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Neanderthal man: from 230,000 years ago

Around 250,000 years ago Homo erectus disappears from the fossil record, to be followed in the Middle Palaeolithic period by humans with brains which again have increased in size. They are the first to be placed within the same genus as ourselves, as Homo sapiens ('knowing man').

By far the best known of them is Neanderthal man -- named from the first fossil remains to be discovered, in 1856, in the Neander valley near Dusseldorf, in Germany. The scientific name of this subspecies is Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.

The Neanderthals are widely spread through Europe and the Middle East, and they thrive for an extremely long period (from about 230,000 to 35,000 years ago). Bones of animals of all sizes, up to bison and mammoth, and sophisticated stone tools are found with their remains.

Yet almost everything about them seems uncertain and controversial.

There is inconclusive evidence that the Neanderthals may have buried their dead (in one case, it has been suggested, even with flowers on the corpse). If they did have burial customs, that implies religion. Yet they have left no other trace of it.

There are skeletons of Neanderthals who lived for several years after serious injury, suggesting a social cohesion strong enough to protect the weak. But if they were so advanced socially, it seems odd to us that they should have left no art, decoration or jewellery. On the other hand a recent discovery of a Neanderthal flute surprised archaeologists, suggesting a more advanced level of culture than had been suspected.

It may be that the sense of uncertainty about Neanderthal man stems largely from our own eagerness to find early reflections of ourselves. It is perhaps only the lack of clear answers in that context which seems to blur Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.

Looked at in a different perspective, as small groups of interdependent humans subsisting in very difficult circumstances, the Neanderthals are an unprecedented success story.

Like Homo erectus before them, they seem to slip fairly suddenly out of the fossil record. About 35,000 years ago has been the conventional date for their demise, but recent finds of Neanderthal bones in Croatia suggest that they survived until 28,000 years ago. By that time they have long shared parts of the globe with anatomically modern humans.

Homo sapiens sapiens: from 90,000 years ago

The first traces of modern humans are now dated tentatively as far back as 90,000 years ago in the Middle East. In Europe, where they first appear about 35,000 years ago, they are known as Cro-Magnon from the place in the Dordogne, in France, where remains of them are first discovered in a cave in 1868.

With Cro-Magnon man there begins the sudden development of art, which seems to be one of the defining characteristics of modern man. Cro-Magnon culture provides the paintings in such famous sites as Lascaux and Altamira or the older and more recently discovered Chauvet cave.

The humans of Cro-Magnon, and their predecessors in other parts of the world, are anatomically almost identical with people today. They differ in being taller and more muscular; some of their skeletal remains reveal (contrary to modern preconceptions) a larger brain than today's average. They are classed, with us, as Homo sapiens sapiens ('knowing knowing man').

The repetition does not imply doubly knowing. It is merely a method sometimes used in the Binomial system of taxonomy to identify the central species in a genus. Thus Troglodytes troglodytes is the common wren, Bufo bufo the common toad, and Homo sapiens sapiens the common man.

Before following the development of modern humans from the Upper Palaeolithic period, about 35,000 years ago (and we are at this point more than 99.999% of the way through the story so far of the universe), there is one crucial turning point which has not been charted. The creation of stone tools goes back more than 2 million years; the use of fire at least 500,000; clothing cannot be dated, but must have been adopted in colder regions not long after animals with hide or fur were first scavenged and butchered.

But what of the most distinctive human quality of all? What of speech?

Words on the brain: from 1 million years ago?

All social animals communicate with each other, from bees and ants to whales and apes, but only humans have developed a language which is more than a set of prearranged signals.

Our speech even differs in a physical way from the communication of other animals. It comes from a cortical speech centre which does not respond instinctively, but organises sound and meaning on a rational basis. This section of the brain is unique to humans.

When and how the special talent of language developed is impossible to say. But it is generally assumed that its evolution must have been a long process.

Our ancestors were probably speaking a million years ago, but with a slower delivery, a smaller vocabulary and above all a simpler grammar than we are accustomed to.