Among hominids, a parallel evolutionary process involving increased intelligence and cultural complexity is apparent in the material record. Evidence of greater behavioral flexibility and adaptability presumably reflects the decreased influence of genetically encoded behaviors and the increased importance of learning and social interaction in transmitting and maintaining behavioral adaptations (see culture). Because the organization of neural circuitry is more significant than overall cranial capacity in establishing mental capabilities, direct inferences from the fossil record are likely to be misleading. Contemporary humans, for example, exhibit considerable variability in cranial capacity (1150 cc to 1600 cc), none of which is related to intelligence.
Tool use was once thought to be the hallmark of members of the genus Homo, beginning with H. habilis, but is now known to be common among chimpanzees. The earliest stone tools of the lower Paleolithic, known as Oldowan tools and dating to about 2 to 2.5 million years ago, were once thought to have been manufactured by H. habilis. Recent finds suggest that Oldowan tools may also have been made by robust australopithecines. The simultaneous emergence of H. erectus and the more complex Achuelian tool tradition may indicate shifting adaptations as much as increased intelligence.
While it is clear that H. erectus was much more versatile than any of its predecessors, adapting its technologies and behaviors to diverse environmental conditions, the extent and limitations of its intellectual endowment remain a subject of heated debate. This is also the case for both archaic H. sapiens and Neanderthals, the latter associated with the more sophisticated technologies of the middle Paleolithic. However impressive the achievements of H. erectus and early H. sapiens, most material remains predating 40,000 years ago reflect utilitarian concerns. Nonetheless, there is now scattered African archaeological evidence from before that time (in one case as early as 90,000 years ago) of the production by H. sapiens of beads and other decorative work, perhaps indicating a gradual development of the aesthetic concerns and other symbolic thinking characteristic of later human societies. Whether the emergence of modern H. sapiens corresponds to the explosion of technological innovations and artistic activities associated with Cro-Magnon culture or was a more prolonged process of development is a subject of archaeological debate.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.