4. Homo Habilis, Erectus, & Sapiens

China Page

Homo Habilis & Mode 1 Stone Tools – Choppers

Stone technology is the difference

The first Homo split from the Australopithecines about 2 million years ago. This was the beginning of the Stone Age. Stone tool technology begins at this time. Remember that these were not just casual tools made from the primitive mind of man. The method of tool making was culturally transmitted. In other words, these early stone implements have a distinct pattern behind them that was created over and over again for over a million years.

Archaeologists call the first pattern mode 1 stone tools. They seemed to have been used for chopping. Homo habilis, the first significant species in the Homo series, was the first to employ this tool. This specific technology was transmitted over all the areas that early homo habilis lived. This included the warmer areas of the Eurasia-African landmass in southern Europe, southern Asia, China, and Africa.

Crucial Hand-eye-brain connection

Although it is easy, neat, and compact to say that Homo split from the Australopithecines about 2 million years ago, the reality is subtler. Actually the difference between the two genera is the subject of extensive debate. In some ways the difference between the two is based more on the ability of homo habilis to employ a tool technology rather than on major biological differences. (Clark, p 9) According to some scientists, the difference is a refinement of the Australopithecines rather than a brand new species. In other words, the original species split is linked to cultural developments, rather than being purely biological.

Homo habilis did have a larger brain and stronger hands than his cousins. Certain scientists have suggested that the reason for the development of the larger brain and stronger hands is a result of their tool making ability, rather than the tool making being a result of the larger brain and hands. Indeed as we are seeing, the interaction between culture and environment seems to have driven human evolution rather than just environmental factors alone. Under this line of thinking, those Australopithecines that, for whatever reasons, started making tools, stimulated the development of a brand new species of which we are part. The hand-eye-brain connection led to the evolutionary development of the brain and hand. We see the existence of this hand-eye-brain philosophy in the Montessori schools as well as Tai Chi. Master Ni says watching the hands in Tai Chi simultaneously stimulates and focuses the brain.

Technology implies communication

Remember that this technology was culturally transmitted. This implies some type of communication over time and generations. Hence the ability to communicate becomes a survival feature and is also selected for in terms of evolution.

Technology surpasses environment in evolutionary importance

Furthermore this stone technology was adapted to the environment rather than vice versa. Homo habilis did not adapt separate technologies for different environmental situations, but instead adapted the same technology to different environments. This trait is common throughout history. The technique is more important than the raw materials. The homo species will regularly adapt a tool-making technique developed in one environment to another setting rather than developing a new technology for a new location. This was true of the copper, bronze, and iron technologies as well as the earlier stone, herding and agricultural technologies. In some ways this dependence upon a specific technology has motivated the homo species of all levels to explore for materials.

This puts technology on higher footing than the environment in terms of the cultural development of the human tribe. If we connect technology with culture, it means that cultural continuity becomes more important than environment.

Diffusion vs. Structuralism

Homo erectus also uses Mode 1 lithic technology

While Mode 1 technology is mainly connected with homo habilis, it survived in areas separated from the main stream of cultural dispersion, through homo erectus, homo sapiens and even homo sapiens sapiens. This was especially true on the North China Plain. Peking man, a form of homo erectus, never adopted the typical ax of homo erectus, but instead remained with the Mode 1 chopping tool. When diffusion occurred to the southern islands including Australia, it was the Mode 1 technology that survived.

Diffusion not universal

Because the stone technologies were transmitted independent of the homo subspecies, we must adopt the theory of diffusion over structuralism, i.e. innate to the organism. If the stone technology were inherent to the species, then the methods would be found everywhere that the species was found. While most homo erectus adopted the Mode 2 lithic technology, some didn’t and remained in the Mode 1 technology. If structuralism were a factor, then wherever homo erectus was found we would also find mode 2 technology. This was not true either in Australia or on the North China Plain.

Cultural Diffusion vs. Universally Human

There are certain universal elements common to humans everywhere regardless of transmission. There are also many elements that are diffused culturally. When possible, this paper will attempt to differentiate between the two. We will assume that technology is spread through cultural diffusion, especially if there are probable transmission routes. The variety of human expression is so diverse that we will assume that technological, artistic and cultural aspects that recur in different cultures occurred due to diffusion. On the other hand, if no diffusion route exists, then we must certainly consider the possibility that the technology is a universal human tendency.

Basics universal, Refinements diffusive

Due to their relative simplicity, the construction of huge monumental pyramids could easily be innate to humans. It is probable however that more complicated stylistic devices and conventions are due to cultural diffusion. In similar fashion, scholars assume that the development of different agriculture techniques in different cultural centers is structural, not diffusive. Specifically rice growing and corn growing are based upon entirely different agricultural technologies. Hence, most believe that they arose independently of each other. Thus this agricultural adaptation to geography would be assumed structural to humans.

If however, the techniques and crops are similar, then scholars assume that cultural diffusion occurred. For instance, a sophisticated rice growing technology developed in the Yangtze River Valley a millennium or more before the same technology appeared in Southeast Asia and Northeast India. Southeast Asians and Indians may have been employing a semi-nomadic slash and burn type rice growing, but not the settled version that seems to inevitably lead to a permanent home. This stability, in turn, gave rise to the growth of villages, then cities, nations and even empires in all regions that this rice-growing technology was utilized. Due to this evidence, most scholars now believe that rice technology was transmitted from China to Southeast Asia. Although still debated, most scholars believe this rice growing technology spread from China to outlying areas. Hence this technology is diffusive, not structural.

Sometimes the line of cultural transmission went the opposite way – from Southeast Asia to China. In the case of the Mode 1 chopping tools, the transmission occurred from Africa to West Asia, through India, to Southeast Asia, up to China. We are talking about the most primitive of the human species, homo habilis. We will see that this route of cultural transmission from the south to the north could have been employed in another significant instance during prehistoric times.

Homo's taste for Meat provides Evolutionary Advantage

Since I am in the food business, it gives me pleasure to report that there is evidence that homo habilis cooked his meat, judging by the charred bones at one of the sites. (Clark, p 36). Not only wasn’t he a vegetarian, but meat was also a crucial part of his diet.

Homo habilis was little more than the usual predator, but he had certain disadvantages. He was not as quick or strong or big as the other predators in his class. When game was plentiful, there was plenty to go around. But when it was scarce due to environmental conditions, the other predators had a distinct advantage. The early homo was threatened with extinction over competition for food in his own ecological niche by larger quicker predators. Most primates went vegetarian to more easily compete for food sources. Homo went for the jugular. Instead of becoming quicker – they were too far behind, they began attacking those in their same eco niche. If in the fight for survival a predator consistently loses food to more effective hunters, they must change their diet, become extinct, or destroy their competitors. Homo chose the last alternative.

Eat your Enemy or Destruction for evolutionary success

Hunting in packs, homo habilis survived by destroying their competitors, not by competing. Natural selection chose those tribes that consciously hunted the big game. The mechanism of taste may have been a major contributing factor to this evolution. When hunting in a pack, the early homo was a match for larger predators. Those homos with a taste for meat of their biggest competitors were able to survive more easily due to the drop in population. Hence from the earliest human – homo habilis, evolutionary mechanisms selected those humans for survival that had a taste for meat. It started out small enough in the smaller homo habilis, but became more pronounced in homo erectus. Hence the development of taste began with the earliest human who had the first barbecues. The taste for meat preceded clothes, a sense of the spiritual, or art.

“Ummm. This tastes good mommy.”

“Glad to hear it son. It is the flesh of one of our biggest competitors, the saber tooth tiger. With one less of those around, we will be able to more easily catch the smaller prey needed to feed our tribe.”

Chopping Tools, first Kitchen aid

Continuing upon the speculative food theme: Just as the interaction of culture and selection influenced human evolution, the interaction of hunting and taste and technology, propelled our evolutionary success. What was the chopper used for? Perhaps sharpening the end of the wooden spear for hunting – perhaps preparing the kill for consumption – probably both. Our taste for the meat of our fellow predators reduced our competition and furthered our survival. This taste propelled our need for new technologies of the hunt. Those tribes whose taste for meat was enhanced tended to survive. The stone spear sharpener could have become the supreme tool for food preparation, separating those animal bones before cooking. Could these choppers even have been used for chopping vegetables?

Mode 1 lithic technology, used by the most primitive form of the Homo species, homo habilis, was probably developed in connection with food preparation and the hunt. Hence the taste for meat, homo’s culinary side, has propelled human evolution especially through its technology. Thus homo species’ culinary side is a fundamental aspect of the human experience, preceding art, burial, and the like.

Status and Food

Another aspect of culinary world is connection between status and food consumption. This relationship is pre-human. It goes back to when we ran in predatory packs, even before we became erect. The strongest member of the pack is allowed to go first, whether a wolf pack or lion pack. The Hunter who feeds the Pack or Tribe is essential to their survival. It is this Hunter who has the most status and goes first. While food preparation and taste only go back to the earliest human, the connection between food and status is even more primary, as it is linked to our ancestry as a predatory pack.

In the restaurant business, it is easy to see how food and status are related. Those with the most money are proud to buy the most expensive wines and food to establish their status in society. Those who can attain seating in exclusive restaurants also establish status this way. Cross-professional status designations can be reached this way. How much different are we than our genetic ancestors?

Homo Erectus: Mode 2 Stone Tools, the Hand Ax, & Eco-Protection

Mode 2 lithic technology is typified by the hand ax. While the primary stone tool of homo habilis was a chopper, it did not have a handhold. Homo erectus took the technology a step further to include a grip for his hand. Homo erectus spread over the same areas as had homo habilis, including as far as the North China plain. However, the hand ax lithic technology only reached India, never reaching Southeast Asia or subsequently China.

The hand ax provided an evolutionary advantage over the chopper. This enabled homo erectus to dominate his ecosystem in a way that homo habilis did not. While homo habilis concentrated primarily upon small animals, homo erectus went after big game. For instance “Peking man, [a form of homo erectus] succeeded in living largely on the flesh of his competitors in the animal world.” (Clark, p 37). Additionally Peking man probably practiced cannibalism, as did many primitive humans.


Primates tend to protect their territory. The Genus homo extended that to include their ecological territory. We will call their strategy eco-protection. This is how it manifests.

Homo predator preys upon larger predators

It seems that in addition to manipulating the materials of their environment, that early humans were also manipulating their eco-system. While most primates are primarily vegetarian, the early humans are noteworthy in their taste for meat. Additionally these early humans did not just prey upon the smaller animals or herbivores, as do other predators; they preyed upon the predators themselves. While wolf packs will attack the larger elk, they did not hunt larger predators. While lions will attack baby cheetah, they do not attack or hunt adult cats. These early humans were unique in the sense of preying upon the larger predators and upon themselves. It was as if they were protecting their ecological niche. We see this hunter mentality alive and well in 20th century civilization. The big game hunters have always had the most status. Nobody puts the head of a rabbit or raccoon on their fireplace no matter how difficult they were to kill.

Eco-competitors consciously attacked

We see this trait continuously throughout human history. Many times the extinction of animals by humans was somewhat accidental. For instance prehistoric humans systematically herded the woolly mammoths over cliffs as a hunting technique. However, at other times there seems to have been deliberate attempts to exterminate eco-competitors. In modern times we see the vilification and hunting of wolves to the verge of extinction, as an attempt by the European farmer, and subsequently the American, to protect their agricultural ecosystem. This is on the animal level.

On the human level we see the American Indian treated in a similar manner. As a competitor for agricultural land, the American Indian was vilified, attacked and contained in vicious ways, which is only justified by his role as eco-competitor. The American black as a participant in the European agricultural system was only discriminated against but not attacked and destroyed in the same way. The black slave was a useful beast of burden and only needed to be tamed, dominated, shown their place, but not destroyed. The female in a similar way was only dominated, but not systematically destroyed. However when the female or black of the species entered the work force in a competitive fashion, this primal feeling of eco-protection arose again, giving rise to the vilification of the women’s, black, or any other minority movement by the white male ruling class.

Homo subspecies vs. subspecies

The point is that the tendency to protect our ecosystem by destroying competitors emerged at an early stage in the evolution of the homo species. He has applied these principles regularly to other animals, to other cultures, and to the other sex, throughout his violent history. Some scientists have even suggested that each successive stage of the homo species has more or less actively exterminated the evolutionarily less fit subspecies that went before. They accomplished this task through warfare, enslavement, or even cannibalism, in the style of Peking man. Because of the rapidity of extinction of earlier homo subspecies after millions of years of successful adaptation to a wide range of environmental changes, it is hard to think of another plausible explanation for their sudden disappearance.

Longer Transmission Time provides Evolutionary Advantage

While the evolutionary success of the early homo species, was based upon eco-protection, it was also founded upon cooperation through communication. The tools of early humans did not justify their success as hunters. We can only imagine that through cultural transmission were they able to accrue the knowledge of their environment that allowed them to kill the bigger game, especially predators. It is hard to imagine that a single human lifetime would be long enough to develop the sophisticated techniques necessary to kill big game hunted by these prehistoric hunters. Although no vegetal evidence remains one million years after the fact, we must imagine that the same cultural transmission likely included a sophisticated knowledge of the local flora of the ecosystem.

Advantages of cooperation leads to language

It seems that the ability to transmit information of a cultural and environmental nature conferred a premier evolutionary advantage to early humans. The more specific the communication, the better the advantage. Accordingly, the ability to speak would have conferred a powerful evolutionary advantage.

Less genetics and more communication

As animals have become more complex, less behavior was genetically hardwired and adaptability has become a greater part of the genetic code. Due to this trend towards increased adaptability, the need for the postnatal training increases. For most animals this training period is relatively short, less than a year. The more information, specific to environment, technology, and custom, that could be transmitted culturally to the homo, the more fit the early humans became. Hence the longer the time of cultural transmission before adulthood, the greater the advantage to the tribe.

Longer time of cultural transmission, the more fit

We see this trend even unto modern times. At the end of the 20th century, the time of cultural transmission has been extended for most to the age of 18, when they graduate from high school, the age of 22 for those privileged enough to go to college, and then 26 or more for the leaders of our society, when they graduate from Medical, Law or some Professional school. We see that the length of time that one receives cultural transmission is somewhat correlated with one’s status in society.

Schools linked to importance of transmission

The importance of cultural transmission to the human species is seen clearly in its own internal evolution. Initially the family or tribe was sufficient for transmission. As the human society evolved, the increased complexity of cultural transmission demanded specialists, i.e. teachers. Finally institutions, i.e. schools, were created to perform the education of the young. This led to specialty schools, colleges, and finally in modern times, to graduate and postgraduate colleges.

Homo Sapiens & Mode 3, prepared core

Roughly speaking homo habilis reigned supreme with their Mode 1 stone chopping tools and a brain size between 500cc to 750cc for about 500,000 years. Homo erectus with their Mode 2 hand axe emerged about 1.5 million years ago. They were the dominant homo species for a full million years. During this extended period, their brain size gradually increased from 800cc to 1300cc.

Homo sapiens gradually began replacing the earlier species about 400,000 years ago. Their dominance was presumably due to a significantly larger brain size, approximately 1600cc. Along with this new species came the Mode 3, prepared core, lithic technology.

Prepared core tools

The mode 3 technology of homo sapiens far surpassed anything that we civilized humans could create in a single lifetime. This technology is certainly complicated enough that it would take lifetimes to develop. Somehow they were able to hit a prepared rock with a single blow to create a tool that was sharper than anything that had been made before.

Path of dispersion

Although the technique started in the north of the settled world, it spread into Africa and also into Western and Central Asia. The technology did not spread into India or southern China. There is evidence of settlements as far north as Siberia and northern China. The species spread further than the technology. The evidence suggests that this technology was diffusive, not universal.

Northern route of cultural transmission

The path of dispersion for these proto humans was north rather than south. Their technology did not reach the Iberian Peninsula or Southeast Asia. Mode 3 lithic technology diffused northward across the steppes to Siberia and southward into China. Remember that homo erectus, who only inhabited temperate climates, spread to China by way of Southeast Asia. In contrast, the homo sapiens, who were able to inhabit cold climates, spread into China by way of Siberia. This is the northern route of cultural dispersion.

Homo erectus tendency towards cultural standardization

Even as they spread into previously inhabitable regions, homo sapiens, the ancestor of modern humans, achieved a ”perfection of form and degree of standardization over great areas and despite wide variations in the qualities of the raw materials used, bear witness to firmness of intention and a definite sense of style.” These proto humans were already holding onto their cultural identity through the style of their technology.

The idea here is very subtle but underlies much of the history of humanity. An innate feature of homo sapiens seemed to be an obsession with cultural standardization. There was virtually no change in their lithic technology for tens of thousands of years. The Confucian culture of China raised this obsessive adherence to cultural forms to the highest level of civilization. Repetition of ritual served to bind the Chinese as a cohesive culture for 4,000 years, the longest relatively continuous civilization upon the Earth. Tai Chi is based upon this same repetition of form.

Homo Sapiens moves into the Northern Forests

Homo habilis and homo erectus shared the same geography, i.e. the temperate areas of the Eurasia-Africa land mass. In many ways they were like any other wild animal staying close to habitable areas, which for them meant the temperate zones. Homo habilis and erectus lived through many glaciations and interglacial periods during the early and middle Pleistocene. In other words, they persisted through many Ice Ages. As the Ice Age advanced they retreated, as the Ice Age retreated they advanced. Their numbers were determined environmentally like most animals. They had not yet evolved enough to develop coverings that would protect them from the cold. They were temperate zone creatures.

Temperate Zone, no clothes

Homo habilis and erectus needed the temperate zone to survive. There is no evidence that they wore any coverings. If they did, they were not sophisticated enough to allow them to advance past the temperate zones.

No forests

The early humans settled in the savannah. Presumably because of their taste for meat, they tended to settle around water at the edge of the forest where game was most plentiful.  There is virtually no evidence that these early homos lived in the forest.

Geographic extension into forests

This changes dramatically with the emergence of homo sapiens. Homo sapiens, of whom the Neanderthal man was a variant, did not surpass homo erectus in his hunting skills. However, they did surpass them geographically. Homo sapiens seems to have inhabited the same temperate zones as homo erectus but expanded into the northern forests.

Animal Skins, the First Clothes

It is during this expansion into the forest by homo sapiens that furs are found that are shaped like clothing. This solution to environmental difficulties may have been beyond the innate capacities of earlier sub-species of homo. However, all homo sapiens did not seem to wear clothes, in the sense of animal skins or furs as coverings. As such, clothing, instead of an innate feature of homo sapiens, is probably an adaptation to the cold.

Culture makes it possible

The extension into previously uninhabitable regions of the earth was made possible due to the increasing ability to communicate survival skills across generations. An increased brain size could have been a contributing factor to this ability. The brain size of homo sapiens, i.e. the Neanderthaloid, was the same as our own.


“The extension of human settlement over progressively wider territories was made possible by the relatively unspecialized character of Homo sapiens as a biological species, but above all by the possession of culture, by means of which man has been able to adapt himself to the widest range of environments.”(Clark, p.15)

Geographical adaptation is an example of culture, itself, as the supreme selective factor. The culture of the tribe passes down information about how best to deal with environmental challenges, such as the cold. The duration of the transmission and its retention is the key difference between the homo species and other animals. If vast amounts of information can be transmitted over generations, this confers a huge advantage in dealing with a hostile environment.

Homo Sapiens memorialized Death

No art

While homo sapiens extended the geography available to the species, they still had no artistic sense. They only used bones in a limited way and did not utilize ornamentation.

“There is no evidence that bone or antler was worked to make well-defined implements or weapons of any description. Another and possibly more significant limitation is the absence of any indication of a developed aesthetic sense: Middle Paleolithic man was capable of producing a limited range of tools with an astonishing economy of effort, and the perfection of form and degree of standardization that they achieved, often over great areas and despite wide variations in the qualities of the raw materials used, bear witness to firmness of intention and a definite sense of style; but as far as we know he practiced no art- no sign of carving or engraving for example has been found among all the wealth of bone and antler from Mousterian and kindred sites; nor is there evidence of even so much as a single bored tooth to suggest that he fabricated ornament to adorn his person.” (Clark, p 44)

It appears that there was no art or body adornment before homo sapiens sapiens.  Further, jewelry and art seem to be universal features of the modern human.

Continued cannibalism

Homo sapiens still practiced cannibalism. For homos eco-protection began with other species and extended logically to other tribes. Could homo sapiens have employed the same predator techniques upon competing cultures that they used on big game?

Awareness of Death

While the Neanderthaloids had no art, they created the first graves. They were the first hominids to memorialize death in a significant fashion. The graves of homo sapiens consisted of single graves cut into rock: the final resting place.

Child Graves

Interestingly many of the graves contained small children. Perhaps as an expression of their grief, the Neanderthaloid parents buried their children in a rock where their bones would not be disturbed by wild animals. Some of these individual gravesites were seemingly based upon parental love. Could memorializing an existence have been intended to keep a memory alive?

Along with the self-awareness associated with cultural transmission over time comes the acute awareness of mortality. Even though the physical shell, the body, dies, an individual lives as long as their memory is kept alive. This is totally tied up with our being cells in the cultural organism. Memorializing an existence prolongs the loved ones existence a little longer. Their lives long gone, these memorial graves to the young children still have power to bring tears to the eyes some 80,000 years after the event. No cultural giants these Neanderthaloids, no art whatsoever. But the pain of premature death is felt deeply enough by these proto-humans to the degree that they would cut a hole in the rock, no easy feat, as a grave for the body of their child. The intensity of the expression moves the Neanderthaloid beyond the level of homo erectus.

The expressive power of these testaments to parental love touches us just as deeply after tens of thousands of years. A homo sub species communicates to another sub species without words, without art, just basic primitive expression. This is the Neanderthal, perhaps a proto-human, maybe only our cousins, with a brain as big as ours, but without the physical tools, and yet they still communicate this deep felt pain of mortality.

Congratulations fellow Homo.

History provides many different extreme manifestations of this universal human need to memorialize death. These spiritual tendencies began with homo sapiens.


Home    China Home    Chapters    Previous    Next    Comments