4 Ways Our Human Ancestors Survived the Punishing Cold Weather

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With modern conveniences like heaters, snow boots, and heavy coats, surviving the winter is not difficult. But these conveniences didn’t exist when early humans roamed Earth. So how did our ancestors keep warm? Based on archeological evidence found in caves and bones, archeologists found some ways that early humans might have protected themselves from the cold.

1. Early Humans Wore Animal Fur to Keep Warm

Artist representation of ancient humans wearing fur. (Credit: Benoît Clarys)

A study published in the Journal of Human Evolution found that for 300,000 years, humans used bear hides to protect themselves from the cold, which is the oldest example of using bear resources globally. From this study, it’s suspected that hominids during the Middle Pleistocene may have used bear skins to protect themselves against unforgiving winters in Northwestern Europe.

With furs, surviving in the northern hemisphere was easier. Animal hides and fur were a source of warmth and were used as wind and waterproof clothing. Researchers found evidence of this in bone tools dating back between 120,000 years and 90,000 years ago.

One study even suggests that differences in clothing use may have led to the success of early modern humans and the replacement of Neanderthals. Evidence shows that early modern humans knew how to protect themselves from the cold. Archeologists unearthed 24,000-year-old carved ivory figurines representing fur parkas in Russia. In contrast, some researchers suggest that Neanderthals did not use clothing or, if they did, it was not as insulating. They would likely have dressed in cape-like apparel if they used clothing at all.

Read More: What Is the Definition of the Word Human?

2. Ancient Human Bodies Were Adapted For Cold Climate

Skull and bust of a Neanderthal (Credit: egART/Shutterstock)

A study published in Proceedings Of The Royal Society B, suspects that the physical features of Neanderthals helped them deal with the cold. Their stocky limbs, broad noses, and specific face shape suggest to researchers that they were better suited to withstand the cold.

Computer simulations found that the nose shape of Neanderthals and modern ancient humans conditioned cold air more effectively. But Neanderthals were better at using their noses to condition the air. Their nasal passage was also about 29 percent larger than the average volume of ancient modern humans.

Neanderthals were also more muscular and had a higher fat content. To support their cold-resistance needs, archeologists pinpointed that Neanderthals needed about 3,360 to 4,480 calories per day.

Read More: The First Humans to Know Winter

3. Some Ancient Humans Might have Hibernated Through the Winter

Skull of Homo heidelbergensis (Credit: WH_Pics/Shutterstock)

A study published in L’Anthropologie in 2020 suspects that ancient humans may have hibernated to survive the winter. Scientists used fossil evidence collected from Spain’s Sima de los Huesos, or “Pit of the Bones,” where a trove of 7,500 human fossils were found.

Researchers examined the bones and found evidence that early humans might have hibernated because of the bone damage seen on the fossils. The bones had evidence of lesions and damage in relation to rickets, chronic kidney disease, hyperparathyroidism, and mineral and bone disorder. 

The body’s response to hibernating and not adapting well to it could have caused these conditions. Hibernation may have been a response to survive starvation from the extreme glaciation, which limited food resources. Still, more evidence is needed as the study is heavily debated. 

Read More: Neanderthals Also Had Superior Toolmaking Abilities, Not Just Humans

4. Some Ancient Humans May Have Used Fire to Keep Warm

(Credit: Kamila Koziol/Shutterstock)

It’s debated when fire-use started, but fire transformed early human diets and is deeply embedded in human culture.

Early hominids moved into northern areas of Europe without using fire constantly. A study published in PNAS found that regular fire use may have been a significant tool about 300,000 years to 400,000 years ago and beyond. The study also found that fire use was used to extend daylight.

Read More: How Humans Survived the Ice Age

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