The Human Stew

Recent discoveries in paleontology, archaeology, and genetics are upending our understanding of modern human development. It is increasingly clear that modern humans evolved relatively recently in Africa, not in Europe, while DNA evidence shows that Neanderthals interbred with early modern human groups.

LONDON – What defines a modern human? The biological answer is simple: a member of the species Homo sapiens that is characterized by such features as a relatively large brain set in a globular braincase, small brow ridges over the eyes, a small retracted face, a chin on the lower jaw, and a lightly built skeleton. Many of modern humans’ biological traits – at least those that can be preserved as fossils – were already present in Africa and Israel more than 100,000 years ago.

But other factors – such as complex societies, ceremonies, spiritual beliefs, art, music, technology, and language – also characterize modern human populations. Which traits are crucial to the definition of a “modern human,” and how far back can the classification be applied?

Given that humans’ morphological and behavioral characteristics evolved at different rates, this question is a source of controversy. Indeed, paleontologists studying the physical origins of Homo sapiens will inevitably differ from archaeologists reconstructing ancient behavior over what constitutes an early modern human.

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