Most of what we know about ancient Homo sapiens comes from the work of archaeologists and other scientists. To do their work, archaeologists choose a place where they believe humans once lived. This place is called a site.
When excavations are underway, a site is often referred to as a dig. At their site, archaeologists begin by tying string in a pattern of squares called a grid. Then they dig through the soil layer by layer. As they dig, they carefully sift through the dirt, looking for fossils and artifacts, or human-made objects.
Archaeologists record the square and the layer each fossil or artifact was found in. This important information will help them later as they examine their findings. A careful examination might reveal such information as a fossil's age or the purpose of a piece of pottery or other artifact.
One way that experts judge the age of fossils is through radiocarbon dating. Radiocarbon dating tells how much carbon remains in a once-living person, animal, or plant. All living things contain radioactive carbon. After death, however, the radioactive carbon begins to decay.
By measuring the amount of carbon left in a fossil, experts can identify its age. Radiocarbon dating can only be used for fossils 50,000 years old or younger.
Archaeologists and other scientists have uncovered many important facts about Homo sapiens. Like the early people before them, the first Homo sapiens lived together in bands. Usually the bands were made up of related families. About 20 people lived in each band. Band members worked together to meet their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. Without such cooperation, individuals probably would not have survived.
The small bands spent many hours of their days searching for the food they needed to survive. Much of their diet consisted of wild fruits, nuts, roots, and seeds. They also caught and ate fish, turtles, birds, and small rodents. Experience taught them which plants and animals could be eaten without an unwanted consequence, or effect, such as illness.
These early people also hunted large animals. Many of these animals, such as giant oxen, woolly rhinoceroses, and the elephant-like mammoths, are now extinct, or no longer living. Other common prey, such as reindeer and bison, still exist. All these animals provided meat for food, bones for tools, and skins for clothing and shelter.
To kill large animals, early hunters needed special tools. Unlike Homo erectus, Homo sapiens made different kinds of tools for different needs. These people sharpened stones, animal bones, antlers, or tusks to make spears and knives for hunting. They also made needles for sewing animal skins together and hooks for fishing.
Because early bands were always on the move, they had no permanent year-round settlements. Instead, they set up seasonal camps in caves or rock shelters near places where plants and animals were plentiful. When food was no longer available in one place, bands moved on to the next place. Usually, bands traveled around a particular area as they searched for food. By following a regular seasonal pattern of migration, or movement from one place to another, bands of hunters and gatherers found enough to eat.
Why was cooperation important for early hunters and gatherers?
In 1856, workers digging for stone made an unusual discovery in a buried cave in Germany's Neander Valley. They found an odd-looking human skull along with leg and arm bones. Later, British biologist Thomas Huxley identified the discovery as an early Homo sapiens fossil, the first ever found. The fossil soon gained the name Neanderthal, after the valley in which it was found. Scientists now know that while Neanderthals are Homo sapiens, they are not our direct ancestors.