Pleistocene epoch

2.6 million to 11,000 years ago

"The perfection of hunting spelled the end of hunting as a way of life....The hunters at the end of the Old Stone Age...broke rule number one for any prudent parasite: Don't kill off your host. As they drove species after species to extinction, they walked into the first progress trap."

—Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress, pp.39-40.

2.6 MILLION YEARS AGO

Fluctuations in worldwide temperatures marked the beginning of a series of glacier and ice sheets advancements called Ice Ages, followed by periods of warmth where the glaciers and ice sheets retreated called Interglacial Periods (1). A typical glacial and interglacial period may persist for thousands of years, whereas the move between Ice Age to interglacial period and vice versa can be gradual taking up to a couple of centuries or longer but can reach a point when temperatures suddenly jump as if a switch had been turned on (or off) and the temperature stays in the new position for a long time.

During an Ice Age period, there can be several moments when an unusually warmer summer can cause massive ice sheets to break off and form an armada of icebergs to float and affect ocean currents. As the icebergs melt, the colder fresh water can stop warmer ocean currents from flowing to certain continents resulting in a sudden and more severe Ice Age over those continents. A classic example are the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea flowing to the North Atlantic and providing warm and wet conditions to Europe. Stop this warm ocean current flow and the risk of a severe cold snap or maintain an Ice Age in Europe is great.

During the last 2.6 million years since the present time, glaciers and ice sheets have advanced at least five times — the last of which occurred between 80,000 and 11,000 years ago. During the last Ice Age, sheets of ice up to 2 miles thick unfolded over Canada and northern parts of the United States, Europe and Russia. Summer temperatures in Europe and Russia during an Ice Age can be as low as -19°C at night in the winter and perhaps not much higher than 10°C during the day (in places like Germany and other areas with a similar geographic latitude along the European and Russian continent). Needless to say, the conditions in winter were much more colder and severe, especially in Europe.

In most parts of the world, Ice Ages forced a number of animals to migrate to the tropics for greater warmth leaving behind a few hardy species adapted to the cold, such as Woolly Mammoths and humans.

The only few places where other animals could stay put because of the abundance of food and warmth would be in the tropics and, surprisingly enough, the southern parts of the United States. In fact, in the latter case, scientists have discovered that the ice sheets covering Canada and the northern parts of the United States acted like a huge mountain range, forcing warm and moist air travelling from the tropical equator to the north Pacific ocean to be pushed south and get raised over the Rocky Mountains to create extra rain. Thus in many places such as California and beyond the Grand Canyon, one would be able to observe huge forests carpeting down the mountains and opening up to grassy pastures. A number of valleys would also have rivers and swamps with numerous trees lining the shores of the fresh water supplies. A far cry from today's deserts we see in the south-west corner of the United States. Evidence for these moist and warm conditions in the southern United States can be seen in fossils of large mammals and well-preserved dung left behind inside caves showing the type of plants that grew on the continent during the ice ages.

Because of the amount of water locked up as ice on land, ocean levels were lower than today. For example, during the last ice age, sea levels dropped by at least 180 metres. So in places like North America, herbivores could enjoy up to 35 kilometres of extra grassland extending to the sea.

A view of North America during the last Ice Age (Source: Ice Age Giants, BBC Documentary 2013).

In Europe and Russia, native animals were not quite enjoying the conditions in the same way as their American counterparts. Here the summers were much shorter, and the winters long and brutal in terms of a much lower temperature compared to the United States. Any animal living in Europe and Russia had to quickly decide how to survive the long and cold winters until the very short springs and not much longer summers came around. This meant that for animals living on the surface, virtually all had to evolve thick fur as a natural biological response to the intense cold. The next problem is where to find food. There are essentially two methods for herbivores: either quickly consume and store food inside underground burrows where the animals would hibernate, or migrate to where fresh grasses can be found (i.e., regularly move according to the seasons). For the hibernating animals, the biggest problem was building or finding an underground home located low enough below the surface not to cause the animals to freeze during winter and at the same time hope the entrance way will not be completely covered by ice to stop the oxygen from getting to the animals until the next spring season commences. For other animals, including the large mega-faunas such as Wolly Mammoths, bisons, reindeer and other herbivores that couldn't dig burrows or find enough large caves to shelter from the cold, migration was the only essential means of survival. By migrating, the animals could move sufficiently south to get away from the ice sheets and into vast plains of mostly treeless pastures containing a rich supply of different varieties of grasses and low lying flowering plant species.

How a Wolly Mammoth would have appeared during the last Ice Age, migrating to fresh pastures with bisons and other animals (Source: Ice Age Giants, BBC Documentary 2013).

In the coldest period of the last Ice Age, roughly 24,000 years ago, the European ice sheets extended over England, Germany, France, Poland, Switzerland and some other countries, and probably encroached into parts of Spain and Italy. In Spain, the ice sheets may have extended down from the western side of the country and entered into what is now Morocco in northern Africa. About the only place considered bearable for animals to live were along the shores of a large inland body of fresh water in a deep valley (which would later be filled by the Atlantic Ocean to form the Mediterranean Sea soon after the end of the last Ice Age).

A view of Europe during the last Ice Age (Source: Ice Age Giants, BBC Documentary 2013).

An indication of how far the ice sheets managed to extend across Europe during the last Ice Age. In reality, it is likely these ice sheets extended further south to include much of western France and Spain. (Source: Ice Age Giants, BBC Documentary 2013).

Where water separates Russia and Canada today, the ice ages saw the two land masses joined together as one. This may suggest a free flow of animals going back and forth across the land bridge between the two continents. However, the reality is that at the height of these ice ages, great ice sheets would have effectively stopped the migration of large mega-fauna between Russia and the United States. Perhaps the only exception to this is during the small climate window of opportunity at the beginning of the interglacial periods where just enough ice would melt to provide the necessary open corridors of grassland for the more curious animals to try their luck at finding a new home. But leave it too late and the Arctic and Pacific oceans would naturally rise to provide their own form of a physical barrier to the animal migration. Only humans would be smart enough to have learned of ways to build small boats and navigate the waters but always keeping close to the shores.

During the beginning of the first glacial advancement nearly 2.6 million years ago, many extinctions occurred suggesting a number of animals were caught off-guard (or chose not to adapt to the new conditions) by the sudden drop in temperatures. Fortunately for us the road to our evolutionary existence continued, suggesting we learned to adapt or move to new locations.

NOTE: It has been hotly debated by scientists as to whether these glacial and interglacial periods were caused by variations in the distance between the Earth and the Sun over time, and the presence of volcanoes. For example, should the Earth move slightly further away from the Sun, world temperatures can drop. On the other hand, if volcanoes erupt, extra carbon dioxide can help to raise world temperatures (especially if methane ice melts sufficiently to become an effective heat trap in the atmosphere). However, the kind of oscillatory behaviour in world climate we see after 2.6 million years ago is suggesting a fine balancing act taking place between plants and animals in the way they affect the chemistry of the air and with it world temperatures. We know Earth is a more geologically stable place at this time with far fewer volcanoes. The Earth's orbit is also relatively stable too. This leaves us with the one big variable in all of this: the population levels of certain lifeforms and the sorts of gases they can absorb and emit to affect world climate. More specifically, animals and plants can affect the ratio of carbon dioxide / methane and oxygen in the air. Sure, volcanoes. asteroid impacts, and even the seemingly insignificant actions of emitting dust and soot into the atmosphere from man-made fires can affect world temperatures, but the Earth and the living things present on its surface has a way of balancing the effects of climate change. Of course, today things are different in the sense that humans are having a substantial impact on world climate without realising it. If humans had no impact on the environment and plants were in abundance as we speak, then things could be cooling down by now. Give it a bit more time and Earth would experience another Ice Age. However, our technology and activity since the 19th century will no longer see these natural oscillations in world temperatures continue. Our dominance on this planet seems unchallenged if not at our own peril should we not heed the warning signs. Because so far there is less and less of the healthy plants in tropical regions to help balance the rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Soon methane gas will leak out of the permafrosts and deep in the oceans to raise world temperatures. Then the burst in an unexpected amount of methane will see temperatures rise dramatically. And with many short-term thinking humans still desiring profit above long-term survival by selling natural plant resources as well as minerals underground to other humans who need or want to buy it without sufficient replenishing of plant stocks and preserving the native animals that plant life depend for reproduction and the supply of natural fertilisers and very soon we will all face a great disaster. Will our brains be big enough to realise what we are doing?

1.5 MILLION YEARS AGO

An almost complete and one of the better preserved skulls of Homo Erectus. This one, from East Turkana, Kenya, is nearly 1.5 million years old. Source: Gowlett 1984, p.60.

Early humans have now evolved (or appeared side-by-side with Homo Augasta) to the level of Homo Erectus. The name is rather unfortunate for it conjures up images of sexually promiscuous male hominids marauding the countryside. Although there may be some truth to this, the term Homo Erectus was devised to highlight the fact that these creatures had definitely walked upright!

Does this mean these creatures were the first to walk upright? No. Earliest evidence of upright-walking hominids have now been dated back to 6 million years ago. The name Homo Erectus has been kept for posterity sake as it reminds people that fossils of this hominid were the first to be discovered by scientists to show this clear and unmistakable upright walking feature. And if there was any evidence the knees of these creatures were designed like horses to allow them to stand up while sleeping at night, then the name would probably be more appropriate. Until we find evidence to support this latter claim, somehow the scientists think not. So the name will be kept just as a reminder of the first fossils to show man's upright walking abilities.

At any rate, we find on this particular evolutionary branch how these upright-walking creatures had larger brains than their predecessors (but still smaller than those of modern humans). A noticeable jutting ledge of bones over their eye sockets were still apparent. However, they had smaller canine teeth, and their jaws were receding suggesting mastication of foods was easier. Does this mean these hominids had mastered the art of building fires and cooking their food (probably mostly meat scavenged from dead animals)?

Homo Erectus is known to inhabit caves for its protection and warmth, especially during the glacial periods.

Is Homo Erectus a direct link to modern humans? Most probably on the grounds that its facial features looked more human than any previous hominid. As Professor Travis Pickering at the University of Wisconsin said:

"It's the first early human that has really modern human characteristics, really big brain and indications that it was a big game hunter."

But then again other independently evolved (or perhaps separate species that branched from an earlier common ancestor for all hominids including us) did exist in different locations. Could the humans traits we have today had been acquired from a number of different species? Or did one species "go at it alone" and competed successfully to become the dominant hominid of all other hominids, and Homo Erectus is really the product of that very species that would lead to the modern human lineage we see today? We can only speculate at the present time.

Whether we descended from Homo Erectus, it is believed did particular hominid species did migrate to Asia between 1.7 and 1.5 million years ago. One theory for the migration is because, during interglacial periods (for which there had been quite a few since 2.6 million years ago) when the planet warmed up, geological corridors of greener pastures allowed some groups to move out of Africa and away from the intense competition for food by other hominids. Another theory is that a group of Homo Erectus individuals developed a gene mutation that resulted in more whiter skin. The mutants then had to migrate from the continent to preserve their differences from the darker-skin African groups that may have thought the mutants were odd-looking and possibly inferior (funny that considering in recent times it is now the white-skinned humans who have looked on dark-skinned people in a similar way).

1.1 MILLION YEARS AGO

The general consensus among scientists is that truly modern humans probably emerged from Africa at approximately 200,000 years ago to explore and populate the world. This view is known as the Eve theory in memory of the classic Western religious story of Adam and Eve. On the other hand, Asian scientists, notably the Chinese, argue their fossils of early humans existed well over 300,000 years earlier and as old as 1.1 million years ago as if other hominids had already existed and may have evolved independently into Homo Sapiens. One supporter of this "we already existed in Asia" theory is paleontologist Wu Xinzhi. Interestingly the findings of some skulls in Asia dating back to this time do appear to suggest hominids in Asia were probably evolving more quickly to have features reminiscent of Homo Sapiens. But at the same time other more recent finds are suggesting there could also be new species of hominids or species from an older genus that arrived into Asia that lived independently and which had not evolved significantly due to the limited competition and more isolated nature of the forests that existed in China during the ice ages and into much of the interglacial periods.

Were there a single region in the world for the origin of all modern humans? Or were there several cradles for modern mankind within Europe and Asia and not just Africa?

Considerable debate still remains as to who exactly existed where and when and whether early hominids had already populated much of the world at this time to evolve independently into modern humans. But if we are to accept latest DNA analysis of modern humans and tracing back the genes to the common ancestor, it is clear at least one hominid with a direct link to modern humans had definitely come from Africa, and they were moving into new territory including China. Thereafter it becomes a question as to whether several of these migrating hominids had filled the presumably empty void of other continents to populate them with their own kind, or had intermingled to some extent with the already existing hominids who were probably evolving in their own ways.

It remains a difficult question to answer until more bones from China are uncovered and analysed.

Maybe we had a situation where the slightly darker-skinned (but whiter than most other African hominids) and larger-brained Africans living on the coast and feeding on mussels saw the attractiveness of whiter skinned hominids in Asia and elsewhere and from this came a hybrid human with a larger brain and white skin to become the first true modern Asian people? Although something is telling us, this is unlikely. Given how different the appearance of other species in China have been noted when we analyse the more recent and unusual skull remains from China (including cheekbones, jaw structure, and brain capacity) and realising these features are much older and less attractive, it would suggest that the more prettier and larger-brained African species with a more modern-looking face had probably kept to within its own species. And if there is any competition or violent tendencies by these more primitive hominids toward the larger-brained newcomers from Africa, it is likely these older species would quickly get pushed out of the territory and ultimately become extinct if they are not intelligent enough to find new locations far enough away. It would be a situation of what we have seen for the Neanderthals in Europe as Homo Sapiens entered their territory. Of course, more work needs to be done in this field to determine the real truth for hominids in China.

UPDATE
June 2014

Recent excavations of some interesting Chinese hominid remains including skull fragments from a cave near the village of Longlin in the Guangxi Zhuang region and from Maludong (known as the Red Deer Cave) in the southern Yunnan Province show evidence of a primitive hominid species, but with some modern features. On closer examination of the skull structure, the primitiveness of the hominid can be observed from the bottom of the nose upwards, together with an unusually wide set of cheekbones. However, below the nose, the hominid possessed a large and unusually modern human-looking jaw structure. In fact, some scientists have thought of the possibility of hybrid breeding with modern humans who came into the area nearly 50,000 years ago and a more primitive hominid species that already lived in China to account for the remarkably modern human jaw structure. However, the primitive aspects mentioned for these so-called "hybrid" Chinese human remains have been observed in some African hominid species as far back as 1.6 million years ago when the first Homo Erectus creatures migrated to Asia, and certainly in much earlier times from a number of other hominid species that existed in Africa (including the Australopithecines). For example, one species from the African continent having a wide set of cheekbones at around 1.6 million years ago is Australopithecus boisei. But it is likely other species, including some types of Homo Erectus creatures, had already carried this physical attribute and may have migrated to Asia to preserve this specific physical characteristic. Indeed, by the time Homo Erectus did arrive in Asia (including China) around 1.6 million years ago, it is known that a number of Chinese Homo Erectus skull remains have been unearthed showing a more flat face with "prominent cheekbones". If this is true, a highly isolated group of this species may have evolved independently in China to develop a more wider cheekbone structure but retained much of the primitive Homo Erectus upper skull features (since problem-solving was not a heavy requirement in this food plentiful forest region of China together with less competition from other hominids). The only thing that may have evolved more significantly would be the jaw structure to match the type of diet these people chose to have in this region. Thus, it is likely the species found here, named Homo Mituan (or Enigma Man), despite the unusual appearance and surviving up until 11,400 years ago due to their isolation in China where they lived, is just such the remains of Homo Erectus surviving far longer than would have been expected (despite some scientists thinking this species should have disappeared 500,000 years ago). Of course, the only way to confirm this situation is through DNA extraction and analysis, except the DNA quality of the bone is too poor to gather any meaningful information at the present time.

The people working on the Homo Mituanis species in China as of 2014 are Professor Ji Xueping from the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, and Associate Professor Darren Curnoe specialising in palaeoanthropology at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Further details of the study can be found in the 14 March 2014 edition of the journal PLoS ONE. The article is titled "Human Remains from the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition of Southwest China Suggest a Complex Evolutionary History for East Asians".

NOTE: The ability of more primitive hominid species to survive longer than expected is not a new discovery. Scientists have noticed how the last remaining Neanderthals of Europe survived up until 24,000 years ago, and Homo Floresiensis (also known as "the Hobbit") from a small Indonesian island surviving up to 17,000 years ago. One of the defining factors as to why these species can survive as long as they did is due to their isolation. However, once modern humans discovered their presence, the more primitive species will often come out second best in the encounter as it seems modern humans are keen to control new territory and food supplies and usually do not take too lightly to extra competition from other species, or simply for the fact that the primitive species do not look "attractive" to modern humans and stories might get made up to make these species look scarier than they really are and eventually the next generation of modern humans may act on the stories thinking they might be true and eventually the primitive species get wiped out completely from the area.

1.05 MILLION to 780,000 YEARS AGO

Scientists believe another reversal of the Earth's magnetic poles occurred during this time when the north pole was over Antarctica again. But this one lasted for around 200,000 years — a mere blink of an eye in geological terms! (2)

Mammals living at this time were not as big as the great dinosaurs of the Jurassic Period or even the giant mammals of nearly 5 million years ago, but were still considered much larger than animals of today. Only the elephants of our times could possibly compete with some of the animals that lived around 1 million years ago such as the giant ground sloth (now extinct). Although it would struggle to compete in size with the Wolly Mammoths in Europe and Columbian Mammoths in North America (a less hairy creature compared to the European species).

It was also the time when the sabre-toothed cats with their pair of 7 inch fangs clawed its way onto the world stage as the most dangerous known non-human predator. Weighing as much as 300 kilograms for a fully-grown adult, the sabre-toothed cat was a formidable opponent. So fierce was this animal that it would eventually see the demise of the flightless terror birds. However, the sabre-toothed cats would have a couple of disadvantages: the two long teeth emerging from the mouth were only useful to eat the fleshier parts of a prey leaving behind a lot of wasted meat and bone. Also these predators were short range runners despite their explosive power of acceleration. The amount of energy required to chase prey would see the sabre-toothed cats catching large prey every few days just to recuperate their energy before preparing for the next kill.

Then the climate got colder and drier. Less vegetation on the ground would see many of the larger herbivores become extinct due to limited food, leaving behind a number of smaller animals to thrive in the harsher environment. Only a few large herbivores with the right tools (e.g. fur and a long tusk to scrap snow off the grass) would have a better chance of surviving the colder conditions. Of special mention in this regard are the wolly mammoths.

As temperatures went down for the next ice age, sabre-toothed cats suffered greatly under the conditions by not finding enough food (and perhaps with another force to contend with — humans). In fact, the colder things got, the less plant food available, and the smaller the plant-eating animals have to be to survive on the remaining food supply. But as soon as the big plant eaters died, the big predators soon become extinct.

Assuming human did not contribute in some negative way, we must assume this is how the sabre-toothed cats eventually became extinct.

NOTE: The largest Australian marsupial flesh-eating lion known to scientists as tharlac oleo lived in the tree-filled Nullabor region of Australia at this time. This is a lion rising to half the height of a human while standing on four legs. A stabbing incisor at the front of the jaw and powerful claws gave this ferocious creature the power to hold prey and puncture terrible holes in the skull or cut the spinal cord and back teeth capable of shearing off huge chunks of flesh. It can balance itself on two legs on its long tail and stand taller than a human. The animal could climb trees and jump down on its prey. This is a big, robust muscular predator. It survived until the first humans arrived in Australia.

1 MILLION to 800,000 YEARS AGO

Latest research in 2010 suggests the oldest known fires used for cooking food have been dated to around this time although there is every indication cooking may have taken place as early as 1.6 million years ago based on analysis of the teeth of Homo Erectus.

Some scientists believe cooking became the next important milestone in the history of humankind because with cooking came the opportunity to release a greater amount of energy by way of carbohydrates in plant foods and to make digestion of proteins from meat into relevant amino acids needed by the body much easier and quicker. It meant early humans with their smaller and sharper teeth and lighter jaw structure did not have to masticulate on raw plant foods for long periods of time and then have to sit around in the safety of trees for many hours to conserve energy in order to allow the digestion process to complete as it had often been the case for the Australopithecines. There is also another greater benefit cooking brought to the early humans: the brain could rely on more energy in the food to power the evolving functions needed for longer concentration and other problem-solving abilities. So long as early humans used their extra time to think about how to do things better, which clearly they did at some point when they made their own fire and started cooking food, then there is no reason why the brain would not have evolved more sophisticated higher functions to permit more effective problem-solving skills.

Among the supporters of this theory is Professor Richard Wrangham of Harvard University. As he remarked:

"Do you know what chimpanzees spend most of their time doing? They spend most of their time just chewing. And Australapithecus would undoubtedly have done the same thing. Probably more than half the day, they would have spent their time just moving their jaw up and down because they are eating a relatively low quality food compared to us. They spend most of their time doing nothing other than eating.

The Australopithecene brain size remained stable. Then meat eating came in, and then the brains got bigger. And that set everything off in the direction of modern humans."

Professor Richard Wrangham is the principal supporter for the theory that cooking probably played a crucial role in the development of a larger brain for humans. Source: From the documentary titled Did Cooking Evolve our Brain?. A BBC/Science Channel Co-production (2010).

Thus when cooking become integral to the meat eating diet of early humans, the quality of the food's nutritional value must have dramatically increased. As Professor Wrangham believes:

"Cooking is huge. I think it's arguable the biggest increase in the quality of the diet in the whole of the history of life."

Of course, what would happen if early humans discovered how cooking soya beans would provide all the protein and energy? Would it be necessary to continue eating meat in order to develop a bigger brain? Probably not. However, humans in Africa were experiencing lower rainfalls and plant life was diminishing, making it less likely these hominids would have discovered this possibility and started cultivating the lands to grow protein-rich plant-based foods such as soya beans. In fact, there is no evidence as far as we can tell that soya beans ever grew in Africa. Perhaps this was something the hominids in Asia would discover at some point in history. However, in Africa, meat was the principal diet for early humans.

With this heavy reliance on meat for its survival came the advantage of developing a bigger brain. s the brain grew, it seems humans were developing good communication within a social group, as well as long-term planning and the ability to visualise or experiment directly in the environment with new tools when finding better solutions.

While all this cooking activities were taking place in Africa by some early humans, on the other side of the world a new island appeared out of the Pacific Ocean. Initially created by an exceptionally hot and highly fluid magma spot below a thin crust, a massive volcano suddenly erupted from the sea floor nearly 1 million years ago. As the Pacific tectonic plate moved, new volcanoes would erupt from time-to-time from the same hot spot forming the eight main islands and a total of 19 volcanoes we know today as Hawaii.

NOTE: Verbal communication is not unique to humans. Even a dog will attempt to communicate with its human master consistently and even closely mimic the sounds of its master even if its voice box cannot create the precise sounds that a human can produce. A dog, for instance, when rewarded with what it needs at the right time when the human master is displaying a consistent and regular verbal communication cue to the dog, it is remarkable after a while to see how the dog is willing to try mimicking those sounds of the master, especially when the dog knows it is time to re-experience something again in association with those sounds. It is, therefore, likely that very early humans must have seen communication in a similar way, through a reward-based system where certain different sounds were created and mimicked by humans when associated with specific experiences or types of objects. And if the sounds can be amplified by the voice to cover reasonable distances, this would have improved the chances of survival for humans immensely (so long as the sounds do not suggest to a predator of a different species that might be seen as food and is surprisingly close by).

700,000 to 500,000 YEARS AGO

With another modest increase in brain capacity in such areas as muscle co-ordination (i.e. the cerebellum and the motor control strip running along the top part of the cerebrum) and ability to concentrate a little more on complex tasks (i.e. an expansion of the frontal lobes), as well as favourable interglacial periods that allowed the great African continent to open up to a whole new world in Europe and the Middle East in the north, Homo Erectus eventually moved to the furthest parts of the world including India, China and Java (and soon to Australia), where they may have learned to intermingle with other similar people or kept to themselves and continued to master the use of fire for warmth, protection and for cooking. (3)

Artist impression of early humans.

Scientists at the London Institute of Brain Chemistry have recently proposed a new theory for why the brain size has increased. The suggestion has been that early humans were able to develop bigger brains because they chose to eat more fish.

Well, there may be some truth to this since it is now known that fish contains valuable proteins. Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by this discovery. However, scientists suggest fish carries another vital ingredient for the development of a bigger brain: Omega 3 DHA. Indeed, the combination of proteins, fats (e.g. Omega 3 DHA) and minerals found in fish would have made this source of food an absolute bonanza for building and powering the human brain. As one anonymous individual remarked, "Fish is the rocket fuel for the brain."

It kind of makes sense this fishy idea considering it is a veritable fact that fishing is still a major part of modern human life in the 21st century and hasn't changed for thousands of years. With nearly 90 percent of the human population choosing to live in or near the oceans or major waterways probably because of the relative ease in obtaining seafood in vast quantities (this may explain how we moved out-of-Africa nearly 160,000 years go to populate the world), it would seem natural to suggest that fish may have played an important role in early human brain development for at least 500,000 and possibly as far back as 5 million years ago.

However, we must be careful not to see fish as the sole agent for building bigger brains. Fish on its own is not enough. Or as they say, "Man cannot live on fish alone" (or was that bread?). To make the brain bigger, humans must learn to use the brain to absorb and process information in order to extract, create and apply new patterns (both visible and invisible) relevant to survival and/or to improve one's social status in a group of other humans. Then, as the brain is used to solve problems and fish is consumed, the combination of both activities would have helped to contribute (together with a little genetic mutation here and there) to a bigger brain.

Let us put it this way, it would be perfectly reasonable to think that humans would have wanted to remember specific patterns related to the recognition of various predators existent at this time. A good reason in itself to use the brain to remember these patterns, or else you will get eaten alive. Then there are plants to remember in terms of their medicinal purposes or as a source of additional food to supplement one's meat-eating diet. The other way, is to develop a communicative language. Beyond that, some humans may have learned about the bigger and more invisible patterns in the universe which help to give a clue about the meaning and purpose of life and the universe, why we die and what happens to us after death. Whatever patterns we are likely to acquire and remember, it seems all this is a question of whether the individual learns to make the choice of using the brain to solve problems and remember a number of essential patterns needed to survive a harsh and difficult environment, and not just eat fish, which determines exactly how large the brain needs to be to handle the situation. Like the old saying goes, "Use it, or lose it." Otherwise, there would be no evolutionary advantage in growing a big brain by eating lots of fish.

So there must have been a moment when humans did apply the human brain more often to problem-solving and to remember things with increasing ease. Well, given that today we can see how much energy has to be used from the human body to power the brain (scientists have estimated 20 per cent of the total energy consumed in modern humans), it seems using the brain must have been important in the past to increase its size and use up lots of energy. How would early humans have used the brain to achieve this?

Given the amount of energy required by the brain, it probably required the body to be at rest for extended periods of time to allow humans to think and solve problems. Seems logical enough considering humans were getting efficient in gathering food and were having more time to rest and think about things. But at the same time, it is a well-known fact of chemistry and in biology that systems would prefer to minimise the amount of energy it needs to achieve a certain result. That in itself is a good enough reason why evolution would not favour a large brain irrespective of how much fish we eat unless there is something else making us use the brain to make it bigger. To make the brain bigger, humans must have had more free time to sit around and figure out what to do next and start planning ahead on what to do and how to prepare for various events. Then some of the males may have learned and passed on to future generations what's important to remember and which actions should be practised of greatest benefit to survival. Females would eventually have their own time to think about things, usually relating to how to look pretty, discussing relationships and doing other things. By sitting around, the body would have the energy and time to power the brain and not feel burdened by this mental activity performed over long periods of time.

We call this a natural application of our brain to acquiring and creating new patterns in a process known as learning.

Depending on how we learned to survive, humans either used their bodies or brains, or a combination of the two to solve problems. The easiest would be to rest the body and apply the brain, and later apply actions with the body, especially when free time became available. But if not, brute force might be the only answer.

At any rate, once free time was available and there was adequate food to build the brain, the application of the brain on a regular basis can only make it bigger and/or better organised to allow future generations to find it easier to apply problem-solving skills to a given situation in a more efficient and effective way.

As the brain was being applied on a more regular basis, we also see emerging from the Homo Erectus lineage two interesting hominid groups. One group would migrate and rely more on the body to find solutions to surviving the great cold of Europe known as Neanderthal Man. The other group would live in Africa relying increasingly more on the brain to survive by sifting out important patterns in the environment for survival while developing a sophisticated language for communicating with fellow hominids.

This latter group would lead to modern humans.

500,000 YEARS AGO

The world's oldest DNA was uncovered in 2007 under a kilometre of ice in southern Greenland showing much of the land was truly green during the summer as the name implies with a temperate forest consisting of spruce, alder, pine and yew. Before ice covered all of Greenland as we see today, the lushes forest was also teeming with butterflies, moths and the ancestors of beetles, flies and spiders.

As researcher Professor Eske Willerslev said:

"We have shown for the first time that southern Greenland, which is currently hidden under more than two kilometres of ice, was once very different to the Greenland [of] today.

Back then it was inhabited by a diverse array of conifer trees and insects." (Smith, Deborah. Greenland really was green, world's oldest DNA reveals: The Sydney Morning Herald. 7-8 July 2007, p.7. & Jha, Alok. Greenland really was green once: The Canberra Times. 7 July 2007, p.19.)

The DNA to support these plants and animals was uncovered from cores drilled into the ice cap and into the muddy bottom. Through careful analysis of this material, the DNA of the ancient insect variety has been estimated to be between 450,000 and 800,000 years old.

Australian researcher Michael Bunce, who joined the Danish-led team to help extract and analyse the ancient DNA, said:

"Preserved DNA from plants, animals, insects and bacteria that died hundreds of thousands of years ago can aid in our understanding of how the earth's environment has changed." (Smith, Deborah. Greenland really was green, world's oldest DNA reveals: The Sydney Morning Herald. 7-8 July 2007, p.7.)

For example, Bunce has now realised how the ice did not melt during the last interglacial period of 116,000 to 130,000 years ago when temperatures were believed to be 5 degrees higher than today. For if it did, the ancient trees and insects would have been replaced by new varieties of flora and fauna. Instead, life of half a million years ago was preserved in Greenland's giant natural freezer.

The implications of this simple yet important discovery is that it may take longer for the ice sheets in Greenland to melt under present-day global warming conditions. So does this mean there will be no sea level rises today? Not necessarily so. The last interglacial period may not have seen ice on Greenland melt, but somehow the ocean levels did rise by 5 to 6 metres higher than today. Clearly this rise had to come from other sources, possibly from Antarctica. More research is taking place to figure out precisely where the melted ice was coming from.

As Willerslev stated:

"As the Earth warms from man-made climate change, these sources would still contribute to a rise in sea levels." (Smith, Deborah. Greenland really was green, world's oldest DNA reveals: The Sydney Morning Herald. 7-8 July 2007, p.7.)

Scientists have estimated that Greenland of 500,000 years ago had a summer temperature of 10 degrees celsius and -17 degrees celsius in the winter.

More details can be found in the journal Science published on 6 July 2007.

NOTE: Where there is ice over the oceans, the melting will occur more quickly than on land. Oceans have a greater capacity to hold more heat compared to land masses.

400,000 YEARS AGO

Rapid changes in climate every 400,000 years when the Earth experiences the most elliptical orbits and other factors seem to force the brain of humans to expand. How? By getting humans to solve the problems of finding food and dealing with climate change. Thus the more regular problem-solving efforts humans perform such as where to go, choosing different foods, improving hunting techniques, learning to socialise can not only increase the size of the brain but could also be the result of environmental conditions caused by changes to the Earth's axis of tilt and how the planet moves around the Sun. Regular problem solving of this kind during periods of sudden climate change has probably helped over many generations to transfer the necessary genetic changes needed to build a larger and more powerful brain. In essence, the more problem-solving you do in life, the bigger your brain gets.

400,000 to 200,000 YEARS AGO

Perhaps with all that intermingling with other previously isolated groups, a new species called Homo Sapiens evolved from Homo Erectus (or Homo Augasta) around 400,000 years ago until mostly these hominids walked around some 200,000 years ago. These new hominids had an expanded skull to accommodate a larger-volumed brain, and the entire skull structure became lighter and delicate. No longer are thick brow ridges visible.

Artist impression of Homo Sapiens in Africa. Image available from here.

The jaw structure of Homo Sapiens reduced noticeably in size and appeared less protruding, resulting in a smaller more modern human face. It is as if the foods they consumed were softer (e.g. more fruits and berries) or were prepared in such a way as to make mastication easier (i.e. they had used fire as a means of cooking their food).

NOTE: Some scientists have placed the origins of Home Sapiens at around 160,000 years ago during a time when significant changes had allegedly taken place within the brain after studying the skull structures dated to around this time.

200,000 TO 195,000 YEARS AGO

After studying the fossil skulls of our ancestors, many scientists believe the larynx or voice box was at one time positioned much higher up in the throat. As with the apes, this higher position prevented speech from taking place. So the most these apes and our early ancestors could do is grunt (possibly whistle) and point a finger or two to help communicate. However, by 200,000 years ago, biological evolution (i.e. the physical changes to the body over time through mutations and regular application of the body for specific tasks) led to a lowering of the voice box, increasing the frequency range in the sound and producing a range of new and different sound patterns. The advantage is clear. If humans could not communicate with their fingers at long range distances (even waving the arms can have its limitations or in showing the fabled one or two finger salute to the enemy), humans quickly learned to use the voice box to send specific sounds over greater distances to communicate a range of different and more richer information about the environment to other humans (so long as everyone understood what the sounds meant).

As with such changes leading up to the generation of more complex sounds and ultimately a language for describing just about everything in the known world, this essentially means a bigger brain for remembering the sounds and associated symbols. Thus it is possible a larger and more complex brain may have appeared for the earliest ancestors of modern humans at around the time the voice box had changed. Certainly greater evidence to support these brain changes would come for skulls dated to 160,000 years ago.

All these changes would also coincide with results obtained through mitochondrial DNA analysis showing the DNA of every modern human race emanated from a single female that lived in central Africa around 195,000 years ago. This remarkable feat was achieved by analysing the DNA inside numerous energy producing structures for powering every living cell called a mitochondria and compared this mitochondrial DNA to the diverse human races found in different parts of the world today. It is in the African people where scientists have managed to trace back the majority of gene sequences of every race on the planet and this gave scientists the first clue to the origin of modern humans. The second clue would come after estimating the time it takes for such genetic changes to take place, which put modern humans as originating in Africa around 195,000 years ago.

160,000 YEARS AGO

The brain structure of early humans (i.e. our direct ancestors) had definitely advanced to a noticeably complex and enlarged level around this time. As French paleontologist Anne Dambricourt Malassé stated:

"The brain grew much more complex. It had a better blood supply. So, naturally, after this biological evolution a cultural evolution came very quickly. Homo Sapiens was born" (Homo Futurus, a documentary film by Thomas Johnson and produced by Hind Saih in 2005, televised on SBS 6 May 2007)

Anne Dambricourt Malassé

Those observed changes to the brain from skulls dated to this time are primarily in the region where abstract thinking takes place, which is the frontal cortex combined with a larger corpus callosum for helping to transfer information between the cerebral hemispheres as needed to think (or visualise) and solve problems. As a consequence, humans would develop dramatically improved memory (both short-term and long-term recall), and better visualisation skills (possibly achieved more easily by taking hallucinatory drugs from plants).

Since the brain became more than just a powerful pattern-recognition tool as well as a powerful pattern-creation tool, the extra visualisation and creativity skills provided by the right side of the brain were helping early humans to indirectly observe more abstract and hidden patterns from the environment. Before this time, the use of the L-brain for recognising known patterns stored in memory with what was directly observed through the eyes was considered the most sought after skill because this was the way to recognise prey during hunting and to know which predators to avoid. The only problem with this approach is that humans had to take each day as it comes, hoping the food they need to hunt would be available when humans got hungry. Now humans simplified the food gathering and hunting process and began to realise there existed large-scale hidden patterns in the environment showing such things as the timing for when food was likely to be abundant and in which location. This is especially true among those humans who lived along the shorelines. As soon as humans discovered mussels (a valuable source of omega-3 fatty acids needed to build a healthy brain) growing along the southern and eastern African shores, it made sense for humans to stop chasing prey via the persistence hunting method and instead they could plan ahead and time the moment when to walk down to the shores to collect mussels when the tides are low.

This meant learning the pattern of the ocean tides.

Early humans were getting cleverer (and probably lazier too, but then again how do we grow a bigger brain if we don't rest the body and think about something?). In fact, they were getting so good at this, possibly allowing the leaders to not only plan ahead but also to delegate specific tasks of gathering food at the right times by selected members of the group, that they were learning to find ways to relax and creatively think about things.

Or it could simply be the fact that humans were having trouble finding enough prey on land and shell fish was the only easy source of food to eat at around this time? Whatever the way it started, we can safely assume that at some point humans must have noticed these large-scale patterns in nature to know when and where to gather food from the oceans rather than run around during the day to find prey and hope everything will be okay.

155,000 YEARS AGO

From these increased periods of increasingly more abstract thinking came not just improved memory but also the emergence of the worldwide human phenomenon known as rock art — considered by scientists as the first signs of a cultural revolution — as well as religion and the development of a written language as people began to acknowledge, record on rock surfaces, and later give special sounds and draw symbols to the things that were important to them for their survival as well as contemplate the purpose of life and death and the nature of the universe.

Rock art would also form the beginnings of recording all human knowledge lasting many thousands of years.

A typical home for humans during the Ice Age — certainly beats paying a mortgage to a bank and look at the view you get too! A bit chilly? Just cuddle up. (Image from the French documentary film Homo Sapiens: He Domesticates Nature produced by France 3 Production Sud-Ouest, France 5 TSR RTBF, To Do Today Productions (Belgium), CAB Productions (Switzerland), Productions Pixcom (Canada), Ballistic Pictures (South Africa), Tang Media (China), Danit Rossner (Israel). 2004. ).

Initially the creative outpourings on rocks and cave walls showed the shapes of various animals early humans learned to hunt including evidence of spears being thrown through the air. Sometimes more dangerous animals may be recorded in a more frightening way all for the purposes of revealing to future generations the evil spirits residing in these creatures (and hence should be avoided or given greater respect). Some other images would reveal an acknowledgement of who the author was (i.e., a kind of primitive identification by way of a signature) to let other tribes know who created the pictures and possibly s a means of showing ownership to a territory or knowledge by leaving an outline of a human hand on the wall. While other forms of art showed a more creative streak by their human creators (we can only imagine what they are).

These rock art had the benefit of teaching new generations of mostly young men which animals to hunt and how to hunt them and which predators to avoid so long as humans returned to the same area to these images.

Yet these smarter early humans weren't totally satisfied. The creative mind was looking for ways to make life easier. Well, why not? We are not here to bust our balls all the time just to survive. There are better things we could be doing.

So the first thing is what to do with all those rock arts? In particular, what happens if the artwork gets destroyed when humans come back?

The problem with rock art is that sometimes you do need to have this knowledge with you all the time, in the safe keeping of the elders in the nomadic group. And sometimes the caves you once inhabit might get taken over and the knowledge passed on to other competitive groups. Or occasionally the knowledge is lost forever by some destructive force of nature. There had to be a way to preserve this knowledge within the group and yet still be able to go back to it at any time, and at the same time have it recorded onto some kind of a compact and portable surface for the knowledge to be easily carried and transferred to future generations within the group. Likewise the drawings had to be small enough and yet recognisable to allow a range of different patterns to be recorded on the same surface. Or to put it another way, it would be incredibly wasteful and too much to carry around if the drawings are made too large on a given surface.

Even the weight of the material for recording the knowledge was something people had to consider very carefully. For example, the last thing people want to do is carry a whole bunch of stone tablets containing all the knowledge while they are being chased by a predator. It is just not a practical thing to do in a harsh and difficult environment. Therefore, it had to be critical for people to discover the right medium for recording enough knowledge, which meant it had to be extremely lightweight and not just compact.

Then the drawings themselves had to be more refined and structured better so people can get the full picture in their minds of not only the specific objects at the heart of the knowledge, but also what to do, the method of dealing with those objects in the most efficient and effective way, and so on.

Eventually as each successive generation passed on the drawings to the next with the occasional smart and highly creative individual learning to re-draw and simplify the drawings into more basic and smaller symbols in order to save space and time when drawing them using a coloured pigment, a piece of stick and a suitable surface to record the drawings, it wasn't long before humans decided to get really abstract in their drawings and started stringing together a group of these symbols to form what we might call a crude sentence. The sentence was more than an association of commonly accepted and relatively easy to recognise symbols (or names) linked to various observable things in the environment. As some clever people at the time would have asked, what should you do if you see something? Should you run, or pick up a spear and chase it, or don't do anything and stand still? Again language had to evolve further to describe all the actions we had to perform to be successful. And when should these actions be applied and in what order? Clearly further symbols had to be developed and shown their increasing connection to specific actions people had to, had been, or were performing so that others can clearly visualise and ultimately know what is going on and what to do in order to survive more easily. As soon as the actions were included in a sentence, from this moment on, the beginnings of a written and sophisticated language would develop.

Further evolution of the language would come when a symbolic system of measuring how much of something existed at any particular time and place was incorporated. We call this the rudimentary beginnings of mathematics. Naturally an important addition especially when people needed to know how many of something in the environment there were (and later for trade i.e., starting a business for selling things to other people in return for money).

Other members of the group (probably the females) would also learn about the new primitive language as some men in the relationships decided to share the knowledge (or perhaps women were sneaky to listen in and observe these symbols), adding their own symbols and sounds to help describe other things such as our emotions. Once emotions were incorporated into language and could be communicated with other humans, humans could for the first time develop some understanding of empathy for other humans (especially within a group and among family members) as a powerful means of developing deeper and more meaningful relationships within the group and so better understand how our actions truly affect people's emotions.

And when different groups of people in a certain locality developed their own unique symbols and sounds for the same observable things, actions, emotions and numbers, different languages developed. Soon there were groups of people speaking different sounds for essentially the same things. The advantage of doing this is that highly prized knowledge gathered by one group could be kept secretly within the group and used to the advantage of the group above all others when applied.

But as with any knowledge kept by a communicative tribe, time and enough thinking by other people will eventually discover the same knowledge. The question is, which language should be used by all humans to describe the same things?

Never mind. One thing is certain. Verbal communications certainly became important for humans. Indeed there would be times when you need to be able to communicate with others even if they do not speak your specific language. This was the main issue for a group of entrepreneurial people who wanted to set up a form of trade in order to exchange, barter, buy or sell valuable goods and services considered of great benefit to various groups involved in the trade. So the first important standardisation that had to take place was in the numbering system for counting how many things there were. Once an accepted means of counting was found, the language barrier could begin to be broken down between seemingly different groups.

NOTE: Today, human language is favouring three types: Spanish, English and Chinese. Spanish is considered the most widely-spoken partly from the shear numbers of people living in Spanish-speaking countries, but also because it is the easiest to learn and speak compared to say English or Chinese. English is the next popular language and is fast growing to becoming possibly the preferred international language, mainly because of its flexibility and ability to come up with many new words to describe just about anything (so long as other people agree to the new words and their meanings). Chinese remains a major language mainly for the shear numbers of people living in China. All other minor languages such as French, German and so on are kept for cultural and historical reasons and so maintain a sense of unique identity and of belonging to a specific group. As for other languages, a number of them are rapidly disappearing.

150,000 to 100,000 YEARS AGO

The end of another great Ice Age around 150,000 years ago (4) had encouraged yet another major migration of hominids from central and southern Africa to other parts of the world.

Why the migration? It seems the great food bowl of Africa was diminishing over time due to the warmer and drier conditions thanks to an increasing rain shadow formed by the growing Himalayan mountains, as well as the impact of early humans and other hominids on the great African environment. Or perhaps populations of the two-legged humanoid kind with big brains were increasing and competition for food became more intense?

Were there other migrations taking place around this time? It is not clear, for instance, whether there was a migration from Asia back to Europe and Africa. We know hominids did exist in south-east Asia before the start of this interglacial period. Maybe the Asian people found it too comfortable and safe living near the equator in relative isolation from the rest of the world. And with the extra food supply, Asian people could meditate and perform more elaborate religious rituals to help them understand the true meaning of life and the universe? Or maybe some hominids did migrate, but not to Europe or Africa. It is likely some Asian hominids travelled into northern Russia and later North America through the land bridge (or used boats to travel along the coast) created during the Ice Age between Russia and Alaska and eventually into South America.

At any rate, we do know a number of hominids did migrate to Europe from Africa.

One can understand how the new modern European settlers have much in common with their African origins in terms of the highly competitive nature in getting things of a survival nature. The likelihood of these Europeans engaging in warfare (an expected consequence of applying excessive spontaneous L-brain skills with very little understanding of emotions and a lack of creativity in finding new solutions combined with a large enough brain to store patterns of how to deal with other hominids) would be high compared to, say, Asians who were probably more peaceful and living in a more food abundant environment and preferred a more co-operative and creative approach to life (in what scientists call a more R-brain and greater frontal cortex "thinking" skills) so long as some Asian people didn't get too obsessed with power and wanting to rule the people? There is something about high population levels and limited food supplies that tend to bring out the violent streak within the people of Africa and Europe as if fighting was seen as the only immediate solution to reducing the competition from other humans and ensuring food and territory is controlled.

However, at around 150,000 years ago, the need to fight other hominids became less important in Europe. Apart from being too few if any hominids living in Europe, maybe the previous Ice Age was too cold for other hominids to make the continent their home let alone find the energy to throw a spear at another hominid when one's butt is being frozen. However, as soon as the interglacial period returned, there was an opportunity for migrating hominids to move into Europe. These hominids could relax to a certain extent and focus on the task of gathering new foods while living in caves. While other people may discover geographical gems in Europe for staying warm and protected while gathering and/or growing food with relative ease and these people may have wanted to protect these sites at all costs. If so, conflict may arise.

Then the next Ice Age returned and some European hominids would rely significantly on animals for food and warmth, while some other hominids probably moved back into Africa or elsewhere to experience warmer conditions.

The first early settlers of Europe were known as the Neanderthals who had already established themselves on the continent for quite some time, surviving the harsh conditions of the Ice Age. These people were a tough brute — a truly great survivor for more than 100,000 years. However, their time was coming to an end mainly because they continued to live either on their own or in very small groups and found it difficult to quickly learn new ideas and ways of surviving especially when the new breed of humans from Africa came into their territory.

The new African immigrants, on the other hand, were more organised and better adapters of the changing world (in fact, they could change the world to suit their particular needs by doing things like establishing territory and protecting the boundaries to ensure they have first pick of the available resources).

Not only that, but these highly competitive new humans emerging from Africa and heading into Europe knew a thing or two about how to protect their territories, including dealing with other hominids should they enter these specific areas without permission (i.e., the action will be perceived as a threat to the survival of the humans owning the territories). Furthermore, these sophisticated tool-wielding humans were very smart, understood the power of socialising, and had a well-established communicative language to boot.

A very intelligent and cunning new human breed had arrived.

Plus these new humans looked different to the Neanderthals. The new people had thinner brow ridges, a larger and more frontal expanded skull, a thinner and more delicate jaw, and a thinner and lighter body structure. Anything that looks sufficiently different from these physical characteristics is likely to be perceived as a threat to the survival of the new humans.

These are the sorts of things we need to consider if we are to determine how these Neanderthals and modern humans survived in the same territory we call Europe. Would one hominid dominate the other? Or would there be a sharing and intermingling of the two groups?

118,000 YEARS AGO

According to analysis of pollen and carbon-dating techniques of charcoal found in the Lake George basin of the southern tablelands in New South Wales, Australia was occupied by humans that had originated from south-east Asia and Papua New Guinea. With the existence of charcoal, this proves humans were already using fire as a powerful tool to clear the land.

The analysis suggests this was around 2,000 years after the time of another interglacial period when ice sheets retreated around 120,000 years ago. So what probably happened was that during the last Ice Age, oceans were low enough for humans to travel in canoes across various islands and eventually discovered the Australian continent. With its abundant supply of unique flora and fauna as a source of food, the people took it upon themselves to become the new permanent settlers of a new and exotic land.

100,000 to 90,000 YEARS AGO

Oldest known personal adornment pieces shows evidence of symbolic thinking at around this time. The pieces were excavated from archaeological sites at Skhul in Israel and Qued Djebbana in Algeria. These are shells known as Nassarius gibbosulus of 1 centimetre diameter with holes pierced into them by humans to allow a natural fibre string to pass through them to form a necklace or something similar. The discovery was made by Marian Vanhaeren at University College London and her colleagues while searching the world museum collections.

As co-author of the study, Francesco d'Errico of the National Center for Scientific Research in Talence, France, said:

"Our paper supports the scenario that modern humans in Africa developed behaviors that are considered modern quite early in time, so that in fact these people were probably not just biologically modern but also culturally and cognitively modern, at least to some degree."

Vanhaeren added:

"Symbolically mediated behaviour is one of the few unchallenged and universally accepted markers of modernity. A key characteristic of all symbols is that their meaning is assigned by arbitrary, socially constructed conventions and it permits the storage and display of information."

The finding is based on three shells analysed. Two of the shells from Skhul in Israel were 100,000 years old and the third shell excavated in the 1940s from Algeria was 90,000 years old.

Further details of the finding can be read in the 23 June issue of the research journal Science.

Picture above shows two perforated shells from Skhul. (Picture from Marian Vanhaeren and Francesco d'Errico)

74,000 YEARS AGO

The biggest volcanic explosion of the last 25 million years (an eruption classified as category 8) occurred on the northern island of Sumatra in Indonesia. Known as the Toba volcano, it produced the loudest noise heard by humans sending ash and sulfur dioxide high into the stratosphere and spreading around the world (mostly in the direction of Malaysia, India and eventually Africa and Europe). What followed next was a 6-year global winter (world temperatures dropped by 3 to 5 degrees celsius) which affected all the continents of the world (Antarctica received the least amount of ash, but not much use to humans who were living elsewhere).

In Africa, the colder conditions saw an extended period of drought followed by famine causing millions of animals to die. Population of Homo Sapiens were thought to be 80,000 prior to the volcanic explosion. However, as the drought worsened, humans dwindled to between 10,000 to 1,000 (or perhaps as little as 600 according to some claims). This is probably the closest humans ever got to becoming extinct by this one single event in Earth's geological history. Fortunately only the smartest humans made the decision to migrate and find better pastures, most likely by learning to co-operate with each other through regular communication and helping each other out, rather than enduring the famine and fighting other humans for food.

The theory of humans bottlenecking in its population by this catastrophic event and nearly becoming extinct in Africa and later leading to only two human species surviving — specifically Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and modern humans (Homo sapiens) — is known today as the Toba catastrophe theory first proposed in 1998 by Stanley H. Ambrose of the University of Illinois.

70,000 to 60,000 YEARS AGO

Australia is still a wet country littered with large areas of lavishly lushes vegetation. Although Australia would never experience the same levels of wet and lushes rainforest-like conditions as had occurred during the Jurassic and Triassic period, it was still wet enough to support a large inland sea with regular rainfall along the eastern continent and from monsoons in the north to help replenish the inland sea.

This inland sea benefited many relatively large Australian animals, from the bizarre to the more familiar varieties.

Firstly, the inland sea was a large body of freshwater helping the animals with an abundant supply of fresh drinking water. And secondly, it helped to maintain extra moisture in the air as needed to create extensive rainfalls along the Blue Mountains (especially on the western side of the mountain range) and to a certain extent in northern Australia. As the rains fell heavily and regularly during the warmer summer months, a myriad of rivers on the western side of the Blue Mountains would regularly replenish the inland sea, topped up by monsoon rains from the north in the summer.

Thanks to these wetter conditions, large docile mammals and many fire-sensitive plants had once roamed the continent at this time until they all became extinct by around 60,000 years ago. The extinctions probably occurred either because:

  1. there was already a change in climate over Australia during the Pleistocene epoch due to natural events (e.g. the relatively inactive Blue Mountains were being weathered away to hills thereby reducing the likelihood of rain to replenish the inland sea));
  2. this was the time when Australian aborigines (6) migrating from the food-bowl of south-east Asia and Papua New Guinea brought with them the technology of fire (it was a means of gathering food by deliberately burning areas of land and so inadvertently helped the more fire-resistant vegetation to dominate the landscape); or
  3. a combination of both.

UPDATE
May 2003

Some scientists would prefer to blame nature as the sole cause of Australia's increasingly drier and more fire-prone landscape. Perhaps, as the scientists suggest, the ancient Australian animals had increased in numbers and slowly eaten their way through the vegetation, exposing the ground water to greater evaporation. Then, as the great inland sea located near Lake Eyre had less fresh water coming from the Western side of the Blue Mountains because of reduced rainfall and less moisture in the air, a time came around 60,000 years ago (coincidentally when humans arrived) when regular lightning strikes during the monsoon season created increasingly bigger bush fires. A nice explanation if you didn't want to blame humans for anything. But can we really ignore the impact of the aborigines on the Australian environment? Are humans really that innocent of the great climate change occurring in Australia over a long period of time?

60,000 to 55,000 YEARS AGO

Some geneticists have argued that around 59,000 years ago, the Y-chromosome of the male hominid had evolved into a super-successful version allowing an increase in certain "male characteristics" such as aggression, bigger muscles, and a higher sperm production count. Since genes is a reflection of the organisms adaptation to an environment, one must ask, what happened in the environment to allow the genes to change in this way? Was it a fluke mutation? Or was the gene making tiny micro-evolutionary changes to help support the constant application of certain behaviours in the males? Whatever happened here, it is clear the change was beneficial as the enhanced "male characteristics" were maintained by successive breeding.

In the meantime, these enhanced male traits including aggression would probably have an affect in another area. In particular, how likely was it that humans would create conflict with other humans when solving problems of a survival nature?

Unless different groups of humans could provide something of value to each other and learn to co-operate, there would probably be a higher risk of conflicts taking part among certain groups and not just with certain other animals (mainly the predators, as well as herbivores for food). Certainly a number of hominid groups would have appeared and disappeared over many thousands of years. Natural forces may contribute to the demise of some groups. But what about the humans themselves? Would humans fight each other?

Focussing on the letter aspect, we can imagine how the meeting between hominid groups may lead to assimilation if there are expected benefits from doing so; or more often than not, conflict (especially among the male species — probably from Africa) would be the likely scenario. Why? Because humans are highly territorial. They usually don't like to share the resources within a prescribed region if there is a risk the resources might be depleted and people would be forced to fight again to survive. People like to know they will be able to survive easily in a specified territory knowing they have all the resources they need.

The most common source of such conflict would be over food. As we all know, food is well understood to be a valuable commodity and any unnecessary loss might be detrimental to the survival of one or more human groups. For some groups, the easiest way to maintain food supplies in a prescribed territory was to use their social, enhanced male characteristics, and spontaneous L-brain recall and application of action-based skills to fight off or, in some cases, kill others (known as the demonic primate theory). Those groups not adapted to warfare were either wiped-out or migrated elsewhere, or became specialists in gathering scant food in desolate regions like the sandy or icy deserts of the world.

Actually, this link between food supply and aggressive behaviours leading to fighting and killing of other humans among a number of early male hominids right up to the appearance of modern humans in the early 21st century could dictate where human society will progress in the next 50 to 100 years. Already, scientific studies of gorillas and chimpanzees in the African rainforests of Congo with its vast natural food supply are revealing a much more peaceful and gentle species compared to their more aggressive gorilla and chimpanzee counterparts in the drier and harsher lands of the African interior. The same is true for humans.

Let us give an example.

We know from archaeological finds of ancient civilisations in Peru how much the El Nino effect has had an impact on these civilisations. In one classic case, at around 600AD, the El Nino effect brought about a rather severe and long-term drought along the Western coast of South America. The civilisation that existed at this time were trying to find a solution. The best solution was to practice the religious ritual of human sacrifices simply because the hungry people wanted a relationship with their gods in the hope rains would return. People need rain to grow food in order for the civilisations to survive, but somehow didn't realise the importance of maintaining enough trees to reduce water evaporation and keeping the soils healthy. Certain leaders in this part of the world were too greedy. Too much of the land was cleared of the trees for growing food. And not enough recycling and regenerating the environment was taking place. Instead humans thought a mysterious God would help solve all their woes in an increasingly harsh land.

As the environmental stresses were being rubbed onto the people, the likelihood of aggressive and violent L-brain human behaviours would increase. Eventually a time came when the economy of the Peruvian civilisation had to collapse causing people to turn on each other and fight for the best agricultural lands, fishing spots and so on. When the aggressive L-brain behaviours persisted and conditions in the environment worsened, it eventually caused the end of the civilisation no matter how strong, religiously devoted, or rich the people of the civilisation, or reliance on the military to maintain law and order may have been.

NOTE: No civilisation can afford to destroy its environment if it wishes to survive for as long as the Sun and the universe allows (which in itself requires us to reach out to the stars in a new technology to maximise the survival of the human race — more discussions about this in the future epoch section)..

Will we continue to follow the same aggressive tendencies of our ancestors (and other primates) because of our hardwired need to protect and hoard all the food on this planet for our own selfish wants or needs because of how little there is left for everyone? Or can we use our brain in a different way to solve the food problems and improve our environment — perhaps through a more R-brain approach with ideas of "recycling" etc?

Early humans fighting off animals (or other humans?).

While it is quite possible for some early humans to be getting more aggressive as food supplies dwindled in certain parts of the world (notably Africa) as well as to deal with the numerous predators at this time , they did get increasingly more smarter as the increasing brain size of early humans would indicate, not to mention the development of the Y chromosome of human males for adapting to this tougher environment.

However, it isn't just a dwindling of resources to affect the survival of some humans that can drive people to fight (or die). There is the issue of greed. In other words, once you have what you need, the reality of death for everyone means some individuals will be driven to find ways to acquire additional resources beyond what they need which they think is needed to live longer or helps them and their future offsprings to enjoy life to the fullest. Anything certain human leaders like to have may drive them to do anything to get it, even to the point of resorting to sending other men to fight wars and conquer nations.

Again it doesn't matter if it is a food issue or the greed of some crazy leaders. The fighting that comes from either of these scenarios would simply support the view that any improvements to the Y chromosome as well as the size of the brain to help manage these problems in the environment would be a necessity so long as there is enough time for micro-evolution and a long enough line of successful breeding to eventually see the genes to support the type of human needed to adapt to a given tough and unforgiving environment.

46,000 TO 75,000 YEARS AGO

Latest DNA analysis of thousands of people around the world to determine their genetic variability (or degree of mutations) and so mathematically reconstruct the evolutionary tree of humans suggest the timeframe for our species to migrate to various parts of the world from Africa (the accepted origin for modern humans) was between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. While hominids may have already existed throughout Europe and Asia (which may support the multi-regional theory in earlier times), the first direct descendants leading to modern humans emerged from Africa and migrated to Europe and the Middle East (about 55,000 years ago), Asia and Australia (about 50,000 years ago) and eventually to North America and South America.

Why did humans move out of Africa? It was probably a question of finding a reliable food supply, moving away from the increasing competition from other hominids, and finding a place (or territory) to call your own where you can develop a unique culture, language and arts, as well as acquire new food sources.

You see, the climate and environment of Africa was already getting drier. It meant food was on the decline and finding it was getting harder. Humans had to develop greater endurance and spend lots of time chasing prey (especially if one couldn't find enough dead animals to scavenge). But some humans got a lot smarter. Soon new tools, applying more social techniques, and establishing and defending territories made the task of finding food within the same area easier. But if the food runs out, these humans will move on to apply their skills to another area, and with it the likelihood of conflict with other humans.

Fortunately, one of the easiest solutions to this problem would be to migrate to the coast where the ocean provided a reasonably stable supply of seafood to keep the early humans alive. Adapting to one type of environment next to the ocean (e.g. a relatively constant temperature throughout the year) would have been relatively easy.

As a member of the international research team studying the mitochrondrial DNA of isolated and native people in the Malaysian peninsula known as Orang Asli and those on the Andaman Island off India's east coast, Australian National University's David Bulbeck said:

"It's much easier to move quickly along a coast." (Smith, Deborah. Earth's first beachcombers ended up in Australia: The Sydney Morning Herald. 14-15 May 2005, p.13.)

Once humans reached the coast, they had to make the decision of moving out of the African continent. Why? To minimise the competition from other hominds and possibly to search for a new territory people can call their own (i.e. the origin of countries).

Scientists believe as competition for food and territory increased, early humans learned to travel along the coasts around the Indian Ocean starting from East Africa at a rate of 700 metres to 4 kilometres per year until they reached Australia. Another group did went off in a different direction towards Europe from around the Saudi Arabia and Pakistan region nearly 46,000 to 55,000 years ago.

The technique used by scientists to make this claim is based on the degree of variation or mutations that have taken place on the mitochondrial DNA of seemingly isolated and/or different groups. Generally the more variation there is in this type of DNA the longer the group has been away from the main common group. Combine this with the location of the original groups still alive today in isolated communities and scientists can now piece together the path where humans have migrated.

As Dr Peter Forster, an archaeogeneticist at Anglia Ruskin University, said:

"You can take a look at modern DNA from people alive today and mathematically reconstruct what our ancestors would have had in terms of types and variance of genes.

'We found out that all humans outside Africa are derived from a single migrant group leaving Africa. So they weren't separate migrations. We dated this migration out of Africa to about 50 or 60,000 years ago. So [it is] very recent.

'We know with 95 per cent confidence they must have taken less than 5,500 years to cross from Africa into Australia." (Catalyst. ABC TV Science Program. 21 February 2008.)

Dr Peter Forster (Source: Catalyst, ABC TV Science Program, 21 February 2008)

The Multi-Regional Theory (as opposed to the Out-of-Africa theory) only becomes valid when we talk about the origins of humans on the scale of tens of millions of years ago and especially when the continents were much closer together.

50,000 YEARS AGO

Humans were definitely getting smarter. Despite their lighter skeletal frames and faster bodies compared to their earlier cousins, the Neanderthals, the humans were growing a bigger brain. Now new survival techniques and tools, and the discovery of fire, were helping humans to better protect themselves from a number of predators, fight off other human-like species (or did we systematically exterminate other human-like creatures to maximise our own survival?), and gather food more efficiently.

Among some of the survival techniques employed by our human ancestors at this time include:

  1. building a fence around human-made huts or near the entrance of caves;
  2. using fire to keep predators away at night;
  3. staying in a group, as size and the level of closeness to certain individuals provides greater protection against predators. As Louise Barrett, a primatologist from Liverpool University once said:

    "[Being eaten by a predator] is the driving force for our social lives" (7);

    Although one could equally say humans can be a predator as well should they decide to fight for resources, whether by need or greed.

  4. developing more sophisticated tools to better defend against predators and possibly use them to hunt other animals; and
  5. delegating specialised tasks to certain hominid members of the group.

With vastly improved and efficient ways to gather food and to protect other valuable resources, there would have to be a time when early humans would learn to relax and dream nearly 60,000 years ago. And with this great dream time came the practising art of religion and hunting rituals as indicated by elaborate cave paintings and burial grounds of numerous modern hominid groups. Now we find a large number of people throughout the world doing exactly that.

At the same time as this was occurring, the brain size of human beings seemed to have peaked at around 50,000 years ago. Instead of getting larger, the brain improved its internal organisation. Could it be that humans were getting so efficient in gathering food and in protecting themselves from various other predators that the use of the brain as a purely L-brain tool for quickly acquiring patterns and implementing skills in hunting, gathering, communicating and fighting was no longer required?

It is known that the brain does certainly increase in size. This is due primarily to the extra neurons making countless new connections to other neurons as it learns to cope with its environment and, in so doing, is creating and storing numerous and very specific patterns for survival. And certainly, if you could remember and regurgitate patterns (whether or not you understand them), you were likely to be highly respected and even given the role of leading the group to better pastures. Yet something happened nearly 50,000 years ago to stop the brain from getting considerably larger and instead opt for a reorganising of itself.

Since it is known by the scientists that the brain needs a huge amount of energy to perform its work, perhaps in times of famine the brain of early humans had forced improvements to its internal structure. In this way, the brain could avoid extracting more energy from the human body when developing a larger brain.

Or could it be that people at this time had discovered how much knowledge was being gathered from previous generations and needed a new way to remember (let alone apply) all these bits and pieces of seemingly unrelated information quickly?

And what about the possibility that people in this era were finding an increasing amount of free time to think about things and not have to worry about their survival situation, which may have seen more and more people learning to use their brain in a slightly different, holistic and more creative way, perhaps taking on a more R-brain approach to life as psychologists would call it? Could humans, while sitting down and learning to relax, thought about things more carefully, visualised their patterns, and so eventually have discovered something else about the brain and their environment?

Let us assume some humans did have the time to apply more R-brain skills, what would be the benefit?

R-brain skills is all about applying the power of creative visualisation to help paint the big picture in our minds of what life is about as well as simplifying and linking all our seemingly unrelated and essential patterns into a single unified pattern. Now remembering just one main unified pattern linking all things together is certainly much easier for us to remember than storing a whole bunch of seemingly unrelated patterns in the brain. So could this have been the next big discovery for humans at this time, which later saw the brain re-organise itself to support this kind of R-brain activity?

If humans did discover the ease in remembering one main pattern rather than many individual unrelated patterns of life, it is possible that many humans at this time had developed and refined certain R-brain techniques to assist in the formulation and recording of this unifying pattern for the benefit of future generations. For example, talking about our dreams with elders, meditation, dancing and chanting at night around a fire, taking natural hallucinatory drugs, drawing pictures on rocks and cave walls and so on could all be examples of techniques to help humans enter this spiritual world of the R-brain needed to develop this single, unifying pattern learned from the more balanced and experienced leaders within a group.

Could this help to explain why the brain size of humans at this time had not significantly increased?

Well, certainly it is known throughout human history how many of the great life cycles of ancient civilisations would start with a dramatic period of great creativity and diversification (i.e. R-brain skills), and later undergo an equally dramatic period in the reduction of diversity and into the more specialised areas (i.e. L-brain skills) as needed for people to not only survive, but also have what they want while fending off outsiders who also want the same things.

During these transitions from diversification to specialisation, some of the more creative people in the civilisations may have moved on, died out, or learned to think in a more specialised way. But those who were able to become specialised in the right areas tended to flourish particularly well within the group for a long time. However, a too strong reliance on L-brain skills could cause the people of the civilisations to lose sight of where they are going, become too highly structured, highly populated, too complicated, become too focused on having what they want, be unable to solve increasingly complex social and environmental problems in an original and creative way, and eventually become extinct after exhausting their food supply or battling with other similar civilisations having their own specialised belief systems.

Unless there is a way to rekindle this R-brain approach to life and so help save the L-brain civilisations from eventual self-destruction, it seems likely that the only people who can survive the best are those small groups of individuals who can apply a balance of R-brain and L-brain skills throughout life.

Could a strong creative and visual R-brain approach to life have contributed to a better organised and more efficient brain in the history of humankind? Only further research can tell if this is true. (8)

49,000 YEARS AGO

The famous one-mile wide bowl-shaped Arizona crater in the United States is formed by a 50 metre long meteorite travelling at 25 metres per second. The energy generated by the impact was equivalent to a 15 megaton hydrogen bomb being detonated on the ground. Luckily for life on Earth, the energy was not big enough to cause problems. Upon impact the most it did was create a fireball up to 10 kilometres from ground zero, a shock wave up to 20 kilometres, and hurricane winds up to 40 kilometres. Other than that, this was pretty much a localised event. (9)

At about this time, we see the commencement of another major Ice Age (not caused by the meteorite by the way!). During this latest Ice Age, sea levels were lower and ice sheets would have extended from the polar regions to much of the temperate regions. During the big freeze, humans would hunt the large social mammals known as Wolly Mammoths in Europe. The flesh of Wolly Mammoths then became a valuable source of food, the fur for warmth, and the long and large white tusks of the animals were a useful material for building huts and a source of fuel for fires.

Humans hunting a Wolly Mammoth. (Image from the French documentary film Homo Sapiens: He Domesticates Nature produced by France 3 Production Sud-Ouest, France 5 TSR RTBF, To Do Today Productions (Belgium), CAB Productions (Switzerland), Productions Pixcom (Canada), Ballistic Pictures (South Africa), Tang Media (China), Danit Rossner (Israel). 2004. ).

There has been almost 50 Ice Ages after 2.5 million years ago. The Ice Age of 50,000 to 49,000 years ago is considered the coldest, and also marked the time for the first humans to cross the narrow channels of water separating Papua New Guinea and Australia (both land masses were joined together) from south-east Asia.

In Australia, a mostly rainforest-filled environment in the north gave way to a drier but thick temperate forest and grasslands in and around several large inland lakes. This environment would soon change to become a mostly desert-like environment in the centre of the Australian continent after the arrival of the first humans nearly 45,000 years ago. Many large animals known as the megafauna looking like oversized and slow breeding emus, kangaroos, wombats and a cat-like mammalian predator relying on the big game for food and some large slow-moving lizards became extinct very soon after humans introduced fire to the Australian landscape. While the occasional fires from lightning strikes are known to cause bushfires in their own right, the decision by humans to use fire to a much greater frequency as a means of capturing animals for food known as firestick farming had drastically changed the Australian plant species to the more fire-adaptive types, affecting the quantity of plants and the general diets of many large plant-eating species. Once the scorched surface of the land is exposed more to the sun, less water could be retained and instead evaporate more easily. Only those trees such as the eucalyptus tree that could adapt to drier conditions would remain. With far fewer plants containing nutrient-poor leaves dominated the Australian continent, the megafauna were doomed to extinction. Once these animals disappeared, together with hunting by humans of the young from slow-breeding megafauna types had put many other species under pressure. Eventually, once the large plant-eating types disappeared, the large predators (except humans) disappeared as well.

42,000 YEARS AGO

Europe under the grip of another Ice Age.

40,000 YEARS AGO

Modern humans were beginning to migrate from Africa into Europe to eke out a living together with the Neanderthals. Neanderthals seemed happy to live in Europe for the previous 120,000 years despite a number of Ice Ages.

It seems migrations coincided with the end of the glacial periods.

But not everything was rosy during the inter-glacial periods. We now understand from Dr Urs Ruth of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven how German scientists analysing the ice cores in Greenland revealed a massive volcanic eruption in Europe nearly 40,000 years ago, plunging the continent in relative darkness for several months with much of the volcanic ash eventually settling to the ground within 2 years. Neanderthals continued to survive the cold as did modern humans. But for how much longer? Would the encounter between the two hominid species be a favourable one, or an opportunity for modern humans to reduce the competition?

Dr Urs Ruth

39,000 TO 30,000 YEARS AGO

While further migrations from Africa may have taken place at this time, it should be realised that Europe was already scantily populated since 200,000 years ago by a two-legged mammal with a brain large enough to carve out its own existence. Known as Neanderthal Man (the scientific term is Homo neanderthalensis) (5), this mostly meat-eating cave dweller had a stocky and muscular build with a sloping forehead structure and a brow above the eyes that jutted out significantly. A confirmed location where this species made a home can be seen in the bones unearthed in caves of the Neander Valley of Germany.

Neanderthal Man found ways to survive the extreme cold in Europe by hunting Wolly Mammoths and other animals in the north.

A reconstruction of Neanderthal Man as displayed at the American Museum of Natural History. Source: Tattersall 1995, p.157.

Despite being a relatively successful hominid living off the animals of Europe, Neanderthals still hadn't found the time to be sufficiently creative to develop new and more powerful weapons and methods of gathering food and solving other problems quickly enough. Part of the reason might be because life was difficult during the Ice Age in Europe. Spending the least amount of energy except when hunting, eating food, keeping warm and reproducing seemed sufficient for the life of a typical neanderthal. While these people did understand the power of socialising in terms of hunting large animals and allowing other members of the group to set up fire, cook food and keep the caves relatively clean and habitable, and even occasionally practising rituals for handling their loved ones at death, their ability to solve problems in a more creative way become a major weakness. It was a weakness that would be exploited by a new group of humans entering the European continent from the east from Africa and eventually colonising every aspect of the land.

NOTE: The rituals for handling the dead by neanderthals were considered to be a little more primitive (although some humans would practice something similar in places like Malta). The dead would often by placed inside caves where their spirits would supposedly protect the group living inside the caves from marauding bears. Although the smell of rotting flesh may be a slight turn-off, it would not be surprising if the bodies were placed in nearby caves where other animals can consume them and so give the impression to these people that the spirits were protecting them. On the odd occasion, especially during very intense cold periods, these hominids would sometimes resort to eating the flesh of their dead relatives as a matter of survival as well as a belief that the strength and power of their relatives would somehow reside within them.

However, the new species of humans entering the European continent had another way to deal with the predators — just go after them using more sophisticated weapons, in reasonable numbers., and using a careful plan of attack The time had truly come for modern humans to became the predator of all predators.

In fact, so successful were these new humans that it was likely the neanderthals were eventually pushed to extinction by the more intelligent humans. If it weren't for the neaderthals cunning skill and knowledge of certain secret locations for caves to protect themselves from the humans, these hominids would probably have died out earlier than the fossils indicate today.

Latest scientific research by Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum and his colleagues revealed an interesting find. Published through the online research journal Nature on 13 September 2006 titled Late survival of Neanderthals at the southernmost extreme of Europe Finlayson and his team believe the Neanderthals would not disappear from Europe until 28,000 years ago and possibly as recently as 24,000 years ago when the last members of the species died on the coast of Portugal and Spain.

Why?

The timing for Neanderthals likely last stand is significant.

Research by the Finlayson team involved no less than 30 radiocarbon datings of animal bones; charcoal samples from artificial fires found dotted in and around Gorham's Cave in the British territory of Gibraltar; classic Levallois blade-like flakes often used by Neanderthals and other materials within the lower portions of the Pleistocene deposits called pure Mousterian (the name given to a lithic industry in Europe said to be always associated with Neanderthals) strongly suggesting Neanderthal's occupation in and around the cave site. Radiocarbon dates have put these occupations in the lower levels between 23,000 and 33,000 years ago.

This latest finding pushes the presence of Neanderthals in the cave at least 2,000 years later than previously documented by other scientists. As Clive Finlayson said:

"Maybe these are the last ones." (Ritter, Malcolm. Neanderthals survived thousands of years longer than scientists thought: USA Today. 13 September 2006.)

One contentious aspect of the research is how no Neanderthal bones were found in the cave to help give the Finlayson team conclusive evidence. Without this evidence, it leaves open to the possibility that anatomically modern humans could have inhabited this isolated cave around 24,000 to 28,000 years ago. Also Paul Mellars, a professor of prehistory and human evolution at Cambridge University, believes the radiocarbon dating evidence for the charcoal could have been contaminated by younger material in which case the age is more like 31,000 or 32,000 years old. However, given the unusually large number of samples at the right level within the Pleistocene deposits and how there is no evidence of artifacts from modern humans within this level, Finlayson is highly confident Neanderthals had existed in the cave up to around 24,000 years ago or, to be conservative as Finlayson puts it, around 28,000 years ago.

Leaving aside the above findings, further insights into the life and mind of the neanderthals have emerged thanks to the efforts of several German scientists.

In 2007, German scientists had managed to find extra skull fragments for Neanderthal man in the archaeologically-important Neander Valley. This was enough to help reconstruct the skull of the hominid using 3D virtual reconstruction software and with it the first look at this species. Further details can be found in the documentary The Real Neanderthal Man by Ruth Omphalius. While it is not possible to determine precisely how hairy this species was, a slightly more human-like look of Neanderthal Man based on the skull and some best educated guesses for the facial features such as colour of the eyes can be seen in the picture below taken from the documentary.

Reconstruction of Neanderthal Man

Looking almost human enough, perhaps the most significant difference is in the sloping nature of the forehead suggesting less need for planning and concentration. Such a species was not likely to change the landscape and develop innovative and more powerful tools to suit a new vision of how he could live more easily in order to make it less harsh and have adequate food. Instead, the neanderthals tended to migrate with the seasons, moving from one cave system to another and relying on whatever food they could find in the environment.

Other details about Neanderthal Man included the making and use of some basic stone tools, a rudimentary communicative language, and a social network of family members working together to survive the often extreme conditions in Europe at this time.

UPDATE
February 2010

In another documentary titled Neanderthal Code produced by National Geographic, it has been suggested by some scientists that some interbreeding could have taken place in Europe and that we, as humans today, may possess the remnants of the neanderthal DNA within us.

Given the interesting reconstruction of the neanderthals' face, it makes one wonder, could early humans in Europe have got along (or simply took advantage) and possibly mated with the neanderthals?

Well, if the neanderthals didn't get along or did not mate with the modern humans, it isn't because their brains weren't big enough. Scientists have claimed the brain size of neanderthals were at least as large, if not bigger, than humans. Furthermore, researchers Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands, have gone as far as to argue that modern language and speech had been traced back to 500,000 years go to the last common ancestor we shared with the neanderthals. Knowing the size of the neanderthals' brain was probably larger than modern humans at the time and they did have to learn to socialise in order to survive, there is no reason not to exclude neanderthals as having the ability to communicate. It has even been speculated that neanderthal people might have contributed some of their words to the languages of modern humans. Whatever the case, the genes for speech in modern humans are now starting to appear in recent DNA analysis of ancient neanderthal bones to help support this finding. Further details of this study can be found in the 5 July 2013 issue of the journal Frontiers in Language Sciences of which an abstract can be found here.

Or what about from the human perspective, that is the humans who "invaded Europe" from Africa? How would these humans have looked at these traditional hominids of Europe? Could there be the slightest possibility that some humans did have a go at mating with neanderthals?

One thing is certain. It is not unusual for humans today to hear of stories of other humans having a strange fascination and even a fantasy of sheep given the endless sexual jokes one hears about amongst the more desperate New Zealand farmers (some Australian farmers probably prefer the chicken for its portability and the fact that if you turn one of these chickens upside down, the animals quickly go to sleep and don't move, which makes them quite handy). In Europe, however, there was no sheep (or chickens) to be found. If some male humans in this part of the world were really feeling desperate, what animals could they go for? A bit tricky to try a Wolly Mammoth unless it is dead and lying on the ground. Even so, the large nature of the beast would require a male human to climb up and hold on to dear life when trying it. A bit too dangerous one would think. And then we have the reindeer, but these tend to kick around too much, causing problems to the male human unless it is dead. And certainly the predatory animals won't take too kindly to a human male playing around with their back ends. So what else is on offer? Well, guess what? We have people called neanderthals. What an amazing bonus for the first European invaders from Africa to notice.

Whether or not these endless New Zealand and Australian jokes are true, if one were faced with having sex with a chicken or sheep or some other animal, or having a crack with a young female neanderthal, most males would probably have a go at the latter. And most likely when neanderthals are younger as they tend to look more human (perhaps with less hair and a thinner body) to make them at least vaguely attractive.

Or perhaps this is more a question of which angle to look at a neanderthal? If a young female neanderthal was seen bent over and the only thing a male human could see was the girl's genital region, could he ever tell the difference from those of a modern female human (apart from possibly being a little more hairy in certain places, or perhaps there was no difference at all)?

This is the question: Would mating have likely taken place? The above argument would suggest a resounding, "Yes". But then again this is not absolute proof.

But even if we leave aside this sexual encounter aspect for a moment, just how successful would the mating go in terms of the offsprings? More specifically, would they survive? The answer depends on how much time is given for the offsprings to grow up into young adults and mate themselves with other humans to pretty much iron out any differences from the neanderthals. As for the neanderthals themselves, something is telling us from the way the neanderthals kept to themselves in isolated areas that this sort of mating situation was either rare, or humans were not too keen on the idea of integrating neanderthal people into modern society.

So, what happened to the neanderthals? There is a strong possibility the neanderthals were pushed from around 40,000 years ago in eastern Europe to the coastal fringes of Spain and Portugal around 28,000 years ago. Neanderthals might have had good knowledge of where to go to find secret caves, but something is suggesting the new inhabitants of Europe weren't too keen about the idea of interbreeding and didn't want neanderthals living among them under the same roof of these new dwellings created by modern humans.

Why?

This seems to be a question of how attractive the neanderthals were in the eyes of humans.

It could also be a question of whether neanderthals were seen as intelligent by the humans with the possibility this species may have been seen as "not quite as smart". Scientists might argue differently claiming the brain capacity of neanderthals is too large and they had the ability to communicate. However the lower frontal region of the skull would suggest the ability to problem-solve and think quickly using the frontal cortex of the brain was not well developed. If so, it may not matter how big the brain was for neanderthals.

Not even the physically strong nature of the body of these neanderthals is enough to save this species from eventual extinction. Humans probably already had sophisticated weapons to handle any angry neanderthal and put him in his place. So there was unlikely to be any competition.

This seems to be more about how neanderthals probably looked, not to mention the etiquettes of neanderthals were probably not of the high standards humans have come to expect. Who knows?

For example, among the less than endearing features of neanderthals could have been the jutting brow above the eyes, a noticeable slanting of the forehead (looking front on you probably wouldn't notice it) with indications the frontal cortex of the brain was not well-developed for creating a sophisticated language, undertake regular thinking and long-term concentration, and come up with original solutions from given problems at a reasonable speed. Then we have to contend with what could be a more hairy species, especially among the males. All these factors alone would be enough to have kept the humans and neanderthals among their own kind.

This may be true for the majority of encounters between humans and neanderthals. Yet, as they say, all it takes is just one sexual encounter for the two species to form a new hybrid offspring.

Perhaps the answer to how extensive mating may have occurred is not restricted to just how attractive the neanderthals looked to modern humans at this time, but also how desperate some human males were to finding a female companion, especially if they were loners or kept to themselves, and perhaps in a similar way for the young female neanderthals (or maybe these females were intelligent enough to realise they could survive better if they could make themselves available as a suitable mate to the humans, or could see the more obvious attractiveness of the humans over their own kind). Or maybe a decision was made by some family members of neanderthals to try to mate with a male human, again for the purposes of survival?

Or perhaps a female neanderthal was banished from her tribe and was looking for a place to stay?

Who knows for sure how it could happen?

At a time of 150,000 years ago, just before two groups of hominids went on their own separate ways, we do know humans looked more like the neanderthals. Thus mating among the two groups would not have been uncommon. Move the clock forward in time and we discover humans have changed their appearance significantly less than 40,000 years ago. We find the consumption of more Omega 3 fish oils from a diet of mostly mussels near the coast, access to a greater abundance of ocean water and plants to keep clean and obtain essential vitamins and minerals, greater protection from predators while living inside caves hidden high up on cliffs and perhaps carrying a formidable array of weapons, more time to think about the problems of the day by men (and perhaps women too), more time for women to help each other learn ways to become more attractive with the extra time, and greater communication could all have played a significant role in the development of a larger-brained and more attractive-looking two-legged humanoid creature. In addition, modern humans could concentrate and think for longer periods of time in order to uncover new patterns and create new plans on how to handle different patterns in a efficient and effective way with the tools they had. For example, they could probably measure when the tides would recede and come in on a periodic basis and thus when to harvest mussels and other crustaceans for food. When compared all these chances to the neanderthals, and amazingly these European cave dwellers probably didn't have to remember all these patterns. As the seasons naturally changed every year, the environment and its animals naturally told the neanderthals what to do and where to go to find an abundance of food. In addition, the neanderthals may not have been too concerned about their appearance (they probably needed more of their body hair and animal skins to keep warm. The large physical bodies of the neanderthals tell us they needed to hunt large animals, and we understand these people did rely on red meat from big game animals to keep themselves alive. Combined this with the extremely cold environment of Europe during the Ice Ages and these people would be more preoccupied with survival-based activities such as finding shelter, keeping warm and hunting. It is a hard life, so why bother spending time being attractive to attract the right mates? As a result, the ancient facial features of a jutting set of bones for the brow above the eyes and a sloping forehead among the neanderthals were maintained and not seen as endearing qualities to have in the children of more modern humans arriving in Europe. Therefore it seems no sex between humans and neanderthals would have taken place. But this is not to say it is impossible.

As some humans would have noticed, Europe was still a hard and wild place to live. Combine this with the complicated social structures of human societies and regular warfare and it would not be unusual to see some males learning to live on their own, far away from all these problems. Europe is a big place with lots of unexplored areas one could hide. Or perhaps there were some less than attractive modern human males who weren't likely to find a mate within human societies? Or maybe developing trade was not a major concern for some males but just surviving comfortably on one's own knowing there was enough food to gather using the right techniques? Whatever the case, if you just happened to be a desperate male human in the countryside surviving comfortably for a long time but suddenly realise you need a companion and all you got greeted was the sight of a young female neanderthal from behind (i.e. a question of "nice ass, pity about the face" scenario for the human), well who knows? And from the perspective of a female neanderthal, a male human could have looked like the finest specimen she has ever seen. And nice large brain too to boot, clearly intelligent in how he manages the land and protects himself. So mating from her perspective would be like experiencing the greatest porn of her entire life. And, of course, an opportunity to protect her offsprings with the help of this man. And to the male human, it is far better than relying on some sheep for companionship. And at some point he may need to pass on his genes.

But even if it is possible, the hybrids will still have some lingering characteristics to remind other humans of their origin with the previous Ice Age inhabitants. The facial structure is likely to reveal those characteristics. If any of these early hybrids were noticed by other humans, it is likely certain social rules would have been established to not only stop this kind of frisky behaviour, but also have dire consequences attached for the humans and/or the neanderthals should the rules be ever broken. All it takes is just some neanderthal characteristics on the face of a hybrid species such as a brow still jutting outwards and a flattened forehead to be enough of a give away. Then other humans could have the hybrids wiped out in a form of ethnic cleansing.

Ethnic cleansing is certainly not an unheard of event in Europe.

The only other option in this situation is simply for the hybrids and the parents to continue living in isolated regions for long enough until enough inter-breeding could take place to the point where no obvious differences in the physical characteristics can be seen. This is probably the more likely scenario.

As for the remaining neanderthals not willing or able to make this bold sexual move with the humans, they will have no choice but to fight, or run away.

If humans had been pushing neanderthals to the brink in some way, could neanderthals fight back against the humans?

It is not as if neanderthals would not have the strength to fight back. Their shorter limbs and stocky build was designed for close range attacks against large animals. Modern humans would have a difficult time to fight against a neanderthal in close range face-to-face combat. It would be like fighting a gorilla knowing the strength a guerilla has over humans. Very little chance a human can survive a direct combat with a neanderthal other than try to be clever and find any tool at his disposal to disable and eventually kill a neanderthal. Humans, however, would probably like to avoid direct hand-to-hand combat with a neanderthal. Humans prefer to take the easy route. And if modern humans had to deal with the neanderthals, they have one big advantage: the ability to recognise new patterns very quickly with the help of a well-developed frontal cortex region. Humans were cleverer in the way they could process information in a given situation and find solutions fast. And being more lightweight, humans could move faster for longer periods of time, throw weapons such as a spear at a much greater distance using a longer arm, analyse the landscape and use the shape of the land as a strategic means for maximising damage to the neanderthals (e.g. underground traps, climb trees or stand on small hills and use the advantage of height to throw the weapons), and in working in large numbers in a highly co-ordinated and organised manner (e.g. by attacking from multiple directions).

The ability of humans to socialise and work together using new tools and working at a distance and thinking fast on their feet while quickly adapting to a changing environment is probably the biggest advantage modern humans had over the neanderthals.

And what could neanderthals do in this situation? Throw a few rocks and a couple of spears?

Something is telling us the neanderthals would come out second best from such conflicts. Humans are not like dumb Wolly Mammoths or bisons. Here was a clever species and a more formidable opponent in any type of conflict a neanderthal would care to get involve with.

In conclusion, the genes of the neanderthals may not have initially spread far and wide among the humans. Even the way the neanderthals had decided to keep living in caves at the very coastal edges of Spain and Portugal and not intermingle and learn to live in a more modern society of humans suggested they did or could not assimilate within human society. And most scientists are of this opinion so far. As anthropologist Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History remarked:

"I would certainly not deny that some hanky panky might well have gone on. What obviously did not happen was any major biologically significant exchange of genes." (Source: National Geographic's documentary film titled Neanderthal Code, 2008.)

But, then again. All it takes is for one hybrid individual to somehow survive long enough to breed again with another human and after several generations have past (perhaps secluded from modern human society for long enough) for the hybrids to look no different from a human. All it was needed is sufficient protection and hiding the offspring from the sight of other humans or to live in relative isolation in another part of Europe and there would be enough time for the offspring to pass on the genes to the next human until several generations later it would be hard to discern the difference. It is a probable scenario worth investigating. And as such, scientists are considering the possibility.

Currently there is a manhunt (or should that be a neanderthal hunt) as we speak to find the set of gene sequences that can be described as part of the neanderthal tribe which when compared to modern humans would also exist identically. If the genes exist, scientists may have enough evidence to support such a theory.

Already scientists have found an unusually well-preserved piece of bone with higher quality snippets of DNA from a male meanderthal found in a cave in Croatia. And assuming our technology can sift out the neanderthal genes from bacteria, insects and modern humans (just touching the bone is enough to contaminate the sample) we need to see many gene sequences in common between neanderthals and modern humans. Even if they do find a few similar genes (already there is talk of the language gene and the gene for controlling the red hair colour in humans being essentially the same), it may well indicate that neanderthals were once part of the human race with their improved voice box already evolved around 200,000 to 150,000 years ago before a small renegade group migrated to Europe to become the neanderthals we know of today. Then the cold conditions and low lighting from a sun hidden behind clouds may have brought out the red hair colour.

The entire genome of the neanderthal species (i.e. all 3 billion of the gene sequences) will need to be uncovered first and analysed carefully before a final conclusion can be made. The number of genes found to be in common between the two species will decide whether the interbreeding was widespread or limited to perhaps a very few individuals (probably the ones carrying the red hair gene), or maybe none at all.

The answer is likely to arrive sometime in 2012 using the latest and fastest gene sequencing technology available at the US company 454 Life Sciences (founded by Jonathan Rothberg) based in Connecticut. As of 2013, the results are pretty much in favour of some kind of interbreeding.

Already with the short time the gene sequencing technology has been applied, there is evidence to suggest the passing of any genes from the neanderthals to humans had occurred but was limited to just a few in the early stages. Furthermore the genes were maintained and enough breeding took place over time to ensure any obvious similarities with the neanderthal species had disappeared, but some of the remaining neanderthal genes have now been spread widely enough today among a number of Europeans for no one to notice until now. Maybe the only few and unusual but attractive characteristics to remain include red hair and a whiter skin for some human females as the only recognizable feature of the neanderthals but not considered by other humans as enough reason to eliminate through ethnic cleansing because of how attractive these characteristics are,

As for the original pure bred stock, the neanderthals finally became extinct between 24,000 and 28,000 years ago.

One thing is fascinating: it is interesting to see how most scientists, including Dr Finlayson, would prefer to make humans look like they are innocent and had no influence in the demise of the neanderthals. They will suggest things like climate change and how extreme cold in the winter time or extended periods of hot droughts during the summer time could disrupt the neanderthal groups and push them to the brink, and eventually, over the edge, of extinction. It is a nice thought if you don't want humans to be seen as responsible in any way. However, the reality is likely to be a combination of various factors, of which the biggest factor was the way humans were not exactly allowing themselves to have close contact with neanderthals.

The fact that modern humans weren't exactly sharing their homes to help some neanderthals to survive suggests the cave dwellers had to have been pushed to some extent by humans, and possibly be given the final death blow in an encounter that could have ended the neanderthal species.

This is a scenario where scientists cannot as yet disprove.

35,000 YEARS AGO

The interglacial period of 30,000 years ago looked to be a rather warm one. Scientists believe the ice covering the North Pole had disappeared at this time.

Just before things began to warm up again, true modern man such as Cro-Magnon in Europe appeared.

Then by 18,000 years ago, the next Ice Age returned.

Earth around 18,000 years ago, by which time another Ice Age had sprung up covering much of Russia, Canada and the northern parts of the United States, all of Sweden and Finland and parts of Germany, France and Poland. Image available from http://www.geologie.uni-stuttgart.de/down/maps2/pl13.jpg.

During the interglacial period, cave paintings certainly flourished at this time. It is almost like there was too much food and not enough conflict to keep early humans preoccupied during this time. Were people becoming now more creative during the warmer interglacial periods?

The "Chinese Horse" from Lascaux, France found in a Magdalenian cave. This prehistoric painting depicts one of the favourite foods of early humans in Europe at this time - the (fat) horse. Other sources of food included the rhinoceros, cave bear, deer, wolly mammoth, bison, reindeer and Ibex. Source: Gowlett 1984, p.125.

25,000 - 18,000 YEARS AGO

The last Ice Age begins. The coldest period occurs between 18,000 and 20,000 years ago. It was so cold that the fresh waters in the Mediterranean Sea region receded and enough time for tundra and some forested vegetation to grow and reindeer to graze where the sea floor exists today.

Humans learn to move away from caves and use stones and rocks in a local area to build long-lasting huts. This allowed humans to create their own durable shelter without interfering with other hominids and some predators wanting to inhabit caves.

Neanderthals by this time were already extinct. Either they had the last stand against the humans in some cave along the coast of Spain or Portugal, or the extreme cold pushed the species over the edge and would never recover from it.

18,000 YEARS AGO

On 28 October 2004, archaeological digs in the inner sanctum of a large Limestone Cave on the remote Indonesian island of Flores by a research team — led by Mike Morwood of the University of New England, Radien Soejono of the Indonesian Centre for Archaeology, and Richard Roberts of the University of Wollongong — found the remains of a pygmy-sized or 91cm tall female hominid nicknamed "the Hobbit" (a specimen labelled LB1) together with another six other hominids of roughly the same size.

Known to the scientists as Homo floresiensis (although there is still considerable scientific debate as to whether it should be given a new scientific name as if it is a new species of hominids), the small female hominid died only a mere 18,000 years ago at age 30 years.

Standing no higher than a metre tall, it would appear as if the female and the rest of her community of hobbits were living in the cave in relative isolation for over 74,000 years. Now there is good evidence to suggest these hominids may have lived much longer on the island and possibly living with the original Homo Erectus people with the discovery by archaeologist Mike Morwood and his team in 1998 of 840,000 year old stone tools on the island.

And that's not the only thing. As Homo Sapiens continued to develop a bigger brain, by 18,000 years ago, the brain of Homo floresiensis didn't seem to get much bigger, if anything, it may have reduced in size compared to Homo Erectus. Was life getting easier on the island thst the small hominids didn't need to use their brains to solve complicated problems?

A closer inspection of these ancient hominids revealed one significant difference. Pygmies of the modern era tend to have head sizes disproportionately larger compared to their bodies. In contrast, these ancient hominids had a more natural size head in proportion to their bodies. Although scientists would describe the brain as less than half a modern human (and certainly less than a modern pygmy), it didn't meant these hominids were dumb. A closer analysis of the inside of the skulls of the hominids using computer technology in an attempt to create virtual endocasts of what the brain probably looked like showed the brain was remarkably sophisticated for its size. This seems to be reflected in the stone tools they made and how they used fire to improve their survival.

As chairman of anthropology at Florida State University and a specialist Dean Falk said on 4 March 2005:

"This discovery of this species has flummoxed the field." (Gorner, Peter. Feuding scientists go head to head: The Canberra Times. 5 March 2005, p.18.)

After reviewing the latest radiological tests and virtual endocasts on the small hominids' brain and compared them with virtual endocasts for Homo Erectus, modern pygmies, modern humans and modern humans suffering from microcephaly, Dr Falk remarked:

"The scaling of the brain to body isn't at all what we'd expect to find in pygmies, and the shape is all wrong to be a microcephalic. This is something new.

'The brain is the size of a chimp's, and that's what I thought we'd be looking at. But instead there were fancier things on the Hobbit's brain. It was much more like the brains of advanced creatures. I've never seen that in anything this size." (Gorner, Peter. Feuding scientists go head to head: The Canberra Times. 5 March 2005, p.18.)

The virtual endocast image of the brain of Homo floresiensis (left) compared to modern man (right).

The areas of the brain containing unusually high convolutions and size are in (i) the frontal cortex where higher thinking skills take place; and (ii) the temporal lobes where memory, emotions, speech and hearing are processed. These areas are considered important for co-operative and communicative behaviour in a group situation, and independent behaviour such as tool-making and the ability to plan and take one's own initiative.

Based on this information, Dr Falk is confident the hobbits are a new species and not as an Indonesian palaeoanthropologist Professor Teuku Jacob claimed were modern humans with microcephaly.

Other scientists are not too sure. By ignoring the enlargements and sophistication in those areas of the brain suggesting possible advanced functions, some scientists think the brain is far too small to have the ability to create stone tools or do anything else very much, let alone communicate with other members of the group. As anthropologist Milford Wolpoff of the University of Michigan said:

"It's a teeny brain. It didn't make those tools. Your dog would have had a better chance of making those tools." (Gorner, Peter. Feuding scientists go head to head: The Canberra Times. 5 March 2005, p.18.)

Yes, but dogs don't have hands like these little hominids did. And when you have proper hands to use for manipulating the environment and oneself, different parts of the brain develop differently. We cannot discount the possibility these hominids could have achieved complex tasks such as tool-making.

Actually, the size of the brain does not necessarily prove whether it can or cannot do something. As we have seen in evolutionary history, modern human brains have not grown significantly larger after 50,000 years ago despite the wealth of tasks we are now required to perform. Rather the brain has improved its internal structure making it more efficient in how it performs its tasks. The same appears to be true for these tiny hominids.

Who knows? Maybe future palaeoanthropologists in a million years time might look back at our own brains of the 21st century and see them as unusually small compared to the sorts of tasks we were expected to perform.

Apart from this brain debate among the scientists, one thing is certain. For some inexplicable reason, these previously successful hominids (or should we describe them as "hobbits") died out at around 13,000 years ago, just a mere 2,000 years before the end of the last Ice Age.

Thomas Sutikna from Jakarta's Centre of Archaeology looks face to face at one of the Homo Floresiensis skulls (Source: AP and The Canberra Times). An artist impression picture of the male version of this creature is shown above.

Why?

Well, the island of Flores isn't exactly the place where one would feel the intense cold from the Ice Age. We are talking about the tropics not far from the equator where the temperature is moist and hot virtually all the time. So the weather couldn't be what killed these little hominids. Foodwise, there seemed to be a hell of a lot to be found on the tropical island especially if they kept their numbers and/or body size to a reasonably small and manageable level. Clearly the hominids weren't exactly starving for food on the island. And there is no evidence that a volcano had destroyed the island too. The only closest volcano to be possibly active at the time would have affected the area around Liang Bua, but no where else, making scientists think Homo floresiensis should have survived on other parts of the island including the Limestone Cave.

One reporter suggested in a newspaper article that "With a brain capacity of less than 400 cubic centimetres, they eventually went extinct."

We can safely say the brain was not the cause for the hominids extinction. The brain capacity of these hominids, although admittedly four-fifths the size of an adult chimpanzee (roughly 350 cubic centimetres, or 50cc less than the Australopicithines), was more than adequate to survive the tropical island of Flores as they searched and hunted for food such as rodents, bats and baby elephants (and why not some of the tropical fruits as well?). One doesn't need a big brain to survive in this part of the world.

Actually some experts believe the brain was possibly big enough to permit these people to develop a communicative language as American scientist Dr Falk noticed in his computer image of the hominids' brain. So clearly something else must have wiped them out.

Now an interesting theory has emerged suggesting that it could have been our ancestors known as Homo Sapiens. Despite the allegedly massive brain capacity of 1,400 cubic centimetres, these humans may have had a direct or indirect influence on the future of these small hominids.

It is possible some Homo Sapiens may have thought in their own minds how smart it would be to reduce the competition for food. Or maybe some humans were frightened by legends of monster leprechauns coming to steal human children and eat them alive. So some of the adult humans decided to put an end to their fears by destroying the hobbits once they were tracked down. If this is true, the decision to conquer the rest of the island by the more war-faring and communicative L-brain Homo Sapiens must have put these small and unusual hominids in a rather precarious position.

Yes, so who is the smarter one now? Homo Sapiens or Homo floresiensis? Perhaps some Homo Sapiens should have evolved a smaller brain to reduce their tendency to use it as a tool for fighting, conquering and using the resources in any way they pleased and with absolutely no thinking about the long-term consequences of such actions. It would have at least given Homo floresiensis a better fighting chance to stop the invaders.

However the cause for the extinction is pure conjecture. For all we know a disease could have easily wiped out the hominids leaving behind the Homo Sapiens to take over the island. More work needs to be done to determine the likely cause of the extinction which somehow hasn't affected the Homo Sapiens at this time.

Even the idea that perhaps poisonous gases and hot ash from the island's volcano could have wiped out the small hominids nearly 12,000 years ago, although plausible, seems a bit far-fetched considering how the Homo Sapiens continued to thrive on the island. There are areas on the island where the hobbits could have survived and escaped the gases. So why did the hobbits disappear?

UPDATE
27 February 2005

Bones of contention (a brilliant term used by Australian 60 Minutes reporter Mike Woolley) have emerged when co-leader of the team responsible for unearthing the hobbits named Professor Soejono insisted in having an Indonesian palaeoanthropologist named Professor Teuku Jacob of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta analyse the remains in early December 2004 against Morwood's wishes, which was meant to be sent to an Australian expert in Jakarta, Indonesia.

January 2005 came and passed and scientists were impatiently waiting for Professor Jacob to relinquish the bones for the rest of the scientific community to analyse. Jacob signed an agreement to return the bones by 1 January 2005. When it was finally returned in March 2005, scientists discovered crucial bones needed to explain the shape and size of the hobbits and how they walked were severely damaged (i.e. the pelvic and jaw bones) presumably during the transportation of the valuable items to and from Jacob's laboratory.

Before the bones were returned, Professor Jacob and a couple of Australian researchers — Maciej Henneberg of the University of Adelaide and Alan Thorne of the Australian National University — made the claim on 6 November 2004 that these dwarf hominids were suffering a brain degeneration disease called microcephaly. In other words, these small people were no different from modern humans.

However, the entire skeleton of the hominids does not indicate degeneration of the rest of the body from the same disease (which one must assume targets the brain and ultimately the skull, not the entire body). Perhaps the Indonesian scientist was trying to say these people were ordinary Homo Erectus people having a genetic mutation allowing them to grow to a small size so they can better adapt to the tiny islands. Or was he hoping other scientists would not see the importance of the find because of the damage done to the bones?

Seriously the genetic explanation might turn out to be closer to the truth. If one looks at the bigger picture instead of focussing on just the brain size of the hominids, it would appear the hominids weren't the only animals to have become smaller creatures. Possibly because the island of Flores is not large enough to support big animals because of its limited food supplies, it would appear other animals such as elephants shrunk in size through micro-evolution and selective breeding in order to become more sustainable on the island.

Does this mean all the animals suffered the same brain degeneration disease as did the hominids assuming the Indonesian scientist is correct in his assumption? Highly unlikely.

UPDATE
29 April 2005

Another scientist contending the hobbit find does not represent a new species is Maciej Henneberg, a biological anthropologist and anatomy expert from the University of Adelaide in Australia. He claims the dwarf-size remains represent a modern human being, Homo Sapiens, suffering from microcephaly. From his definition of the term, microcephaly means a condition in which the head is abnormally small. Well, according to a reference book, microcephaly is an "abnormal smallness of the head". But it also adds, "...often associated with pathological mental conditions".

Computer images of the brain of this creature seems to go against the idea of any "pathological mental condition". US scientists are of the view the creature was very intelligent.

Perhaps the skeleton does represent a normal human being naturally-adapted to the island through mutations to live as small people.

Now Indonesian scientists claim they have found during an 18-24 April 2005 expedition 77 pygmy families in a village situated on the eastern side of the island of Flores. Apparently the community was never discovered until now. The people were living in the village of Rampapasa, about 1 kilometre from the village of Liang Bua where the skeleton was originally found.

Could these be the descendents of the dwarf-sized skeleton? The only slight problem is in the use of the term pygmies to describe these people. Pygmies are described as having small bodies with oversized heads. The skeleton found near Liang Bua suggest the body is small and the head is undersized. Yet the brain structures suggest it did not suffer from "pathological mental conditions".

So which is it? A human pygmy or a new species?

The only way to settle this dispute is to make comparisons of the skull, jaw and teeth structure of the old female dwarf creature and the pygmies discovered alive on the island. And what could DNA testing reveal?

UPDATE
26 May 2005

One scientist has suggested the skull and jaw of the female hobbit looks more like Homo Habilis — a more primitive hominid than Homo Erectus. Homo Habilis could have travelled to Flores to become the Hobbits.

UPDATE
13 October 2005

The latest findings on the Hobbit bones suggest the creatures were highly muscular and quite strong, more so than modern humans. Another interesting thing is how some scientists studying the bones are suggesting the creatures could be the last remnants of Australopithecus. If this is true, it would rewrite the history books. Currently it is believed Australopithecus had died out over 1.5 million years ago and never moved out of Africa (why shouldn't it?). Now we are facing a new possibility.

A total of eight individuals, all of roughly the same size (if not smaller), have been found in the area, putting in serious doubt the sceptics view that the creatures had suffered from microcephaly.

UPDATE
18 May 2006

Primatologist Robert D. Martin of the Field Museum in Chicago is of the view the "Hobbit" is probably an ordinary person suffering microcephaly. He supports this by saying the shrinking of animals on the island should cause only a moderate reduction in brain size. However, Martin is worried the brain size of this "Hobbit" is much smaller than expected. For the law to follow, the Hobbit should have been no taller than 30cm, not 91cm.

Martin also thinks the tools found near the site of the Hobbits were too sophisticated to be created by these creatures. They had to be formed by the hands of Homo Sapiens. Perhaps Martin is suggesting the Hobbits were smart enough to come down from the cave and steal the items from Homo Sapiens?

Martin also adds that a comparison has been made of a single modern skull of a 10-year-old child suffering microcephaly provided by Dean Falk of Florida State University with a hobbit skull. Dean concluded that the idea of a new species because of the Hobbit's brain had features associated with advanced thinking was a poor choice. For a start, the child's skull was unusually small to make any comparisons. He believes microcephaly can appear in dozens of forms. And why a child? More skulls should have been used to make the comparisons before Faulk and the hobbit discovery team can claim the Hobbit is a new species.

For example, Martin claims his team found the skull of a 32-year-old microcephalic woman and noticed similarities in the brain casts of both the Hobbit and the woman.

Other scientists — including Professor Mike Morwood, co-leader of the Australian and Indonesian team that discovered the remains — are not entirely convinced of Martin's argument. The first report may have suggested a miniaturization of Homo Erectus. However the second report suggested the possibility both species of humans living at the time could have descended from a common ancestor.

Nearly all modern individuals with microcephaly never live to become adults and, anyway, the scientists needed the cast of a brain of roughly the same size as the Hobbit's — thus explaining the use of a child's skull for comparison.

And just to make it harder for Martin to produce a counter argument, other scientists said the line drawings made by Martin's team lacked detail about the "transverse sinuses, cerebellum and cerebral poles" considered important structures for understanding whether the Hobbit did suffer a brain-stunting disorder or is a genuine new species.

Scientists believe actual photographs and more detailed sketches would have helped to "draw meaningful conclusions".

Professor Morwood also adds that Martin ignored the archaeological evidence pointing to the fact that generations of the individuals appeared to have lived in the cave for 90,000 years. Given the short lifespan of microcephalic people, it is unlikely "the Hobbits" could have survived for such a long time.

Finally, Professor William Jungers of the Natural History Museum examined the lower limbs of the other 8 hobbits found near the 30-year-old female Hobbit and noticed not only were they smaller than the female, but their feet were big as if implying a long period of adaptation to walking on the island.

It seems unlikely microcephalic people could survive long enough and produce offsprings that can carry on adaptations such as these.

UPDATE
November 2008

The latest studies suggest these small hominids are indeed a new species. It is neither a branch from Homo Erectus that shrunk in size on the island nor from a group of Homo Sapiens suffering pathological dwarfism. It is an independent species possibly from an even older hominid group.

Last glacial maximum 18,000 years ago. Image © 1997 Christopher R. Scotese. As of 2014, an updated map can be downloaded from the Colorado Plateau Geosystems, Inc. web site and created by Professor Ronald C. Blakey of Northern Arizona University (NAU).

15,000 - 16,000 YEARS AGO

An alliance is formed between humans and one or more wolves (probably starting with a female) as a form of companionship and protection against predators including other humans. Over many generations, those wolves would become domesticated animals called dogs.