Shoebox skull: an old neologism

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"Bones from German cave rewrite early history of Homo sapiens in Europe", by Will Dunham, Reuters (1/31/24)

Bone fragments unearthed in a cave in central Germany show that our species ventured into Europe's cold higher latitudes more than 45,000 years ago – much earlier than previously known – in a finding that rewrites the early history of Homo sapiens on a continent still inhabited then by our cousins the Neanderthals.

Scientists said on Wednesday they identified through ancient DNA 13 Homo sapiens skeletal remains in Ilsenhöhle cave, situated below a medieval hilltop castle in the German town of Ranis. The bones were determined to be up to 47,500 years old. Until now, the oldest Homo sapiens remains from northern central and northwestern Europe were about 40,000 years old.

"These fragments are directly dated by radiocarbon and yielded well preserved DNA of Homo sapiens," said paleoanthropologist and research leader Jean-Jacques Hublin of Collège de France in Paris.

Homo sapiens arose in Africa more than 300,000 years ago, later trekking worldwide and encountering other human populations, including Neanderthals. The spotty fossil record has left unclear the details of how Homo sapiens spread through Europe and what role our species played in the extinction of Neanderthals, who disappeared roughly 40,000 years ago.

The research, presented in three studies published in the journals Nature  showed that the region was colder then than now – a chilly steppe-tundra setting akin to today's Siberia or Scandinavia – illustrating how Homo sapiens, despite roots in warmer Africa, adapted relatively quickly to frigid conditions.

The researchers concluded that small, mobile bands of hunter-gatherers used the cave sporadically as they roamed a landscape teeming with Ice Age mammals, and that at other times it was occupied by cave hyenas and cave bears.

"The site in Ranis was occupied during several short-term stays, and not as a huge camp site," said archaeologist Marcel Weiss of Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany, another of the research leaders.

Bones and stone artifacts from the cave showed that these people hunted large mammals including reindeer, horses, bison and woolly rhinoceroses.

"It is interesting that the diet of both these early Homo sapiens and late Neanderthals appears to be focused on large terrestrial game, which could have led to areas of competition," said zooarchaeologist Geoff Smith of the University of Kent, who led one of the studies. "However, we still need additional data points to more fully understand the role and impact of climate and incoming Homo sapiens groups in the eventual extinction of Neanderthals in Europe."

The research appeared to resolve a debate over who made a specific set of European stone artifacts – attributed to what is called the Lincombian-Ranisian-Jerzmanowician (LRJ) culture – including leaf-shaped stone blades useful as spear tips for hunting. Many experts had hypothesized these were fashioned by Neanderthals. Their presence at Ranis with no evidence of Neanderthals instead indicates they were made by Homo sapiens.

"These blade points have been found from Poland and Czechia, over Germany and Belgium, into the British Isles, and we can now assume they most likely represent an early presence of Homo sapiens all over this northern region," Smith said.

The cave was excavated in the 1930s, with bones and stone artifacts found, before World War Two interrupted the work. Technology at the time could not identify the bones. Researchers re-excavated it from 2016 to 2022, uncovering more bones and artifacts. DNA sequencing on newly found and previously unearthed bones identified Homo sapiens remains.

"The results for Ranis are amazing," Weiss said, adding that scientists should return to other European sites from this time period to check for similar evidence of an early Homo sapiens presence.

The 47,500 BP  C14 date puts the Ranis man considerably before the previous earliest finds for Cro-Magnon man whose dating had been set to the Upper Paleolithic Period (c. 40,000 to c. 10,000 years ago) in Europe.  This new dating matches the rise of art, music, and language.

About 35 years ago, I went to a wonderful exhibition of human skulls at the University of Tokyo Museum.  They had put together a large collection of skulls from Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis, and other archaic hominins.  They were lined up chronologically in a series from earliest to contemporary times.

I spent a couple of hours in that dramatically dark exhibition room and was stunned by the physically presented visual evolution of humankind.  The thing that struck me most was the shape of the Cro-Magnon skull.  I stared at it for at least a quarter of an hour and went back again and again to view the Cro-Magnon skull, then repeatedly compared it with all the previous skulls.  (The effect was comparable to the first time I beheld Ur-David [who looked so much like my brother Dave] in the Ürümchi Museum in 1988.)

The Cro-Magnon skull was so different in its shape from all of the previous skulls in being elongated, relatively narrow, and tall, with a flat forehead falling straight down and no protruding brow ridge (whereas the other skulls and crania were round, broad, and relatively compressed in depth and length — like a pumpkin — with a backward sloping forehead and massive brows), that I called it the "shoebox skull".

Still to this day, whenever I think of Cro-Magnon Man, that designation — "shoebox skull" — comes into my mind as a powerful image of that early Homo sapiens.  Rectangular, with the back of the skull projecting rearward like an extension of the braincase.

When I first started using the expression "shoebox skull" around 3-4 decades ago, it was my own personal neologism.  Inasmuch as I've used it continuously since then, it's no longer a neologism for me.  That's just what I call it — for myself.  Since the discovery of Ranis man, which is of such great importance in human evolution, I might as well go public with what, for many years, used to be a private expression:  shoebox skull.


Selected readings

[Thanks to June Teufel Dreyer]


  1. Dave said,

    March 11, 2024 @ 10:13 am

    So, roughly: 500'000 BP (Homo neanderthalensis?); 50'000 BP (art, music, language); 5'000 BP (writing); 500 BP (early modernity); 50 BP (microcomputers?)?

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    March 11, 2024 @ 2:11 pm

    5 BP — LLMs went mainstream.

  3. AntC said,

    March 11, 2024 @ 5:22 pm

    Homo sapiens, despite roots in warmer Africa, adapted relatively quickly to frigid conditions.

    Hang on, let me do some math.

    Homo sapiens arose in Africa more than 300,000 years ago,

    The bones were determined to be up to 47,500 years old.

    So it took ~250,000 years trekking worldwide — or at least trekking from Africa as far as Northern Europe. Then "relatively quickly" compared relatively to what?

    Let's say (generously, going via Eastern Mediterranean) the distance covered is 20,000km [Google]; then that's an average of ).08km *per year* — considerably less than the distance to my daily coffee shop. At that rate adapting to a different climate would be the least of your worries.

  4. Steve Morrison said,

    March 11, 2024 @ 8:38 pm

    Although technically, “Before Present” really means “Before 1950!”

  5. Terry Hunt said,

    March 11, 2024 @ 9:04 pm

    @ AntC – No, for most of that 300,000-year span, no H. sapiens were likely trekking, or shifting in any particular direction, and currently it's thought that none left Africa in any numbers until 70–80,000 years ago (though earlier excursions might not yet have been identified). Even then, their/our spread across the globe was almost certainly not deliberately directed, but merely the result of 'random-walk' opportunistic relocations to more favourable surroundings (due to population pressure, fluctuations of game and food plant availability, etc.). As you rightly observe, even a shift of a few miles per generation into a previously non-sapiens range would achieve a Eurasian-wide spread in a relatively short time.

    I think references to the "extinction" of H. Neanderthalis are a misconception. On average, people native to NW Europe have around 2–4% Neanderthal genes. This is equivalent to having one pure Neanderthal great-great-great grandparent, though from the allele distributions in the chromosomes the actual admixture occurred many thousands of years ago and eventually stabilized.

    Archeological remains suggest that Neanderthals characteristically lived in smaller groups more widely scattered than did Sapiens, so when the latter encountered the former they would have been markedly more numerous. From the limited genome analyses of individuals from several tens of thousands of years ago, a surprisingly high proportion exhibit recent hybridisations between Sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans (a sister species to Neanderthals, only discovered through genetic analysis.)

    All this suggests that Sapiens did not out-compete Neanderthals (and Denisovans) into extinction, but that to a significant extent we absorbed them. They are still extant – in us.

  6. Philip Anderson said,

    March 12, 2024 @ 1:47 am

    As Terry said, for most of that period, H. Sapiens was still in Africa, although modern humans would seem to have reached Australia before Europe. Current theories have humans reaching the Levant c50,000 BP, when they might have met cold weather for the first time, but only in winter. So the adaptation to ice age conditions in Europe was over a much shorter time span.

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