Fossil evidence for the origin of Homo sapiens


  • Jeffrey H. Schwartz,

    Corresponding author
    1. Departments of Anthropology and History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260
    • Departments of Anthropology and History and Philosophy of Science, 3302 WWPH, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260
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  • Ian Tattersall

    1. Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York City, NY 10024
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Our species Homo sapiens has never received a satisfactory morphological definition. Deriving partly from Linnaeus's exhortation simply to “know thyself,” and partly from the insistence by advocates of the Evolutionary Synthesis in the mid-20th Century that species are constantly transforming ephemera that by definition cannot be pinned down by morphology, this unfortunate situation has led to huge uncertainty over which hominid fossils ought to be included in H. sapiens, and even over which of them should be qualified as “archaic” or as “anatomically modern,” a debate that is an oddity in the broader context of paleontology. Here, we propose a suite of features that seems to characterize all H. sapiens alive today, and we review the fossil evidence in light of those features, paying particular attention to the bipartite brow and the “chin” as examples of how, given the continuum from developmentally regulated genes to adult morphology, we might consider features preserved in fossil specimens in a comparative analysis that includes extant taxa. We also suggest that this perspective on the origination of novelty, which has gained a substantial foothold in the general field of evolutionary developmental biology, has an intellectual place in paleoanthropology and hominid systematics, including in defining our species, H. sapiens. Beginning solely with the distinctive living species reveals a startling variety in morphologies among late middle and late Pleistocene hominids, none of which can be plausibly attributed to H. sapiens/H. neanderthalensis admixture. Allowing for a slightly greater envelope of variation than exists today, basic “modern” morphology seems to have appeared significantly earlier in time than the first stirrings of the modern symbolic cognitive system. Yrbk Phys Anthropol 53:94–121, 2010. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.