What do you think of when you hear the word “caveman”? Perhaps you imagine a character from a film such as The Croods, Tarzan, and Encino Man or from the cartoon The Flintstones. Maybe you picture the tennis-playing, therapy-going hairy Neanderthals from Geico Insurance commercials. Or perhaps you imagine characters from The Far Side or B.C. comics. Whichever you picture, the character in your mind is likely stooped over with a heavy brow, tangled long locks and other body hair, and clothed in animal skins, if anything. They might be holding a club with a confused look on their face, standing at the entrance to a cave or dragging an animal carcass to a fire for their next meal (see Figure 11.1). You might have even signed up to take this course because of what you knew—or expected to learn—about “cavemen.”
These images have long been the stigma and expectation about our ancestors at the transition to modern Homo sapiens. Tracing back to works as early as Carl Linnaeus, scientists once propagated and advanced this imagery, creating a clear picture in the minds of early scholars that informed the general public, even through today, that Archaic Homo sapiens, “cavemen,” were somehow fundamentally different and much less intelligent than we are now. Unfortunately, this view is overly simplistic, misleading, and incorrect. Understanding what Archaic Homo sapiens were actually like requires a much more complex and nuanced picture, one that comes into sharper focus as continuing research uncovers more about the lives of our not-too-distant (and not-too-different) ancestors.
The first characterizations of Archaic Homo sapiens were formed from limited fossil evidence in a time when ethnocentric and species-centric perspectives (anthropocentrism) were more widely accepted and entrenched in both society and science. Today, scientists are working from a more complete fossil record from three continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe), and genetic evidence informs their analyses and conclusions. The existence of Archaic Homo sapiens marks an exciting point in our lineage—a point at which many modern traits had emerged and key refinements were on the horizon. Anatomically, humans today are not that much different from Archaic Homo sapiens.
This chapter will examine how the environment with which Archaic Homo sapiens had to contend shaped their biological and cultural evolution. It will also examine the key anatomical traits that define this group of fossils, focusing on the most well-known of them, including Neanderthals. The chapter will describe cultural innovations that aided their adaptation to the changing environment, as well as their geographic distribution and regional variations. Additionally, exciting new research is examined that suggests even greater nuance and complexity during this time period.