Rights: University of Waikato Published 14 June 2017 Download

Modern humans originated in Africa. Professor Tom Higham, Deputy Director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, talks about how science is helping to track the migration of our evolutionary ancestors from Africa and how the archaeological record is contributing to our understanding of ancient humans.


Modern people like us originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago, and a lot of archaeological work has been done into trying to understand when our species moved out of Africa into the rest of the old world, because of course we’ve got a lot of evidence from different parts of the old world for the presence of modern humans.

We have evidence from the archaeological record that modern humans got out at least twice. The first is around, we think, 110 to 120,000 years ago, which is evidenced by some archaeological sites in the Near East. There are several sites where we have early anatomically modern humans, but they get replaced by Neanderthals a bit later, so we find Neanderthals coming in later. So it seems to be somewhat of a failed excursion, if you like, of people out of Africa. And then much later, we think around 60,000 years ago, maybe a little bit younger, we get another movement of people, which results in the greater diaspora of people right across the old world.

In Europe, there’s a huge amount of archaeological evidence that covers this period. And we think that the reason for this is well two-fold. One is that there are a huge amount of cave sites in Europe which contain the archaeological record of this particular period, and the second is that there’s a long record of archaeological excavation spanning more than a century, so we have a lot excavated sites and a lot of material in museums that has been studied.

There are two main ideas about the movement of modern humans into this part of the world at this time, between about 45 to 35,000 years ago. The first is the so-called Danube corridor hypothesis, and that focuses on the potential movement of people up the Danube corridor, which is this major waterway. People need water, and so we think that they usually focus on moving up waterways like the Danube. And there’s a lot of archaeological evidence for early anatomically modern humans up this corridor. And the second suggestion is a sort of southern route, which is the southern Mediterranean route, which involves people moving along this corridor through Greece, Italy and into Europe that way.

At the heart of this again, we rely upon radiocarbon dates to help us to unlock the when and the how this happened. And this is the subject of a lot of ongoing work. What’s really interesting about the arrival of modern humans at this time is the difference that we can see in the archaeological record between Neanderthal material and modern human material. There is a period at around 50 to 60,000 years ago when modern humans and Neanderthals are doing pretty much the same thing. They’re making similar tools, which we call a Mousterian tool kit. And you can see this here the types of tools we’re talking about. They’re mainly flake-based tools like this, so they’re flakes cut from a larger core, and they also have characteristic tools, like this Mousterian hand axe. And these are the types of tools we see for about a quarter of a million years in the archaeological record of Europe and the Near East.

Towards the very end of the Neanderthal period on Earth, we find that they’re also doing some interesting or innovative things that seem to be the more common hallmark of modern humans. This includes things like making ornaments out of shells. These are pierced shell ornaments about 2 centimetres high – a very distinct type of shell called nassarius – and these nassarius are found commonly amongst sites of the Aurignacian – these early modern humans sites across Europe.

The Science Learning Hub would like to acknowledge:
Professor Tom Higham, University of Oxford
The Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution
Map of modern human dispersal routes in Europe (45,000–35,000 BP), Paul Mellars, Neanderthals and the modern human colonization of Europe, Nature, 432, 461-465 (25 November 2004) | doi:10.1038/nature03103
Image of cave entrance (La Bouffia Bonneval à La Chapelle-aux-Saints), V Mourre, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0
Photo of Svante Pääbo and Marco de la Rasilla at the El Sidron Cave excavation in Asturias, Spain, courtesy of Group of Paleoanthropology MNCN-CSIC
Collection of Lower Palaeolithic stone tools, Ismoon, licensed under Creative Commons 4.0
Mousterian flint tools, Didier Descouens, licensed under Creative Commons 4.0
Mousterian hand axe image courtesy of MB Abram Galleries
Nassarius shell decoration, photo by Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority