The Human Stew
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.