Human evolution (origins of society and culture)

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Human evolution, for some scholars, is the evolutionary emergence of modern human anatomy in association with modern cognition and culture including language.

While, for many specialists, the term 'human evolution' should be restricted to the physical emergence of Homo sapiens as a distinct species, others – notably Chris Stringer[1] and Stephen Oppenheimer [2] – argue that associated cognitive, social and cultural developments are equally legitimate topics of study.

One theory, strongly supported by archaeologist Richard Klein,[3] is that when Homo sapiens emerged in Africa some 200,000 years ago, humans were 'modern' only anatomically, while behaviourally and cognitively they remained archaic. Klein posits a genetic mutation for language which occurred as recently as 50,000 or 40,000 years ago, corresponding in Eurasia to the 'Upper Palaeolithic' transition and in Africa to the Later Stone Age. According to this view, the Eurasian Neanderthals (along with archaic counterparts elsewhere in the world) became extinct because they lacked the necessary cognitive equipment for language. In support of this view, Klein points to the almost complete lack of evidence for art or personal ornamentation among pre-modern humans, contrasting this with the extraordinarily impressive 'symbolic' cultural artefacts – including sophisticated carved figurines and cave-paintings – produced by modern humans as they migrated out of Africa from around 50,000 years ago. This sudden mutation theory is known as 'the human revolution'; until recently, it was the prevailing view.

Lascaux Cave painting

At the opposite extreme stand archaeologists such as Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks,[4] who argue that the original 'human revolution' theory reflects a profound Eurocentric bias. Recent archaeological evidence, they argue, proves that humans evolving in Africa some 300,000 or even 400,000 years ago were already becoming cognitively and behaviourally 'modern'. These features include blade and microlithic technology, bone tools, increased geographic range, specialized hunting, the use of aquatic resources, long distance trade, systematic processing and use of pigment, and art and decoration. These items do not occur suddenly together as predicted by the ‘‘human revolution’’ model, but at sites that are widely separated in space and time. This suggests a gradual assembling of the package of modern human behaviours in Africa, and its later export to other regions of the Old World.

Between these extremes is the view – currently supported by archaeologists Chris Henshilwood,[5] Curtis Marean,[6] Ian Watts[7] and others – that there was indeed some kind of 'human revolution' but that it occurred in Africa and spanned tens of thousands of years. The term 'revolution' in this context would mean not a sudden mutation but a historical development along the lines of 'the industrial revolution' or 'the Neolithic revolution'.[8] In other words, it was a relatively accelerated process, too rapid for ordinary Darwinian 'descent with modification' yet too gradual to be attributed to a single genetic or other sudden event. These archaeologists point in particular to the relatively explosive emergence of ochre crayons and shell necklaces apparently used for cosmetic purposes. These archaeologists see symbolic organisation of human social life as the key transition in modern human evolution. Recently discovered at sites such as Blombos Cave and Pinnacle Point, South Africa, pierced shells, pigments and other striking signs of personal ornamentation have been dated within a time-window of 70,000 – 160,000 years ago in the African Middle Stone Age, suggesting that the emergence of Homo sapiens coincided, after all, with the transition to modern cognition and behaviour.[9] While viewing the emergence of language as a 'revolutionary' development, this school of thought generally attributes it to cumulative social, cognitive and cultural evolutionary processes as opposed to a single genetic mutation.[10]

Engraved ochre and other artefacts at Blombos Cave, South Africa

A further view, taken by archaeologists such as Francesco D'Errico[11] and João Zilhão,[12] is a multi-species perspective arguing that evidence for symbolic culture in the form of utilised pigments and pierced shells are also found in Neanderthal sites, independently of any 'modern' human influence.


  1. ^ Stringer, C. 2011. The Origin of Our Species. London: Allen Lane.
  2. ^ Stephen Oppenheimer, 2004. Out of Eden. London: Constable and Robinson.
  3. ^ Klein, R. G. 1999. The human career: human biological and cultural origins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  4. ^ McBrearty, S. and A. Brooks 2000. The revolution that wasn’t: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior. Journal of Human Evolution: 39: 453-563.
  5. ^ Henshilwood, C. S., d’Errico, F., Yates, R., Jacobs, Z., Tribolo, C., Duller, G. A. T., Mercier, N., Sealy, J. C., Valladas, H., Watts, I. & Wintle, A. G. 2002. Emergence of modern human behavior: Middle Stone Age engravings from South Africa. Science 295: 1278-1280.
  6. ^ Henshilwood, C. and C. W. Marean, 2003. The origin of modern human behavior. Current Anthropology 44(5): 627-651.
  7. ^ Watts, I. 2009. Red ochre, body painting, and language: interpreting the Blombos ochre. In R. Botha and C. Knight (eds), The Cradle of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 62-92.
  8. ^ Mellars, P. A., K. Boyle, O. Bar-Yosef and C. Stringer (eds), 2007. Rethinking the Human Revolution: new behavioural and biological perspectives on the origin and dispersal of modern humans. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
  9. ^ Henshilwood, C. S. and B. Dubreuil 2009. Reading the artifacts: gleaning language skills from the Middle Stone Age in southern Africa. In R. Botha and C. Knight (eds), The Cradle of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 41-61.
  10. ^ Botha, R. and C. Knight (eds), The Cradle of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  11. ^ D’Errico, F. 2003. The invisible frontier: a multiple species model for the origin of behavioral modernity. Evolutionary Anthropology 12: 188-202.
  12. ^ Zilhão, J. 2006 Neandertals and moderns mixed, and it matters. Evolutionary Anthropology, 15: 183-195.

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