OUR ANCESTORS WERE art makers. Humans all over the world painted, carved and incised images of the world around them with great skill and detail.
Click on a region to view a gallery
THIS MAP MARKS five ancient burial sites in Europe and the Middle East. While these sites provide researchers a glimpse into burial practices, no one knows why our ancestors began burying their dead.
Explore the map to uncover evidence about ancient burial practices.
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"Every single one of us matters—every single one of us makes a difference."
AS OUR PERSPECTIVE on our own species through time enlarges, a single question emerges as the true core of the human quest: What is our place in nature?
WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS? No single definition
may suffice for such an elusive concept, but we
can describe conscious-ness as self-awareness and
self-reflection, the ability to feel pain or pleasure,
the sensation of being alive and of being us, the sum
of whatever passes through the mind.
"Today, humanity is in a sense, the single most important force in nature."
carcasses. Some researchers describe chimpanzee hunting as cooperative; males perform different jobs such as driver, blocker, or ambusher. On average, chimpanzees are successful half the time. Chimpanzee males usually share the meat from the kill with their kin and allies, and with females in estrus. Baboons also sometimes seize and eat animals such as young gazelles during the dry season.
animals. Women gather plants, capture small animals, prepare food, and care for children. Men hunt larger animals. Food is shared, usually along family or alliance lines. Until about 10,000 years ago, when agriculture was developed, all hominids lived this way.
leopards drag their food into trees in part to protect it from scavengers.When did our ancestors begin to scavenge? When did they begin hunting?
Not only specialized carnivores hunt. Chimpanzees do it too. In the Tai forest in West Africa, male chimpanzees hunt every two to three days during the dry season. They usually hunt colobus monkeys, but take other small animals. They never scavenge
the bones to extract marrow, a rich source of calories. There is no evidence, for or against, that our ancestors were sharing food like chimpanzees do. Homo erectus was probably the first true hunter. The earliest clear hunting weapons are wooden fire-hardened spears from Germany, dated to around 400,000 years ago. The spears were found with stone tools and the butchered remains of nearly a dozen horses. Modern hunters and gatherers rely on foraged food; they neither farm nor keep
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE between hunting and scavenging? Hunters capture and kill prey. Scavengers steal kills made by other animals or use carcasses of animals that die naturally. Scavengers often glean the last remaining calories from a carcass after other hunters or scavengers leave. Scavenging can be very dangerous; competitors include bigger, well-armed animals such as lions, hyenas, and vultures. Most modern carnivores both hunt and scavenge;
When did our ancestors become meat-eaters, beyond insects and grubs? Perhaps australopithecines shifted to meat in the dry season, when other food was scarce. Cut marks on animal bones provide the earliest evidence of scavenging, dated to around 2.5 million years ago. Many of these bones have carnivore tooth marks that were made before the cuts; hominids were eating leftovers. Many animal bones were also broken. Researchers argue that our ancestors broke
conflict resolution, displaying social problem solving and deception skills, and using tools. Bonobo society is female-centered and fairly egalitarian. Like humans, bonobos are sexually receptive throughout most of their reproductive cycle. They often use sex for pleasure or as a means of reducing conflict and not strictly for reproduction.
Primate intelligence is thought to have developed, in part, as an adaptation to social problem solving. Primates must understand the consequences of their own behavior and anticipate the behavior of others. There are many recorded cases of primates deceiving others for better access to food or mates. Some animals form political coalitions with non-kin.
RESEARCHERS STUDY NONHUMAN primate behavior be-cause it can give us insights into our behavior and that of our ancestors. Nonhuman and human primates alike live in many types of societies with their own distinct social rules, including monogamous, polygamous, and multi-male, multi-female groups.
These groups generally have male and/or female dominance hierarchies, often influenced by kinship, that establish acceptable behaviors and reduce aggression within the group. Generally males (but sometimes females) transfer out of their natal group at adulthood in search of a mate. Ape behavior in particular can be very complex; it includes using sex for
seek out certain plants. Some of them swallowed large, rough-surfaced leaves that were not digested but scraped off intestinal parasites as they passed through the gut. Others Others ate the bitter pith, in the pith can cure parasitic infections.
Humans are not the only primates to use tools. In natural settings,chimpanzees are the most frequent tool users and toolmakers.
Chimpanzees modify sticks for termite fishing and honey extraction from beehives; they break open nuts or other objects with branches and rocks using a hammer-and-anvil technique; and they crush leaves to make a sponge for drinking or wiping, modify objects for ladders, and build sleeping nests. Several primate species have been taught in captivity to remove sharp flakes from a stone core.
Some scientists argue that chimpanzees know and use medicinal plants. Several chimpanzees ill with intestinal parasites were observed to
Kudos for the first stone tools probably belong to several hominid types in East Africa: Australopithecus boisei, Homo habilis, and the newly discovered Australopithecus garhi. Tools show up later in South Africa among both Australopithecus robustus and early Homo. Who was the toolmaker: early Homo, australopithecines, or both? Researchers study the hand anatomy of apes and humans for clues. Because of their long fingers, apes cannot grasp a core in a precision grip, nor can they hold the stone forcefully enough to counteract a hard hammer strike.
hammer strike. Both Homo and the robust australopithecines have shorter, straighter fingers, but Homo has a more stable palm to counteract hammer strike forces.
Scientists perform experimental studies to reconstruct the steps involved in manufacturing stone tools. Since not every stone is a good raw material for toolmaking, they study the fracture patterns of rocks: some rocks fracture predictably, leaving a sharp edge; others break in less expected ways. Microscopic use wear analysis
A TOOL IS any object modified for a specific use. Chimpanzees use many different kinds of tools, such as twigs for termite fishing, leaves for sponges, and stones for anvils. Hominids were probably using tools made from perishable materials for millions of years before they began making them from stone. Stone tools appear in the fossil record around 2.5 million years ago in East Africa. These very simple tools were mostly cores, hammers, flakes, and manuports. Scientists examine evidence for the first toolmakers and recreate the tools to understand their purpose.
hammer strike.helps determine what materials the tools were used to cut: bone, hides, meat, or wood. Some researchers have carved up carcasses with stone tools to determine where butchery cut marks would appear on bones. All these studies help researchers understand the tool using behaviors of our ancestors.
When and how did hominids obtain fire? Volcanic eruptions and lightning strikes are natural sources. Curating fire, however, is a more complicated activity. How did hominids maintain their fires? Did they carry fire from place to place? If so, how? These are compelling questions that scientists have yet to answer. When did hominids first learn to control fire? At Swartkrans, South Africa, researchers
found 1.5 million year-old burned animal bones. More concrete evidence comes from the Homo erectus site of Zhoukoudian, China, dated to between 460,000 and 230,000 years ago. Researchers found burned animal bones, charred seeds, and stone tools. The earliest hearth, from around 465,000 years ago, was found at Menez-Dregan, France. Here hominids repeatedly used a charcoal pit ringed with
stones. By 100,000 years ago, hearths were common. The 40,000-year old site of Abri Pataud, France, contains warming stones and draft channels for air and smoke; proper management of fire was as important then as it is now.
ONE OF THE EARLIEST and most important human adapt-ations, fire provides warmth in cold weather and safety from night predators. Fire extends the day, providing more time for making tools and communicating. It can be used to dry hides and meat, harden wooden spears, thaw frozen meat, and cook food to soften it or remove toxins.
correctly to complicated verbal requests such as, "Go get the water and put out the campfire." Washoe the chimpanzee not only learned 132 signs, he also taught them to other chimpanzees. Koko the gorilla,who knows over 1000 signs, asked for, received, and named a pet kitten. Koko and her gorilla neighbor Michael communicated with each other through signs. Kanzi the bonobo learned symbolic communication simply by watching his mother being
numbers into classes. She can expand classes to include new letters and numbers and can discover simple equivalencies between groups. Many experiments show that monkeys can count and understand the concepts "more" and "less."Apes have been taught a form of American Sign Language and other symbolic communication styles. They understand human speech and can respond
IF LANGUAGE IS an open communication system utilizing symbols and displacement, can animals have language? A few species demonstrate parts of language capability. Alex, an African gray parrot, can identify the color, shape, number and material of objects. When researchers asked Alex, "What color is corn?" with no corn present, Alex answered "Yellow." Alex must know the symbol "corn" to answer correctly; he is using symbols and displacement. Rio, a sea lion, sorts letters and
taught, not by training or rewards. These ape communicators can combine symbols to form coherent meaning, say novel things, and express thoughts and emotions. Thus, some animals may possess skills researchers regard as the forerunners of language even though they cannot speak as humans do. Animal intelligence is much more complicated than we humans once thought.
Amud Cave, Israel
50,000-60,000 years agoAt this site, a 10-month old infant was buried with the jaw of a red deer on its hip. The burial was in a niche in the cave wall.
60,000 years agoAt this site a Neandertal man was placed in a flexed position, possibly on a bed of pine needles, then covered in wildflowers.
70,000 years agoHere, the body of a young Neandertal boy was inside a circle of goat horns, placed point down.
Arene Candide, Italy
70,000 years agoA modern human male was buried here, covered with red ochre, beads, and shells. The body is in an extended position. He is holding a stone blade in one hand.
La Ferrassie, France
70,000 years agoSix Neandertals were buried here: a man, a woman, two children, and two infants. A stone slab was placed over the man's chest. The woman was interred in a flexed position. Five of the six burials were oriented east to west.
The huts measured between 12 and 20 feet in diameter and were probably covered with animal skins. Hearths and storage pits served as freezers. Ochre-stained and incised objects, figurines, pendants, and marine shells from the distant Black Sea were excavated at this site, which probably held up to 50 inhabitants.
THESE STRIKING SHELTERS built from mammoth bones have been found throughout the Central Russian Plain. The 15,000-year-old site of Mezhirich (Ukraine) was inhabited during the last ice age, when the perglacial steppe supported large grazing animals such as mammoths. Each of the five huts was made from hundreds of interlocking mammoth bones—22 tons in all.
HUMANS USUALLY DISPOSE of human remains by burial, cremation, or exposure to the elements. The first practice is most likely to preserve a body for archaeologists to find. Neandertals and early modern humans buried their dead.Today we bury our dead for many reasons. Burial protects the corpse from scavengers and reduces unpleasant smells. Some human cultures believe that a dead body is simply an object once the life force has left. Other cultures believe the body is sacred and should be specially
Some researchers question whether Neandertals intentionally buried their dead. Several sites, however, contain both grave goods and bodies buried in a flexed position, too many to be explained by chance alone.
prepared, out of respect or fear. Still others insist the body must remain intact so that the soul of the dead person can use it in the afterlife.Did Neandertals or early modern humans believe in an afterlife? In the absence of written information, researchers examine grave goods and the position of the body for clues. The fact that a male was buried with spear points, for example, may indicate an intent to arm him in the afterlife, but no definite interpretation is possible.
to make clothing. More direct evidence for clothing comes from the later Upper Paleolithic: bone needles from around 26,000 years ago in Central Europe, buttons in Western Europe, and ivory beads in central Asia.Both Neandertals and early modern humans wore recognizable pendants. They drilled holes in animal teeth and strung them on twine or sinew. Later ancestors fashioned pendants from bone and stone. Among
modern humans, clothing and adornment communicates important social information such as ethnic group, social class, gender and marital status.
Researchers can only speculate if clothing and adornment had these meanings for Paleolithic humans as well.
OUR SHORT, FINE BODY HAIR doesn't provide much protection from the elements. Modern human body proportions, well suited for endurance walking, evolved with Homo erectus, and researchers think that our ancestors lost most of their body hair to improve heat radiation about the same time. Because clothing doesn't preserve well, it's hard to say exactly when our ancestors began to wear garments. During cold periods, people needed such protection to keep warm.
Researchers have indirect evidence that Neandertals wore clothing in the form of hundreds of scrapers and perforators found in Neandertal sites. Scrapers remove soft tissue from animal hides; perforators punch holes in hides. Neandertals show heavy incisor wear as well as thick neck muscles; perhaps they used their teeth in the way some modern human groups do, to soften hides for making clothing. Possibly Neandertals tied pieces of this softened hide together with cord or sinew
outweighed the risks of choking.When did modern throat anatomy arise? Throat muscles attach to the hyoid, a floating bone in the throat. The shape and position of the hyoid affects the position of larynx and tongue, which affects speech. A Neandertal hyoid found at Kebara, Israel, is shaped exactly like that of modern humans.
Researchers reconstruct the larynx's position from features on the base of the skull.
In fossil hominids, the larynx is positioned high in the throat, limiting the range of possible sounds. If our ancestors did possess spoken language, they could make fewer sounds than modern humans.Brain anatomy and organization are also factors in speech. Of the several language centers in the brain, two—Broca's and Wernicke's areas—are located near the middle of the left hemisphere in the perisylvian region. Damage to Broca's area leads to difficulty in producing syntax;
Sounds are controlled by air speed, throat and mouth shape, and tongue and larynx position.In mammals and human babies, the larynx sits high in the throat where it separates the air and food passages, making simultaneous eating and breathing possible. After infancy, the human larynx descends in the throat. Here it produces a wider range of sounds but requires alternate eating and breathing. In evolutionary terms, the need to produce more sounds must have
people can understand words but cannot combine them into grammatically correct, coherent sentences. Damage to Wernicke's area leads to difficulty recognizing familiar words or mistaking their meaning. If both areas are damaged, the person can neither produce nor understand speech. Researchers study fossil endocasts to determine when these and other language areas evolved in hominids.
Spoken language contains three discrete parts: phonemes, morphemes, and grammar. It is symbolic: sounds or shapes stand for ideas. Gestural languages such as American Sign Language also use symbols to stand for ideas. Written language is only 6,000 years old. Human speech involves the larynx, glottis, tongue, and vocal cords. At the larynx, the glottis is bordered by the vocal cords. When air passes through the glottis, the vocal cords vibrate, producing sound.
WHAT MAKES LANGUAGE a unique form of communication? Most animals use a closed communication system in which each sound conveys a specific message. Language, however, is an open communication system. Speakers can send unique and never-before-heard messages, using displacement and symbols to convey meaning. Researchers study the anatomy of the throat and brain to understand when humans developed language.
think these holes held wooden posts covered in animal skins. Other sites in Europe contain hearths and low stone walls. The Dolni Vestonice (Czech Republic) site, dated to 28,000 years B.C..E., contains postholes, walls, limestone slabs, mammoth bones, and kilns.
Open-air sites leave only a few traces: concentrations of bones, tools, and stones that might have supported the sides of a structure. Since open-air sites don't often preserve, their composition is difficult to reconstruct.More direct evidence of human shelters comes from the 60,000-year-old Neandertal site of Combe-Grenal, in France. Archaeologists found a posthole at the mouth of the cave. In fact, several cave sites contain postholes, particularly near the entrance. Researchers
OUR ANCESTORS WERE hunters and gatherers until some began experimenting with agriculture 10,000 years ago. Modern hunters and gatherers build temporary camps and move between them on their seasonal rounds. Generally they build permanent shelters only for an extended stay or repeated visits; our ancestors probably did the same.Hominid material is found most often in caves and rock shelters because these areas preserve fossils.