The earth's climatic cycle of freeze to fry tugged humans hither and thither. Warm spells enticed early hominids out of Africa, while cold spells every 125,000 years or so drove them to extinction or withdrawal from northerly climes.1I.S. Castañeda et al., Wet phases in the Sahara/Sahel region and human migration patterns in North Africa, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, (online before print November 12, 2009); B. Arredi, E.S. Poloni, C. Tyler-Smith, The peopling of Europe, in M. Crawford (ed.), Anthropological Genetics: Theory, method and applications (2007), p.383.
Modern Man (Homo sapiens sapiens) crossed into Europe from Asia some 45,000 years ago.2M. V. Anikovich et al, Early Upper Paleolithic in Eastern Europe and implications for the dispersal of Modern Humans,Science, vol. 315. no. 5809 (12 January 2007), pp. 223-226; P.Mellars, Archeology and the Dispersal of Modern Humans in Europe: Deconstructing the Aurignacian, Evolutionary Anthropology, vol. 15 (2006), pp. 167–182. Pictured here is a facial reconstruction by Richard Neavefrom the earliest skull of Modern Man found in Europe. He commented that the skull looked like amixture of modern Western Eurasian, East Asian and Sub-Saharan African. The continental differences we see today had yet to evolve. (The skin colour can only be guesswork. For more on that see Pigmentation.) The 35,000-year-old skull was discovered in the Peştera cu Oase (The Cave with Bones) in Romania.3João Zilhão et al., The Pestera Cu Oasepeople, Europe's earliest modern humans, in P. Mellars, K. Boyle, O. Bar-Yosef,and C. Stringer, (eds.), Rethinking the Human Revolution(2007); Hélène Rougier et al., Peştera cu Oase 2 and the cranial morphology of early modern Europeans, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 104, no. 4 (23 January 2007), pp.1165–1170.
So how do we know that Modern Man arrived in Europe some 10,000 years before the man from Peştera cu Oase? The clues lie in the things our forefathers left behind. These
early arrivals were hunter-gatherers using stone tools. (Our name for the period - Palaeolithic - comes from the Greek for
Their ancestors had undergone a behavioural evolution long before in Africa, gradually accumulating the features we identify as human: tool use, self-decoration, clothing, burial
of their dead, trading and other activities that require knowledge passed on within a community and so imply language.4O.Bar-Yosef, The dispersal of
modern humans in Eurasia: a cultural interpretation, and Sally McBrearty, Down with the revolution, both in P.Mellars, K. Boyle, O. Bar-Yosef, and C. Stringer, (eds.), Rethinking
the Human Revolution (2007). From the DNA of the clothing louse, scientists have deduced that clothing appeared possibly as early as 170,000 years ago,
70,000 years before modern humans started migrating to colder climates.5M.A. Toups et al., Origin of clothing lice indicates early clothing use by
anatomically modern humans in Africa, Molecular Biology and Evolution, vol. 28, no. 1 (2011), pp. 29-32.
Modern Man had spread right across Asia and into Australia before a burst of warm weather made it possible to move north into the Levant and from there to Europe. Paul Mellars has tracked the tools they left along the way (see map above). Flint tools cannot be radiocarbon dated, but ancient people also used bone and antler, which can. A characteristic tool made by those spreading across Europe is the split-base antler point, first found at Aurignac in the Pyrenees, from which the technology was named Aurignacian. These split-based points appear earliest in the Levant. In fact they occur there as part of the Ahmarian tool-set, prior to the development of Aurignacian types. Crucially remains of a fully modern human were found in the Ahmarian layer at Ksar Akil. Split-based points occur next in South-East Europe, so we may guess that people crossed what was then a land bridge west of the Black Sea (then a lake). 6P.Mellars, Archeology and the Dispersal of Modern Humans in Europe: Deconstructing the Aurignacian, Evolutionary Anthropology, vol. 15 (2006), pp. 167–182; . For a slightly different perspective see J.F. Hoffecker, The early upper Paleolithic of eastern Europe reconsidered,Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, vol. 20, no. 1 (January/February 2011), pp. 24–39.
These first adventurers surely must have encountered Neanderthals - their distant genetic cousins who had been in Europe from about 400,000 years ago.7J. L. Bischoff et al., High-Resolution U-Series Dates from the Sima de los Huesos Hominids Yields 600+/–66 kyrs: Implications for the Evolution of the Early Neanderthal Lineage, Journal of Archaeological Science, vol.34, no. 5 (May 2007), pp. 763-770; J. J. Hublin, The origin of Neandertals, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A., vol. 106 (2009), pp.16022-16027. The arrival of Modern Man in an area seems generally to signal the departure of Neanderthals - never a large population. It was thought that they survived longest in southwestern Iberia, where Modern Man arrived late. Neanderthals died out there around 37,000 years ago.8O. Joris and M. Street, At the end of the 14C time scale - the middle to upper paleolithic record of western Eurasia, Journal of Human Evolution, vol. 55 (2008), pp. 782–802; J. Zilhão et al., Pego do Diabo (Loures, Portugal): dating the emergence of anatomical modernity in westernmost Eurasia,PLoSONE vol. 5, no. (January 2010): e8880; J. Martínez-Moreno, R. Mora andI. de la Torre, The Middle-to-Upper Palaeolithic transition in Cova Gran(Catalunya, Spain) and the extinction of Neanderthals in the Iberian Peninsula,Journal of Human Evolution, vol. 58, no. 3 (2010), pp. 211-226. So it was a surprise to discover a typical Neanderthal toolkit dated between 31 and 34 thousand years ago at Byzovaya, in subarctic Russia. This site in the Polar Urals may be one of the last refuges of the Neanderthals.9L. Slimak et al., Late Mousterian persistence near the Arctic Circle, Science, vol. 332, no. 6031 (13 May 2011), pp. 841-845.
Did our ancestors interbreed with archaic hominids like Neanderthals? One genetic model from modern DNA predicts two such events in human history which left a record in our code, one about 60,000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean and one about 45,000 years ago in eastern Asia.10R. Dalton, Neanderthals may have interbred with humans,Nature News, (published online 20 April 2010). And see E.Y. Durand et al, Testing for ancient admixture betweenclosely related species,Molecular Biology and Evolution (online15 February 2011 before print). Yet an alternative model dispenses with any such events,11M.G.B. Blum and M. Jakobsson, Deep divergences of human gene trees and models of human origins, Molecular Biology and Evolution, vol. 28, no. 2 (February 2011), pp. 889-898. while an earlier study found strong evidence for ancient mixture in both a European and a West African population. Africa had no Neanderthals.12V. Plagnol and J. D. Wall, Possible Ancestral Structure in Human Populations, PLoS Genetics, vol. 2 (July 2006), pp. 972-979.
Now that the Neanderthal genome has been sequenced from ancient DNA, it is possible to make direct comparisons. A preliminary comparison found that Neanderthals shared more genetic variants with the present-day people of both Europe and East Asia than with sub-Saharan Africans.13R.E. Green et al, A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome, Science, vol. 328. no. 5979 (7 May 2010), pp. 710-722. That suggests that Neanderthals mixed with the ancestors of non-Africans before the future Europeans went one way and Asians another. Caution is needed though. The result might simply spring from insufficient sampling of the more diverse African population.14J.A. Hodson, C.M. Bergey and T. R. Diostell, Neandertal genome: the ins and outs of African genetic diversity,Current Biology, vol. 20, no. 12, R517-R519 (22 June 2010).
More crucially, Neanderthals are not the only candidate for archaic hominid mixture. A more plausible alternative is the North African archaic Homo sapiens lineage known as Aterian, which seems to have crossed into the Levant and then spread deep into Australasia in an early wave of migration. As a much closer relative than Neanderthals to the next wave of Homo sapiens leaving Africa, the Aterians would be more likely to be able to successfully interbreed with them, with fertile offspring. Yet at the same time the lengthy separation of Aterians from their kin in Sub-Saharan Africa left them with more archaic traits similar to those of Neanderthals. A similar proposal has been put forward by Silvia Ghirotto and colleagues, who point out that the evidence from mtDNA is of no interbreeding at all between Neanderthals and early modern man. They feel that nuclear DNA and mitochondrial evidence might be reconciled if Neandertals shared a longer period of common ancestry with the ancestors of present-day non-Africans than with the ancestors of modern Africans.15S. Ghirotto, F. Tassi, A. Benazzo, G. Barbujani, No evidence of Neandertal admixture in the mitochondrial genomes of early European modern humans and contemporary Europeans, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, published online: 24 August 2011 before print.
The earliest DNA retrieved from a modern human comes from a 30,000-year-old man unearthed at Kostënki 14 (Markina Gora) in Russia. Scientists were able to study his mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). This type of DNA is passed down unchanged from mother to child, unless a mutation arises. His haplogroup was U2.16Krause, J. et al., A complete mtDNA genome of an early modern human from Kostenki, Russia, Current Biology (online 31 December 2009). U2 today is scattered at low frequencies in populations from South and Western Asia, Europe and North Africa, with its oldest branches (U2a-c) in South Asia. That is a clue that people carrying U2 had spent a long time in the warm south before a group split off to travel north into Europe, where the mutation creating U2e probably occurred. U2e is mainly found in those of European descent.
Similarly the parent haplogroups M, N and R are all ancient in South Asia. This suggests that Modern Man crossed from East Africa to Arabia and then across the Persian Gulf into what is now Central Asia. There groups seem to have split off, some to populate Asia and move on to Australasia and the Americas, others to move westwards to the Levant and Europe. (See the first map on Peopling of Europe.)
The first Europeans did not simply live to hunt. They were creative. Aurignacian people carved simple flutes from mammoth and swan bone.17N. J. Conard, M. Malina and S.C. Münzel, New flutes document the earliest musical tradition in southwestern Germany,Nature, vol. 460, pp. 737-740 (6 August 2009).Their figurines of animals include the now extinct mammoth, carved in mammoth ivory.18C. Heckel, Physical characteristics of mammoth ivory and their implications for ivory work in the Upper Paleolithic,Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Urgeschichte, vol. 18 (2009), pp. 71-91.
The culture which followed the Aurignacian is known as the Gravettian, after La Gravette in France, where small, pointed blades used for big-game hunting were found; these became recognised as characteristic of the period from about 28,000–23,000 years ago in Western and Central Europe. The Gravettian tool-set appears earliest in Eastern Europe: the earliest radiocarbon dates so far come from Buran-Kaya, Crimea, Ukraine (31,900+240/−220 BP), Obłazowa cave, Poland (31,000±550 BP), Willendorf, Austria (30,500+900/−800 BP), and Molodova, Ukraine (29,650±1,320 BP).19S. Prat et al., The oldest Anatomically Modern Humans from far Southeast Europe: direct dating, culture and behavior, PLoS ONE, vol. 6, no. 6 (2011), e20834. A group of Gravettian people lived in Paglicci Cave in Italy, leaving cave paintings as well as tools behind them. David Caramelli and his colleagues tested three skeletons from the cave for mtDNA. One of the skeletons probably carried mtDNA haplogroup N*. N is the ancestor of all the common European maternally-inherited mtDNA haplogroups. It arose among the first group of modern humans to leave Africa. It is so old that it is seldom found in living people today without subsequent mutations.20D. Caramelli et al, Evidence for a genetic discontinuity between Neandertals and 24,000-year-old anatomically modern Europeans,Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 100, no. 11 (2003), pp. 6593-6597; Caramelli, D. et al., A 28,000 years old mtDNA sequence differs from all potentially contaminating modern sequences, PloS ONE, vol. 3, no. 3 (2008): e2700. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002700.
The relatively mild climate allowed people to roam far to the north. At Sunghir, on the East European Plain outside Vladimir, a group of reindeer hunters camped about 25,000 years ago. No doubt they had followed the herds as they moved north in the summer. These hunters were tall and massively broad-shouldered. We can picture them clad in skins and furs. Along with reindeer they hunted mammoth and arctic fox, whose pelt would make warm clothing and bedding. The astonishing thing about their dress was the degree of ornamentation. It must have taken many patient hours to create the thousands of ivory beads which were sewn on to every item of clothing, to judge by the finds in graves. Such tailored clothing was made possible by the invention of the needle about 40,000 years ago, made in these early days from bone. The burial at Sunghir that has excited most attention is that of two children. A boy about 13 years old and a girl about 10 years old were laid in the same grave. They were probably brother and sister, since they carried the same mtDNA. The richness of their dress and grave goods makes theirs the most spectacular of burials from this period. Each child had an outfit decorated with about 5,000 tiny ivory beads, as well as ivory pins, pendants and animal carvings, among them a simple image of a horse. The wild herds of horses on the plains added variety to the hunting.21J.F. Hoffecker, Desolate landscapes: Ice-Age settlement in Eastern Europe (2002), p.151, 183; V. Formicola, From the Sunghir children to the Romito dwarf: aspects of the Upper Paleolithic funerary landscape, Current Anthropology, vol.48, no. 3 (2007), pp. 446-452; T.I Alexeeva, et al., Homo Sungirensis, Upper Palaeolithic man: ecological and evolutionary aspects of the investigation (2008); I. Gilligan, The prehistoric development of clothing: archeological implications of a thermal model, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, vol. 17 (2010), pp.15–80.
Further south, flax fibres have been found in a cave used by man in Georgia dating back 30,000 years. People probably used them to make linen and thread for clothes and cords.22E. Kvavadze et al, 30,000-Year-Old Wild Flax Fibers, Science, vol. 325, no. 5946 (11 September 2009), p. 1359.
Climate change almost evicted the first Europeans. As the last glacial gripped Europe, glaciers advanced, while plants and animals retreated. Eventually ice sheets miles thick covered much of northern Europe. Even before this, the population of Europe was tiny by comparison with today. It has been estimated from archaeological data at 4400–5900 inhabitants. 23J.-P. Bocquet-Appel, P.-Y. Demars, L. Noiret and D. Dobrowsky, Estimates of Upper Palaeolithic meta-population size in Europe from archaeological data, Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 32, no. 11 (2005), pp. 1656-1668. The climatic clampdown reduced Europeans to the status of an endangered species.
It was not just areas of the globe close to the poles that suffered. Levels of rainfall dropped, expanding deserts and reducing forests everywhere. On every continent mankind was squeezed into shrunken zones that could support human life. During the iciest period, the expanded Sahara cut off any escape route from Asia to the tropical refuge in western Africa. Meanwhile the Himalayan Mountains and swathes of desert and semi-desert surrounded a reduced rainforest in the north-east of the Indian subcontinent.
Europeans could take refuge in southern Europe and Asia Minor. Archaeologists find that as settlements disappeared in Northern Europe, they increased three-fold in Cantabrian Spain. This area was clearly a major refuge. Italy and the Balkans also remained partly forested. In a belt to the north of the forested areas, the steppe offered rich grazing in summer for animal herds. Some hunter-gatherer bands developed a pattern of wintering in the sheltered valleys of Lower Austria and Moravia, but moving 170 km or more into the steppe in summer, to follow the herds. A similar pattern of summer hunting on the steppe and tundra is seen right across Siberia. Forested areas around the Black and Caspian Seas may have provided winter refuges for some of these hunters.24H.T. Wright, Humanity at the Last Glacial Maximum: A cultural crisis, chap. 6 in P. N. Peregrine, I. Peiros and M. Feldman, Ancient Human Migrations: A multidisciplinary approach(2009); P.E. Tarasov et al., Last glacial maximum biomes reconstructed from pollen and plant macrofossil data from northern Eurasia, Journal of Biogeography, vol. 27 (2000), pp. 609-620.
Though the climate gradually improved after the ice sheets reached their maximum extent around 20,000 years ago, the ice warrior made one more attack. The big freeze came with devastating speed. The first warning was a period in which the climate oscillated from warm to cold. Then in a single year, 12,679 years ago, northern Europe went from a temperate climate to glacial conditions.25A.Brauer, G.H. Haug, P. Dulski, D. M. Sigman and J.F.W. Negendank, An abrupt windshift in western Europe at the onset of the Younger Dryas cold period,Nature Geoscience vol. 1 (2008), pp. 520-523; Mini ice age took hold of Europe in months, New Scientist, no 2734 (11 November 2009). Once more Europeans were threatened with extinction, but managed to survive, though in some cases by ceasing to be Europeans. It appears that some took advantage of the lower sea level to flee across the Straits of Gibraltar to North-West Africa, contributing mtDNA haplogroup U5b1b to the present-day Berbers.26M. Alcaraz Castano, El Ateriense del Norte de África y el Solutrense peninsular: ¿contactos transgibraltareños en el PleistocenoSuperior?, Munibe (Antropologia-Arkeologia), no. 58 (2007), pp.101-126; A.Achilli et al., Saami and Berbers: an unexpected Mitochondrial DNA link, American Journal of Human Genetics, vol. 76, no. 5 (May 2005), pp.883-886
Did people fleeing Europe feel that they were changing their identity? Who knows? We don't know when the concept of Europe arose. Europe is not a separate landmass. Nor is Africa. Yet the crossing-point from Africa to Asia being narrow, it makes sense to think of them as two different continents. Quite why Europe and Asia, which form one landmass, are perceived as separate is less clear. Geographically Europe might be better classed as a subcontinent of Asia. The boundary was the Don River in antiquity, but is now the mountain range of the Urals.27K. Wilson and J. van der Dussen (eds.), The History of the Idea of Europe (1995), p. 2. People have moved across that boundary, and across the Mediterranean, from time immemorial, so Europeans are closely related to their nearest neighbours.
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