The Human Journey
Human Universals

Human Universals

Pages 12

The Evolution of Universals in Our Distant Ancestors

The Hominids

The Journey of Homo erectus

The earliest known human species was Homo erectus (also called Homo ergaster) who arose in Africa between 2.5 and 2.0 MYA and was an omnivorous scavenger of the remains left by carnivores. The sites where groups of Homo erectus ate the animal parts they had scavenged, and scraped marrow from animal bones, show that they used simple tools fashioned from rock from local lakes, streams, and rocky outcrops. The sites found by archaeologists often have large accumulations of bone and stone refuse, a sign that these distant ancestors used the resources and moved on to another site when the food source of one was depleted.

Homo erectus skull
Homo erectus skull

Archaeologist Roy Larick and paleoanthropologist Russell Ciochon who have worked at hominid sites in China suggest the term catchments for these early hominid sites that have the natural resources of water and rock as well as a supply of food.

They also describe territory scavenging, in which small groups of hominids managed a number of resources at the same time across a larger territory, a practice that became common after 1.6 MYA. Sites like these had many small zones within a larger area that offered only one or two resources at each zone. This is a more complex behavior because it requires the ability to work these small zones simultaneously or interdependently instead of in sequence. It is generally surmised (although as with all this reconstruction, it is speculation) that the knowledge necessary for territory scavenging could have been acquired without benefit of language and symbolic thought.

Satelite image of the Rift Valley
Satellite image of the
Jordan Valley Rift
Larick and Ciochon propose a plausible theory about the use of catchments and territory scavenging during hominid migrations. Early H. erectus initially may have followed herds of migrating animals as changes in the environment brought a cooler and drier climate. The hominids employed catchment scavenging, moving from place to place through Africa until the supply of food in these areas diminished. Sometime before 2.0 MYA this circumstance may have forced some groups of hominids northward out of Africa through the Jordan Valley Rift and eventually east into Asia. Because of the ice in the north, ocean levels had also lowered, thereby allowing access to distant areas over exposed land that was formerly under water.

After 2.0 MYA territory scavenging may have been effective in keeping the remaining hominid populations in Africa to make better use of more limited food resources and by 1.6 MYA may have been an important factor in the development in Africa of finer and more efficient tools, such as the biface tools of the Acheulean Industry. This development in tools, in its turn, may also have played a part in the emergence in Africa, and the Eurasian dispersal of, more advanced hominids 600,000 years ago or more as well as the emergence of anatomically modern Homo sapiens and their dispersal to the Middle East, the Far East, and Europe 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. Recent DNA studies indicate the ancestors of modern humans migrated from Africa approximately 144,000 years ago.

Acheulean hand axe
Acheulean hand axe

The theory about catchments and territorial scavenging provides an interesting scenario in which the migrating hominids seem to demonstrate an unexpected resourcefulness. Rather than having to adapt only to the conditions of one specific territory, the hominids seem to have been capable of managing many different kinds of local conditions by possessing:

  • a natural physical fitness (some recovered fossils indicate good height and bones that were well muscled)
  • a portable technology (a simple stone tool method that could be fashioned as needed)
  • a flexible social organization ready to move onward if necessary
Skull from Dmanisi, Georgia
Illustration of an early hominid skull
Dmanisi, Georgia

Early hominids eventually migrated to the present-day territories of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Republic of Georgia, and China between 2.0 and 1.7 MYA. These early ancestors were likely capable of rudimentary vocal sounds that could have become more specific over time. A recent report from Dmanisi, Georgia, in southwest Eurasia tells of the discovery of a partial spinal cord with modern vertebrae that is dated 1.8 MYA. The spinal cord is compatible with earlier fossil-skull studies indicating that early H. erectus had a speech-ready vocal tract. However, this interpretation is still controversial.

If these hominids did not possess a structured language, it is difficult to imagine how they were able to organize themselves to migrate through unfamiliar terrain with all the unknown terrors this likely implied. They must at least have been able to communicate in some way, with vocal sounds, gestures, smiles, frowns, a direct look at someone, and so forth.

The early hominids were not solitary beings but lived in groups of kin. Group-living was a safety factor. Not all humans migrated long distances, but when they did it was likely that several kin-groups migrated together, scavenging in catchments along the way.

With the different experiences encountered by migrating hominid groups both within and out of Africa, a new kind of learning process entered the hominid situation.

Rules of behavior had to have been communicated to group members. No doubt a terrifying threat to the migrating group was the thought of being left behind. Some kind of order had to have been maintained within groups, enforced by group leaders and supported by pressure from watchful group members.

The archaeological record shows no sign of violent behavior among the hominids. The evidence of catchments and territorial scavenging discussed above suggests a division of labor and working together toward a common goal. They seem to have been devoid of a sense of possession about what belonged to them individually and what belonged to others, which is often a source of contemporary conflict, although they may have been more possessive about what belonged to them as a group.

These hominids did not have fire or build structures to live in or bury their dead. It is likely they could distinguish light colors from dark colors. There was sexual attraction between hominids, of course, and some anthropologists believe there was monogamous pairing while the offspring were dependent.

Oldowan chopping tool
Oldowan chopping tool

For scavenging, they took the same simple tool procedure with them when they migrated from Africa that they had learned to use there, the Oldowan tool kit, a style that originated 2.5 MYA that seems from this distance in time to have been the perfect tool kit for these migrating groups. Those who did not migrate from Africa developed what is called the Acheulean tool industry about 1.6 MYA in which tools were used to make yet more tools.

There is no indication that the early hominids created decorative art or enjoyed song and dance, but there may have been something that had a rhythmic quality and a beat that seems to be an integral part of nature.

It will never be known what the hominids thought about themselves and their place in the world because they left nothing to indicate a mythology or spiritual belief. TOP

Archaic & Modern Humans

Reconstruction of H. heidelbergensis

A reconstruction of H. heidelbergensis

About 200,000 years ago anatomically modern humans (AMH), Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa from H. heidelbergensis which originated there about a million years ago. H. heidelbergensis spread around the globe, evolving, so far as we know, into these different species: Neanderthals in Europe, Denisovans who roamed Asia, and ourselves, Homo sapiens in Africa. By 100,000 years ago there were at least 6 homo (human) species roaming the earth: heidelbergensis, neanderthalis, Denisovans, and floresiensis – also known as the “hobbit” – which was in Australia, Homo erectus – popularly known as the “Java Man” – in Indonesia, and ourselves. Even 40,000 years ago we were sharing the planet with Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo floresiensis and possibly the last remnants of Homo erectus.

The study of ancient genomes indicates that both Neanderthals and Denisovans interbred with Homo sapiens who came out of Africa at various times somewhere from 100,000 – 45,000 years ago. It turns out that if you are genetically from Europe or Asia, between 1 and 2 percent of your DNA comes from Neanderthals, and if you are related to indigenous humans from Australia, Papua New Guinea or other parts of Oceania, an additional 4 percent of your DNA comes from Denisovans.

Recent excavations in the Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia have yielded a wealth of hominin fossils from a site that has been occupied for perhaps 250,000 years or more. They reveal that inbreeding within Neanderthal families was common and with Neanderthals, Denisovans and early modern humans and possibly another unknown archaic group

The Neanderthals

Mousterian tools
Levallois points from the Mousterian tool kit

Our distant ancestors Homo Erectus first settled in Europe at least 1.2 million years ago. One group evolved into what we now know as Neanderthals (or Neandertals) who lived right across Europe for about 200,000 years during the last Ice Age, a time when the climate varied enormously with periods of extreme cold. They were heavy-boned and muscular, with short limbs and a wide pelvis, making them better able than us to retain heat but less agile than modern humans, and less energy-efficient travellers. Surviving was a challenge: they had to capture enough calories to stay warm and survive. Scholars estimate that a group of Neanderthal hunters would have needed to kill one large animal every two days, providing almost almost twice as much energy as we need today. They hunted on the edges of forests, preying on large animal like red deer, killing them with spears tipped with well-crafted stone spearheads, called Mousterian technology, which spread to other parts of Europe, and was used by other hominids until 30,000 years ago.

Artist rendering of a Neanderthal man

In many ways, the Neanderthals exhibit a number of the solid universal qualities we admire in the twenty-first century. They appear to have been a stalwart, tough-minded, reliable people who did what they had to do to survive in difficult circumstances. There are signs that Neanderthals took good care of their aging kin. Fossil remains of Neanderthals have been discovered all over Eastern Europe and the Balkans as well as in modern Israel and Iraq.

Humans and Neanderthals probably coexisted in Europe for well more than 5,000 years. Modern studies of genetic material found in Neanderthal bones reveal that 1 to 2 percent of the DNA in non-African people – Asian or European – comes from Neanderthals. The genetics suggest that interbreeding occurred about 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, somewhere in western Asia. According to Dr. Chris Stringer “There must have been a western Asia coexistence, which included interbreeding. Then there was a later coexistence in Europe, for which we have no evidence of interbreeding but possible evidence of some cultural contact between the groups.”

Neanderthal tool maker
Neanderthal toolmaker
Their hunting skills indicate an ability for abstract thought that could anticipate and plan ahead, and Neanderthal anatomy shows that they could produce the complex range of sounds needed for speech.

Overall, the evidence suggests that Neanderthals would have been aware of an individual self that would know the difference between right and wrong as they perceived it to be. There were likely small conflicts between individuals in the group, but there is no apparent indication of overt physical conflict.

We know that Neanderthals used fire from about 300,000 years ago and participated in music-making but, although their brain size was the same as anatomically modern humans (AMH), their community size was only about two-thirds the size – identical to those of heidelbergensis (about 110 individuals in size: 40 less than AMH) – because they were adapted to the low light of high northern latitudes. Their superior sight resulted in an increased visual system rather than frontal lobe size. AMH had an advantage: we started off with community sizes that were virtually identical to those of our parents heidelbergensis, but underwent a progressive increase in group (and so brain) size during the early phase of our evolution in tropical Africa, where light levels were not problematic. Group size became vital for our success and may have contributed to our success over other species. (For more: see Thinking Big: How the Evolution of Social Life Shaped the Human MindThe Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals, Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, and Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth.)

Analysis of the fossil remains of Neanderthals so far seems to indicate they were a separate species from modern Homo, but the debate over this subject continues and is likely to do so for some time to come. Within 10,000 years of Homo sapiens arrival in Europe and western Asia the Neanderthals, who’d lived there for about 200,000 years, had totally vanished. As far as we know they became extinct about 30,000 – 40,000 years ago.

The Denisovans

Denisovans are more closely related to Neanderthals than to humans. They appear to have split off from Homo sapiens about 600,000 years ago, making their way from Africa to the Southeast Asian islands, interbreeding with indigenous modern human groups in New Guinea and Australia. We know their interspecies mingling with modern humans in mainland Asia was brief, but enough to impart a few genes. And we know Denisovan genes reveal evidence of interbreeding with Neanderthals and an even more archaic hominin species.

The Cro-Magnons

Cro-Magnon skull
The term Cro-Magnon is a catchall term derived from the name of the place in France where the first fossil remains of these people were discovered. For approximately 20,000 years, the Cro-Magnons were a major influence on Upper Paleolithic Europe. These fully modern humans entered Europe about 45,000 to 50,000 years ago and influenced important cultural and artistic developments in France and Spain and elsewhere. Their influence is apparent in four cultural periods: the Aurignacion, the Gravettian, the Solutrean, and the Magdalenian. It was a cultural revolution that was not merely quantitative in nature but also a qualitative transformation in technological ingenuity, art, and social formations. Cave painting seems to have been the signature of the Cro-Magnons.

Significant innovation occurred in every area. These humans engaged in hunting dangerous animal species and fished for food regularly. There was a remarkable diversity in stone tools, especially with the development of the burin, an engraving tool that opened the door to much of the art to come. Living spaces and fireplaces were well made. Exquisite artifacts were fashioned out of bone, antler, ivory, and stone, for example, sewing was done with ivory needles and music was made on ivory flutes. Burials were accompanied by ritual or ceremony and contained a diversity of grave goods. Abundant art was elaborate and widespread as were items for personal adornment. There was a large increase in population density, and raw materials, such as flint and shells, were traded over some distances.

Lascaux aurochs cave painting
Lascaux cave painting of aurochs

Some researchers offer behavioral explanations for the modern appearance and behavior of the Cro-Magnons, such as the development of nuclear families and other social changes over time. Others suggest a biological mutation that brought about a neural reorganization at some point that may have significantly enhanced the way the brain processed information. The quality of the physical climate and environment in which these modern humans emerged may also have had a decisive impact, as it seems to have done at critical points in evolution.

With the emergence of the Magdalenian period 17,000 to 11,000 years ago, the paintings and engravings previously carried out in the daylight area of cave entrances were moved to their interiors. Animals once represented only in outline on cave walls during earlier periods of cave painting became lifelike creatures of grace and elegant proportions that were painted on interior cave walls and ceilings, some of them 7 ½ feet and longer. The artists who painted these pictures knew exactly what they were doing, for example, personally collecting up to 158 different minerals used in mixing their colors or taking advantage of a natural bulge in the rock on which to paint the eye of a bull to give a sense of perspective.

Lascaux painting
Lascaux painting

The cave paintings are magnificent and mysterious. On first view they give the impression of hunting scenes, but somehow this first impression becomes unsatisfactory. The animals are peaceful looking, and several scenes show what looks like an arrow missing an animal. There are also small abstract signs on many of them that scholars think may be an early form of writing. Some paintings are located on high ceilings or high up in nearly inaccessible places or partly hidden in cave recesses. There are only a few human figures in the paintings, such as a human body with a cat or a leopard for a head and another small figure lying flat with what looks like an arrow in the midriff with quiet animals nearby. The question about the purpose and meaning behind all this effort must occur to everyone who views the cave paintings. No one seems to know the answer, but speculation is rife.

The most plausible theory suggests that these were sacred places to those who created the glowing paintings in some of these cathedral-like caves. Something extremely important seems to have been conveyed by the paintings to those who learned and understood their meaning. Perhaps it had something to do with developing the mind and the psychology. Although it is generally thought that the Cro-Magnons did not interact in any significant way with the “older” Homo sapiens who may have been in Europe, perhaps selected members of this group of Homo were introduced to the caves. The Magdalenian culture that began about 16,000 years ago and the practice of cave painting continued in Europe and beyond for 6,000 years or more, until this last Cro-Magnon culture lost its energy and finally its life.

Cave painting of horses
Painting of horses from Chauvet cave

It is not difficult to find human universals in the Cro-Magnons. They probably had a language because they could think in abstractions as indicated by their cave art as well as their geometrically incised bone artifacts and figurines and the symbols found on the cave paintings.

A sophisticated social organization is almost certain to have been in place, with leaders, laws, politics, division of labor and a form of etiquette that accompanies a developed society. There is little doubt the Cro-Magnons were aware of themselves as individuals that would include an awareness of what is mine and what is yours. If there was any conflict within the group, it is not apparent. Small conflicts likely occurred from time to time about the ordinary kinds of issues that occur between people who are as self-aware and as confident as these people seem to have been.

Magdalenian tent
Magdalenian tent from Pincevent, France (12,000 BCE)
They must have had myths and stories they told one another and their children. Some of their tales, especially their myths and legends, may have been recited with a poetic beat and rhythm of line that is often found in the recitations of those who can tell a story well. They were obviously highly intelligent and with a developed aesthetic sense, which would seem to indicate a particular kind of sensitivity and emotional life.

The spiritual beliefs and mythology of the Cro-Magnons are unknown. Judging from their behavior and achievements, however, and the long period of time in which they influenced the cultures of large areas of prehistoric Europe, their spiritual and mythological beliefs may have been the source of the energetic yet peaceful quality that can be felt across the centuries. These first modern humans seem to have had no doubt about who they were and how they fit into the world around them.

Even a brief survey like this one about the universal qualities that seem to have evolved along with the physical evolution of humankind may indicate a continuum that seems to contain within itself an elusive factor, perhaps something akin to a “punctuated equilibrium,” a term borrowed from evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who used it to describe physical evolution. The next frontier could be the evolution of brain and mind, and what a story that will be. TOP

Click here for a detailed list of Human Universals from Prof. Donald Brown.


Brown, Donald E. Human Universals, McGraw Hill, 1991.

Brown, Donald E. “Human Universals,” in Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, Vol 2, David Levinson and Melvin Embar (Eds.), NY: Henry Holt & Co, 1996.

Brown, Donald E. “Human Universals,” in The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, MIT Press, 1999.

Brown, Donald E. “Human Universals and their Implications,” in Neil Roughley (Ed.), Being Humans: Anthropological Universality and Particularity in Transdisciplinary Perspectives, Berlin/New York, deGruyter, 2000.

Brown, Donald E. “Ethnicity and Ethnocentrism: Are they Natural?” in Raymond Scupin (Ed.), Race and Ethnicity: An Anthropological Focus on the United States and the World, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2002.

Brown, Donald E. “Human universals, human nature & human culture,” Daedalus, Boston: Vol. 133, 2004, #4 (fall), p. 47-55

Conroy, Glen C. Reconstructing Human Origins: A Modern Synthesis. New York & London: Norton & Company, Inc., 1997.

Cosmides, Leda and John Tooby. “Cognitive adaptations for Social Exchange,”  Chapter 3 in Barkow, Cosmides & Tooby (Eds) The Adapted Mind, 1995  p. 163 - 228.

Cosmides, Leda and John Tooby. “The Psychological Foundations of Culture” Chapter 1 in Barkow, Cosmides & Tooby (Eds) The Adapted Mind, 1995  p. 19 - 136.

Cosmides, Leda and John Tooby. Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer,  an online article Available Here.

Edey, Maitland A. and Donald C. Johanson. Blueprints: Solving the Mystery of Evolution. New York: Penguin Books. 1992.

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Harvard University Press, 2002.

Johanson, Donald C. and Blake Edgar. Photography David Brill. From Lucy to Language. New York: Simon & Schuster Editions, 2006.

Leakey, Richard, and Roger Lewin. The Origins of Humankind. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Viking Penguin, NY, NY, 2003.

Settegast, Mary. Plato Prehistorian. Cambridge: The Rotenberg Press, 1987.

Thurston, Harry. Secrets of the Sands. New York: Arcade Publishing. 2004.

Woolfenden, Wallace. Review of Human Universals. Donald E. Brown. 1991. Available Here

Selected Articles

“The Search for Early Man,” National Geographic. 168. n6 (November 1985).

“Evolutionary back story: thoroughly modern spine supported human ancestor.” (This Week). B.Bower, Science News 169.18 (May 6,2006).

“The African emergence and early Asian dispersals of the genus homo.” Roy Larick and Russell L.Ciochon. American Scientist 84.n6 (Nov-Dec 1996) 538.

“Made in Savannahstan: our ancestors evolved human-like traits in Africa before striking out to conquer Eurasia—or did they.” Marek Kohn. New Scientist 191.2558 (July 1, 2006).

Selected Web Sites

PBS Human Spark website PBS Human Spark Website
A three-part series originally brodcast on PBS in January 2010, Alan Alda takes this question personally, visiting with dozens of scientists on three continents—even undergoing an examination of his own brain. The episodes are available online. (Cave Paintings info) (Gene key to evolution of brain) (Human brain still evolving) (Hominid Species Timeline – helpful reference material) (The cave of Lascoux) (Evolution of Modern Humans)

For further information, Google has an abundance of web sites about prehistoric peoples, their artifacts, and Cro-Magnon cave painting.