“I encourage all of us, whatever our beliefs, to question the basic narratives of our world, to connect past developments with present concerns, and not to be afraid of controversial issues”.
So begins Sapiens: a brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari . As mentioned in Part 1, Harari argues that some 70,000 years ago, modern humans (Homo sapiens) underwent a ‘cognitive revolution’, which enabled stories to be told, and without those stories no mass-scale human cooperation could have taken place. In the previous post, we went right back to the evolution of H. sapiens and then considered what it must have been like to survive as glaciations ebbed and flowed, and to witness the emergence of new ways of living on the land. In this post, we’ll consider the period between 300,000 years ago, when H. sapiens evolved, and 70,000 years ago, when Harari’s Cognitive Revolution took place. I am sure that Harari’s research was a lot more rigorous than Google and Wikipedia, but a helpful table of Homo species  suggests that 70,000 years ago, H. sapiens would have shared the world with H. erectus, H. neanderthalensis, H. tsaichangensis and H. floresiensis. Of course, these species may never have met and I reckon the details of this story will emerge in coming decades as technology advances and new discoveries are made. The main point is that today only H. sapiens remains.
It has not been easy to classify early humans  (hominins ), not least because bone fragments for some species can be few and far between, and they are found at various locations in time and space. From the aforementioned table of Homo species, it seems that H. heidelbergensis, H. neanderthalensis, H. naledi, H. hodesiensis and H. erectus were also present 300,000 years ago, when modern humans (H. sapiens) emerged. So what happened between the evolution of modern humans and Harari’s Cognitive Revolution?
As ever, Wikipedia had an entry on the timeline of human pre-history . While I accept that academia would not consider Wikipedia an acceptable source, and rightly so, for the lay-person, like me, it’s a good starting point. That doesn’t mean it’s right. For a start, the Wikipedia page still refers to the first appearance of Homo sapiens in Africa 200,000 years ago; new research has pushed that back to 300,000 years ago . And the figure will no doubt change again. That’s what science is all about. As Professor of Maths at Warwick University, Ian Stewart said in 2013 on BBC Radio 4’s Life Scientific , “science is the best defence against believing what we want to”. But that’s for a future post.
Let’s assume Wikipedia is rigorous enough for now. The Middle Paleolithic broadly spanned from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago , so this is the period in which story telling eventually developed as a skill. The Eemian was the ‘last’ interglacial period, the most recent being the Holocene which extends to the present day. This Eemian warm period began about 130,000 years ago and ended about 115,000 years ago . According to the “Out of Africa” theory , the first wave of migration of H. sapiens took place around the same time but they seem to have died out or retreated. A second dispersal took place after the Toba super-volcano eruption, which occurred about 75,000 years ago in present-day Sumatra, Indonesia.
Toba is one of the Earth’s largest known eruptions and the Toba catastrophe theory holds that this event caused a global volcanic winter of six to ten years and possibly a 1,000-year-long cooling episode. In 1993, science journalist Ann Gibbons posited that a population bottleneck occurred in human evolution about 70,000 years ago, and she suggested that this was caused by the Toba eruption . Could language have been key to people surviving? Did this natural disaster catalyse the Cognitive Revolution, selecting for those with superior communication skills?
The astute reader may notice that a bottleneck also appeared in the last post: “from around 195,000 to 123,000 years ago, harsh climate conditions are thought to have reduced H. sapiens numbers from 10,000 to just a few hundred. One theory is that these early modern humans survived this Ice Age in caves along the southern coast of Africa ”. And I’m sure our early ancestors lived through many more periods of natural turmoil; they always seemed able to cling onto life, and the next post will look a bit more closely at where people survived when winter became the norm rather than a season.
Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal , amongst other things, and is merely dabbling with thoughts here. All comments and corrections gratefully received as, to answer Percy’s question, I am researching this as I go. Sadly, hyperlinks continue to be a thing of the past.