Judging by the massive size of Herto man's brain, he was just as "human" as anyone alive today. Behaviorally, however, there was something crucial missing. The stone tools found at Herto represent a fairly sophisticated technology—but they are not that much different from tools 100,000 years older or, for that matter, 100,000 years younger. There are no pierced beads at Herto, as there are at other African sites some 60,000 years younger. Nor are there carved figurines or other artwork, as one sees in the Upper Paleolithic of Europe, much less any evidence of the bows and arrows, metalwork, agriculture, and all the cultural and technological virtuosity that would follow. By walking back a mere 160,000 years—an eyewink in our evolutionary journey—we had stripped humanity of one of its defining attributes: innovation.
One curious feature of the bones, however, might serve as an augur of the behavioral complexity to come—a whisper of symbol, of meaning. Several days after the discovery of the adult skulls, Berhane Asfaw uncovered another: that of a child, judged to be around six or seven years old. Cut marks on the skull (as well as on the less complete adult cranium) showed that it had been carefully defleshed while the bone was still fresh, in a way that suggested a ritual practice rather than simply cannibalism. The surface of the juvenile skull had been left intact, and it bore a telltale polish, an indication that it had been handled repeatedly. Perhaps the child's skull was passed around and worshipped as a relic, possibly for generations, before someone laid it down here at Herto, one last time.
Daka: On Our Side of the Divide
After a quick lunch, we continued our walk on the opposite side of Herto village, dropping down the eastern slope of the Bouri ridge into a scorching moonscape of gray sandstones, barren and bizarre, pocked with little caves and intricately carved pillars. WoldeGabriel explained how these sediments had been tilted up to the southwest by faulting, then sculpted into these shapes by fierce winds, water, and gravity. The many crevices in the slopes made prime denning sites for hyenas. He pointed to one in the distance, loping away at the sight of us.
We had come to a new window of time, known as the Dakanihylo, or "Daka," member of the Bouri formation. The Daka sediments are a million years old. Late in December 1997—a boom year for hominid fossils in the Middle Awash—graduate student Henry Gilbert noticed the top of a cranium eroding out of the Daka sediments. By the end of the day the team had unearthed a hundred-pound bolus of sandstone around the fossil and jacketed it in plaster medical bandages. Back in the museum in Addis Ababa, the surrounding rock was carefully removed with dental picks and porcupine quills, revealing the complete cranial vault of a member of the species called Homo erectus—but without a face.
"Maybe a hyena chewed off the face soon after it died," White said. "It was trying to get at the brain tissue but couldn't. Too bad for us. But at least it left us the vault."