I. Prehistoric Times > E. Early Homo Sapiens (c. 250,000 to c. 35,000 Years Ago)
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
E. Early Homo Sapiens (c. 250,000 to c. 35,000 Years Ago)
Eventually, Homo erectus evolved into a more advanced form, known to anthropologists as early Homo sapiens, but we do not know when or where the transition began or how it took place. Some researchers believe it took place more than 400,000 years ago; others believe it was much later, some time around or after 200,000 years ago. Throughout the Old World, there was a general evolutionary trend toward larger brain size and more enhanced intellectual capacities. Human populations displayed increased variability, partly in response to their adaptations to increasingly varied natural environments. Unfortunately, we still know little of early Homo sapiens, but there was great human variability throughout the Old World.  1
1. The Neanderthals
The best-known early Homo sapiens populations are the so-called Neanderthals, named after the Neanderthal Cave in Germany, where the first Neanderthal fossil came to light in 1856. Once dismissed as brutal, primitive savages—the cave people of popular cartoon fame—the Neanderthals are now recognized as being tough, adaptable people capable of flourishing in very harsh climates indeed.  2
Neanderthals (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) probably evolved from earlier Homo sapiens populations in Europe and Eurasia at least 150,000 years ago, perhaps earlier. They were nimble, squat people, standing about 5 feet high, with forearms that were somewhat shorter than those of modern people. Heavily built, beetle-browed hunter-gatherers, the Neanderthals of western Europe were robust men and women, well adapted to the arctic cold of the early Würm glaciation of 100,000 years ago. Their relatives in the Near East were more lightly built and displayed much more anatomical variation.  3
The Neanderthals of Europe and Eurasia lived in caves and rock shelters during the winter months and ranged more widely during summer. They used a more specialized technology for hunting and foraging, one that made use of composite tools, with stone spearheads bound to wooden shafts. They made thousands of scrapers and woodworking tools using more or less standardized flakes struck off from carefully prepared stone blanks. This Mousterian technology, named after the Le Moustier cave in southwestern France, was highly versatile and used in various forms over a wide area of Europe, Eurasia, North Africa, and the Near East. The Neanderthals were expert foragers who were not afraid to hunt the largest animals, including bison. Success in the hunt meant expert stalking, enabling the hunter to thrust a spear into the prey's heart, a high-risk way of obtaining food. Somewhat similar technologies were used by early Homo sapiens populations throughout the western portions of the Old World after 150,000 years ago.  4
The Neanderthals were the first humans to bury their dead, and, presumably, to believe in an afterlife. Single burials are most common, usually accompanied by a few stone tools or some game meat. Group sepulchers are also known. Some western European groups engaged in elaborate rituals involving cave bears, the most formidable of all Ice Age prey. We find in the Neanderthals and their culture the first roots of our own complicated beliefs, societies, and religious sense. But they were an evolutionary dead end, supplanted in their homeland by more modern humans between 40,000 and 25,000 years ago.  5
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.