Hominins that lived all over the Old World between 800 and 125 Kya belong to a category called "Archaic H. sapiens." Archaics are a transitional group between H. erectus and modern humans and include the Neanderthals, which are discussed separately.
Archaics were still anatomically distinct from modern people, mostly in their skulls, which were thick-boned and low-vaulted, and featured prominent browridges, sloping foreheads, and small chins. Reminiscent of earlier H. erectus, their skulls retain their long and lowprofile, but show increased roundness like modern humans with the maximum breadth higher than the ear holes. Sporting balls are good metaphors for the shape contrasts between the species' crania (the skull without the face). H. erectus crania are like American footballs, Archaics' are like rugby balls, and modern humans' are like round soccer balls.
The Archaic face is still prognathic but much less so than earlier hominins. Their teeth were somewhat larger than those of modern humans, although they were markedly smaller than the teeth of earlier hominins. Archaic skeletons are robust due to heavy musculature in life, and their brain size averaged about 1,200 cc (ranging from 900 to 1400 cc), which is practically the same as modern human brain sizes. Despite physical similarities to modern H. sapiens, they lacked the cultural capacities that distinguish our species. Archaic fossils are found in association with Acheulean and more complex tools but not the most complex ones that modern humans invented.
It is not certain which Archaics led to Neanderthals or modern humans but despite the ambiguity of the overall category, there are a few fossil groups which are considered their own species. Homo heidelbergen-sis includes the majority of Archaics in Europe, the Mediterranean, and Africa dating between 600 and 125 Kya. The name H. heidelbergensis was given to a mandible found in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1907. But, the earliest members of the species include African skulls found at Kabwe in Zambia and Bodo in Ethiopia, which dates to 600 Kya and is associated with Acheulean artifacts. Archaic fossils from Asia come from sites like Dali in China dated to about 200 Kya. Asian Archaic skulls share some primitive traits with H. erectus but have larger cranial capacities and are not prognathic.
Homo heidelbergensis in Europe probably gave rise to Neanderthals. A site in Atapuerca, Spain, dating to about 800 Kya has produced several skeletons of Homo antecessor that are potential, very early precursors to Neanderthals. Numerous skeletons were also discovered at the nearby site of Sima de los Huesos ("pit of bones") dating to a later age of 350 Kya and these may or may not be descendents of the earlier populations or ancestors of Neanderthals. Earlier in the fossil record, a skull from Petralona, Greece, dated to about 400 Kya, could be ancestral to Neanderthals with its huge browridges and large nose opening. An even older skull from Arago, France, dated to about 450 Kya, is also Neanderthal-like with its large, relatively projecting face.
Archaics are the first hominins to have associated archaeological evidence of constructed shelters either from old post-holes or preserved materials. In Lazaret Cave, France, a shelter was built against a cave wall and in Terra Amata (also in France) there is evidence of a seasonal or short-term shelter use. With Archaics, we find the first clear evidence of hominin cave use.
At this point, evidence for big game hunting is also abundant. At 250 Kya at the site of La Cotte de St. Brelade in the Channel Islands between
Great Britain and France, there are skeletons of mammoths and wooly rhinoceroses, associated with numerous stone flakes. The carcasses were processed for eating, the skulls were cut open to extract the brains, and bones were burnt. The numerous skeletons in the collection suggest they were driven off cliffs and since there is no evidence of long-term hearths, the site was probably a temporary hunting camp.
The earliest preserved spears also appear at this time, around 400 Kya, and come from Schoningen, Germany. They were crafted from the inner part of the trunk of a spruce tree and have fire-hardened tips and tapered handles. The balance of the spears suggests they were weighted for throwing, but it is just as possible they were only thrusted during use. The spear site also contained hundreds of horse bones that had been killed (probably with the spears) and then butchered.
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