of so-called modern behavior were present before the appearance of anatomically modern humans."

In addition to the skeletons of 25 wild horses, the excavators found bones of cattle, deer, rhinos and elephants. It quickly became clear: a group of early humans must have hunted here. The 1.80 to 2.50 meter long, carefully crafted spears have their center of gravity similar to today's competition spears in the front third of the shaft. Twelve recovered clamp shafts may have had stone blades. If the interpretation is correct, it is the first composite tools that have been handed down to mankind.

Thorsten Uthmeier is certain that there is science behind "a series of experiments and errors with a good and a bad outcome. The good outcome is used as the basis for the next experiments, and in the end something like a Schöninger spear emerges. That means , there is much more to it than the existence of the objects. "

These are characteristics that are ascribed to modern people, "or let's say people," says Jürgen Richter.

Neanderthals and modern humans fathered children

When modern humans arrived from Africa in today's Europe around 50 to 40,000 years ago, they met another contemporary who was probably no less intelligent than he was: the Neanderthals. In this respect, it is not surprising that Neanderthals and modern humans had children together.

The genes reveal what the result is. Svante Pääbo, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig:

"These early modern humans, they mixed with the Neanderthals even before they came to Europe and probably in Europe too."

Together with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Man in Jena, Harvard University and the University of Tübingen, a team of researchers examined fifty skeletons of modern humans who have come to Europe. The special thing about it: The skeletons came from between 45,000 and 7,000 years before our time.

"And now, for the first time, we have been able to examine how much Neanderthal DNA these early Europeans had. And while current Europeans carry between one and two percent Neanderthals, we found, to our surprise, that it was 40,000 or 45,000 years ago it's already more than twice or three times as much, between four and six percent. "

The first modern humans are not direct ancestors of ours - that much is now certain, says Prof. Johannes Krause, Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Man:

"Only the people who lived in Europe from around 37,000 years ago also left genes in today's Europeans, that is, there was an initial unsuccessful colonization and then the first successful colonization from around 37,000 years ago."

But if modern humans and Neanderthals have lived together in Europe for several millennia - how do you know who created what?

"Well answered honestly, not at all at first, because we cannot directly connect the artifacts with human forms. We have nothing else than analogies," says Thorsten Uthmeier.

"The starting point for all considerations are found layers in which, in addition to the stone tools, the remains of the hunted prey, perhaps structures, fireplaces, found layers where such things have been found and at the same time human remains. That is the starting point for all further considerations then see which types of people are associated with certain stone implements. "

"Treat Neanderthals like an ethnic group"

If the scientists recognize a pattern, they can draw conclusions. Conclusion:

"Neanderthals and modern humans are actually subspecies, they are not different species. That is why there are often still arguments, but it is pointed out that we have to say Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neandertalensis."

Homo denotes the genus, Sapiens the species. Both terms come from biological systematics. Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neandertalensis are therefore subspecies of the species sapiens and the genus Homo.

"Some of my colleagues, and I joined in, we said a long time ago that you have to treat the Neanderthals like one ethnic group and not like another biological species. You have to look for explanatory patterns in the field of ethnology or sociology and not in evolutionary biology. But it took a long time, and actually only until these genetic investigations, that that was also generally accepted. "

A Neanderthal man chases a mammoth in a winter landscape. The replica can be seen in the amusement park "Gondwana - Das Praehistorium" in Schiffweiler (Saarland). (picture alliance / dpa / Photo: Oliver Dietze)

His conclusion: "We have to try to pin it down to the finds. There are quite a number of them, actually from the entire time of the Neanderthals, starting 300,000 years ago to - occurring numerically more frequently - perhaps 100,000 years ago to the disappearance of the Neanderthals Sites where we have made discoveries that indicate that Neanderthals were on a par with modern humans in all aspects: socially, cognitively and intellectually. "

"Neanderthal DNA has steadily decreased"

On the other hand, based on current knowledge, it can be said that "this Neanderthal DNA then steadily decreased."

Svante Pääbo discovered this during his investigations. But why is it like that?

"The most likely explanation for this is that many of these Neanderthal varieties that modern humans wear are actually disadvantageous in some ways. There has been, and probably still is, mild selection against these varieties, so that they will decrease over time and then from four to six percent 40,000 years ago to one to two percent today. "

That could explain why the Neanderthals didn't survive. Prof. Jürgen Richter is looking for more:

"If we look into the time of the extinction of the Neanderthals, and we do that in our Collaborative Research Center specifically with regard to environmental development, i.e. the question of whether any environmental disasters, climate change or the like could have played a special role here, then we are doing it here a couple of very, very interesting statements, because the period in which modern humans replaced the Neanderthals belongs to a phase between the two highs of the last glacial period, between about 60,000 and 26,000 years, in which relatively rapid climatic changes occur at relatively short intervals had played and to a much greater extent than we did from today's warm period, which is characterized by a very uniform climate, if we compare that with the climatic phases of the cold periods. "

His conclusion: "That could at least be an important key to why rapidly changing environmental situations put certain populations at a disadvantage and favor others."

The harsh climatic conditions could therefore have a negative effect on the Neanderthals, since their needs were different from those of modern humans.

Crises due to climate change

Thorsten Uthmeier: "The Neanderthals are very muscular, they are very well adapted to cold habitats. It seems to be clear that the Neanderthals simply needed more calories than Homo sapiens sapiens to maintain their metabolism and body function. They need around 500 - 1000 more calories a day. "

This is not a problem as long as there is enough food available. It becomes a problem when crises arise as a result of climate change and food becomes scarce. However, the smaller a group of people becomes, due to the inhospitable climate, the worse it can survive.

Jürgen Richter: "It could even go so far that at the point in time when resettlement could then take place because the climate improves again, the basis in the previous population may not even be given."

Because what we know is "Neanderthals had to go through a demographic bottleneck several times."

This can be seen from what is known as mitochondrial DNA. If the genetic information is not very different, conclusions can be drawn about the number of individuals within a population.

Prof. Johannes Krause, Max Planck Institute for the History of Human History: "We see a relatively large genetic diversity in these modern humans, that is, we can assume that there were very many modern, early humans in Europe, and then there were Apparently more than Neanderthals immigrated at the time. Neanderthals have relatively little genetic diversity, which means it could be a straightforward demographic process. "

Behavioral differences to modern humans

Not only immigration, climate change and poor food availability could have played a role, the behavior of local Neanderthals also shows differences to modern humans.

Prof. Thorsten Uthmeier, University of Erlangen: "What we can also see in the finds in Homo sapiens sapiens, the areas of origin from which modern man's ornamental snails come, are sometimes up to 1000 kilometers away from the place where we find them. And we assume that no individuals have wandered there to get it, but we assume that this is the expression of a social network where you pass things on from hand to hand, as a small gift when you have met, But of course there is also information in it, not necessarily in the small ornamental snails that are found in Austria but come from the Mediterranean, but you have received information from hand to hand, from mouth to mouth, that migrated with the pieces from the Mediterranean Sea."

If you compare the places where the Neanderthals were found, however, a different picture emerges:

"They are small, there are often one or two fireplaces, you don't get the feeling that there were large groups, that you wanted a large information network, that doesn't seem to have been the case with the Neanderthals."

Large information networks mean resilience. They promote resistance to climatically critical phases where the prey is missing. The advantage of these networks is the information advantage.

"You can ask others how it was in the area, two or three days' walk from here, and then maybe someone from the group will know because they know someone with whom they are in contact."

In addition to better communication, Homo sapiens sapiens could also have used more modern weapons than the Neanderthals, says Jürgen Richter, so that "the cultural capacity of human society is the decisive factor and environmental changes would not have played such a major role."

How did the Neanderthal man survive for so long?

As before, the riddle has not been finally resolved, because the Neanderthals were actually optimally prepared for their inhospitable environment. After all, he survived 300,000 years in this environment.

"For example, Neanderthals lived at the Salzgitter-Lebenstedt site at a time where we can understand it very well with botanical and faunal remains, at a time when environmental conditions prevailed there that are comparable to today's conditions in northern Siberia Imagine that nowadays you only have to feed yourself armed with two-faced stone tools, spears and with very simple clothing in Northern Siberia, you can imagine what is actually behind it ", says Jürgen Richter.

And yet Homo sapiens sapiens ultimately ousted the Neanderthals in the area.

"You can say that they were very well adapted to different ways of life and very different regions," says Johannes Krause.

"That means that modern humans are one of the few mammals that can actually live in pretty much all ecological zones in the world, in the Arctic, in the Amazon, in the desert, which means that we are culturally very well adapted, and What we also see when modern man immigrated to Europe and Asia, he penetrated further north. He also went to higher altitudes, in mountains. That is, we seem to have been better adapted to this Ice Age than the Neanderthals . That’s really amazing, I think. And I think we just had a cultural, perhaps cognitive advantage somewhere that the Neanderthals didn’t have, and that’s why they might have died out. "

But who was this modern man, whose genetic makeup was superior to that of the Neanderthal?

Genetics provides an answer to this, because at the same time as the Neanderthal man “disappears, we also see that in the further course of the next thousands of years there will be repeated genetic shifts in Europe. We saw the first major immigration 14,000 years ago The Middle East, 7,000 years ago 70 to 80 percent of the genes of people in Europe were replaced by immigrants from the Middle East, 5,000 years ago we saw massive immigration from the Asian steppe, which in principle also replaced numerous people here and brings numerous genes to Europe, that is, this potpourri, this colorful mixture, this at least biologically multicultural one has always been part of European history, and we see that here in human history too, and I think that this is a central part of our biology and that's why I would like and hope that people will feel the same way today, that's really awesome ch part of our human history. "

This potpourri of genes from various people populates the earth today. How successful Homo sapiens sapiens is in this remains to be seen, because compared to its closest relative, this modern hominid has not been around for that long. Jürgen Richter, Professor of Prehistory and Protohistory at the University of Cologne:

"We can also put it around like that, we should get that far first, if you of course know that Neanderthals are extinct, Homo sapiens has survived, who is the successful model? - we can also say: That is far from over, after all, the Neanderthals survived at least 250,000 years. "

Literature:

Qiaomei Fu, inter alia: "The genetic history of Ice Age Europe", in Nature, DOI 10, 1038 / nature17933, online publication on May 2, 2016.

Richter, Jürgen: "Leave at the height of the party: A critical review of the Middle Paleolithic in Western Central Europe from its beginnings to its rapid decline", in Quaternary International (2016) 1-22.

Uthmeier, Thorsten: "Modern behavior" and Neanderthals - a contradiction?
"Neanderthals" in Archeology in Germany, 03/2016, June - July, 28 - 31, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft (WBG) Darmstadt.