Anthropology is the science which tells us that people are the same the whole world over - except when they are different. ~ Nancy Banks Smith
The anthropologists certainly have been busy of late. For beginners, Kenyan scientists recently unveiled some Homo Erectus skulls. What made them noteworthy is that they were the first female Erectus examples ever found. The other thing that made them interesting is how small they were. The implication is that Erectus may have been more ape-like than previously thought. The female skulls were also found in a lower (older) layer than a Homo Habilis jawbone, which would seem to indicated that rather than Erectus having been a descendant of Habilis, Erectus and Habilis coexisted, probably descended from a common ancestor.
A new DNA study gives strength to the long-standing theory that modern humans came out of Africa as a new species and is not related to Neanderthals or "hobbits". The skulls mentioned above do nothing to change that idea. The DNA analysis shows that differences between human populations can mostly be defined by distance from Africa.
So, "out of Africa" is confirmed, but Erectus falls in terms of modernity. The latter is interesting in that Erectus was considered to be an innovator in the realm of tools. Now, being more primitive doesn't lessen that possibility, but it may help to explain why Erectus made that one innovation then seemingly never made another.
The idea of innovation brings to a new theory of Neanderthal intelligence. An archaeologist in England has decided that the archetypal caveman was a better innovator and more adaptive than previously thought. The article, perhaps unfairly to the scientist, doesn't really explain how he builds his case about more innovation. The data I've read seems to indicate that, yes, Neanderthal did come up with some new ways of doing things, but, after 300,000 years, he was still using the same methods. Like Erectus, Neandethal came up with some good ideas early on, but he never came up with any more.
As to Neanderthal's adaptability, it is certainly correct that he was able to deal with the colder climates better than his neighbor Heidelbergensus, but it is debatable as to whether new climatic changes 40,000 years ago didn't contribute to his decline.
Neanderthal certainly wasn't anywhere near as innovative as early Homo Sapiens. As Sapiens came out of Africa in that last wave, he demonstrated a near passion for invention. New spear points, improved hunting techniques, farming all came from Homo Sapiens drive to change the world around him. And don't forget art. It was Sapiens who started wearing decorative shells which they painted and modified.
In fact, there is one scientist, Nicholas Conrad, who thinks he knows exactly where and when the explosion of art occurred. It was 40,000 years ago in Swabia. Swabia is located between France, Switzerland, and Bavaria, and Conrad has found carvings, decorative things, and even a flute, none of which, he claims have been found in layers as early as these finds.
Conrad's theory (reported in the September/October issue of Archaeology Magazine, the article is not online at this writing) is controversial in that it tries to pinpoint a single locale as the spot where art suddenly bloomed in modern mankind. There are concerns that the layers in which the artifacts are found are not so clearly delineated. Some point to the fact that carnivores like to use the same caves humans use. A bear, digging a bedding area, would throughly confuse the layers in which artifacts and bones would be found. Conrad claims that such mixing is not an issue in his finds.
All this business of innovation boils down to this: Until Homo Sapiens came along, innovation was a very occasional thing. It is not that Erectus, Neanderthal, and all the others didn't come with new inventions and discoveries. It's that they didn't come with many, and the ones they did create or find happened early in their career on the planet. Sapiens, on the other hand, has been constantly inventing and innovating virtually since he appeared.
It's not that Erectus and Neanderthal were stupid; they had to be more mentally advanced than their predecessors. It's just that they got to a certain point early on and stalled there. Eventually, conditions changed or competition came along, and the old-timers had shot their bolt.
Now before we get all smug about our cleverness, stop and think about some timeframes. Erectus was around for a million years; Neanderthal made over 250,000 years. We've only been on top of the pyramid for 40,000 years. There's no telling how long we'll last, assuming we just don't blow ourselves up and turn the planet back over to the insects. If we do last, our species may someday be looking at a new group that makes our innovativeness look like cream cheese.
Gives one pause for thought.