Assessing Claims for the “Earliest” Homo sapiens

Session Date: 
May 31, 2019

The definition of Homo sapiens has been a matter of debate among researchers in human evolution for centuries. Recently, a qualifier has been added to the species name, “modern”. This addition denotes that there are some Homo sapiens who are not modern. This explains that the species we are dealing with is an evolving species lineage and we are therefore arbitrarily naming a segment of this evolving lineage as “modern” Homo sapiens. The fossil record for all hominins is very incomplete. As we get closer in time to the present, especially in the Middle Pleistocene, the record is inadequate. Most of the hominid fossils assigned to Homo sapiens are very fragmentary and poorly dated, which makes it difficult to infer phylogenetics upon which taxonomic assessment should be based. Despite these shortcomings of the fossil record, the geographic origin of the species Homo sapiens in Africa is widely accepted. This understanding is rooted in DNA-based studies, the fossil record, and extrapolation from archaeological assemblages. As it has been repeatedly demonstrated, cultural changes do not go hand in hand with the anatomical or genetic changes. However, it has been insinuated by some that the appearance of the Middle Stone Age heralds the emergence of Homo sapiens. What is the meaning of that industrial complex, and how do the fossil hominids associated with it reveal to us?