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Excerpt from Desolate Landscapes: Ice-Age Settlement in Eastern Europe by John F. Hoffecker
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"Spoken language . . . was, in fact, the supreme human technology."-Robert McC. Adams (1996)
The Great Leap: An East European Perspective
The most important event in human evolution occurred not two or three million years in the past, but only about 50,000 years ago. At this time, hominids-anatomically modern humans-rather suddenly began to leave traces of the use of symbols in the archaeological record. Many anthropologists believe that this marks the birth of fully modern human language, for which there is some supporting anatomical evidence. In any case, the appearance of symbols coincides with a transformation in technological skills-a quantum jump in human ability to manipulate the natural environment. It also seems linked to fundamental changes in social behavior, although this is less obvious in the archaeological record of the time.
The consequences of the transition to "behaviorally modern humans" were only fully apparent with the end of the Pleistocene (roughly 10,000 years ago). From that point onward, many human societies began to capture increasing amounts of energy through plant and animal domestication and other new technologies. These societies increased in size and organizational complexity. The latter generated new technological advances -some of which entailed new uses of symbols-further increasing their size and complexity. Within ten millennia, technological change has accelerated to the point at which major innovations andtheir effects occur within a single generation, and organization has become increasingly global. This is the legacy of the transition that took place 50,000 years ago.
One of the most striking developments associated with the transition is the more or less simultaneous dispersal of modern humans throughout most of the Old World. Only the extreme conditions of the Bering Land Bridge temporarily barred their invasion of the Americas. Although living humans are clearly derived from one or more populations of Homo sapiens that evolved in Africa during the late Middle Pleistocene, the process of their dispersal remains a controversial issue. Some paleoanthropologists perceive genetic continuity between local archaic and modern human groups in various regions, and postulate a complex process of gene flow from Africa to other areas (e.g., Wolpoff 1999). Many researchers now believe that archaic Homo groups outside Africa were effectively replaced by behaviorally modern humans (e.g., Stringer and Andrews 1988; Wilson and Cann 1992; Klein 1999).
Without question, the most impressive aspect of the dispersal of modern humans was their rapid colonization of the cold regions of northern Eurasia. Having evolved in tropical and subtropical environments, modern humans were adapted to warm climates and productive habitats. Their morphology was particularly unsuited to temperatures at latitudes above 40 degrees North during the Last Glacial. Moreover, the archaic humans who occupied these latitudes were the Neanderthals-the only true northern representatives of Homo-specially adapted to cold climates and environments poor in available plant foods (Stringer and Gamble 1993). And as modern humans dispersed northward, they were squeezed into an increasingly narrow hominid niche that probably left them little alternative to competing for the same large mammal resources.
Despite their handicaps, modern humans successfully replaced the Neanderthals within ten millennia, and even colonized new areas of northern Eurasia that their predecessors had been unable to occupy. In fact, the case for outright replacement of an archaic population-with minimal genic exchange at best-is stronger in the Neanderthal region than other parts of Eurasia (Klein 1999, 477-491). It has recently been reinforced with analyses of fossil Neanderthal DNA, which indicate wide divergence between the two lineages (Krings et al. 1997; Ovchinnikov et al. 2000).
The triumph of modern humans in northern Eurasia was undoubtedly a consequence of the behavioral transformation that accompanied the use of symbols. Modern humans quickly developed an array of novel technological solutions to the challenges of northern habitats that more than compensated for their warm-climate morphology. Their technology reflected a fundamental advance in ability to manipulate the environment (e.g., Mithen 1994). They probably also used symbols to create new forms of organization-like the networks of modern hunter-gatherer peoples- that gave them the flexibility to exploit widely dispersed resources in marginal environments (e.g., Gamble 1986; Whallon 1989).
The combined advantages of technological innovation and organizational flexibility linked to the use of symbols were perhaps critical to modern human dispersal throughout the northern and southern hemispheres. But the importance of these new forms of behavior in the dispersal process-including an almost certain contest with the existing population of archaic humans-is most clearly evident in northern Eurasia (i.e., above 40 degrees North). And within the latter, the contrast between archaic and modern humans is sharpest in the cold and dry landscapes of Eastern Europe and Siberia (Hoffecker 1999a).
In northern Eurasia, the climate gradient runs from west to east, as well as from south to north. Isolated from the moderating influence of the North Atlantic, climates become increasingly continental east of the Alps. Although mean annual temperature is not affected, winter temperatures at midlatitudes fall dramatically on the East European Plain. Low rainfall on the southern plain creates an open steppe that is unknown in Western Europe. The east-west climatic gradient was present throughout the Pleistocene, and it is significant that the cold-adapted Neanderthals-who were the first humans to settle widely across Eastern Europe-came from the west and not the south (Hublin 1998).
In the early 1930s, archaeologists working in Eastern Europe described the transition from the Neanderthals to modern humans as the "great leap" (bol'shoi skachok) (e.g., Boriskovskii 1932). Like that of archaeologists and historians in other times and places, their perspective on the past reflected the current issues of their society, which was experiencing its own wrenching transformation under Soviet authority, and one that also involved the power of symbols and technology. But the young revolutionary archaeologists of this period were inspired by the very real contrast between the paleoanthropological record of modern humans and that of their predecessors. In Eastern Europe, these contrasting records of settlement reflect the formidable challenges that northern continental environments posed to humans. This is the basis of the East European perspective on the transition to modern humans.
Human Evolutionary Ecology in Northern Environments
Principles of Evolutionary Ecology
Like other aspects of hominid evolution, the colonization of northern latitudes and transition to modern humans are best understood within the theoretical framework of evolutionary ecology (e.g., Turner 1984; Foley 1987; Gamble 1994). Evolutionary-ecology concepts are employed throughout this book to explain the paleoanthropological record of Eastern Europe, and some of them are discussed below with specific reference to archaic and modern humans.
Adaptation is the core concept of evolutionary ecology, and it is central to explaining the changes that occur in the paleoanthropological record as hominids colonized higher latitudes during the Middle and Late Pleistocene. Adaptation has been defined simply as "the condition of showing fitness for a particular environment" (Mayr 1970, 413). Although it has morphological and physiological components, as well as a behavioral component, archaeologists have often ignored all but the last of these- particularly in the context of the Late Pleistocene. However, both morphology and physiology have always played a role in hominid adaptations (e.g., Coon 1962), and the archaeological record cannot be properly explained without reference to the morphology (and inferred physiology) of the people who produced it.
Although defined in simple terms, adaptation is a very complex and dynamic phenomenon in the natural world (Pianka 1978). To begin with, organisms are adapted not to their environment as a whole, but to a small spatial/temporal piece of it. While simple life forms during the early history of the earth were primarily adapted to abiotic aspects of their environment, the growing diversity and complexity of the biotic world increasingly compelled organisms to adjust to each other, creating a vast web of interrelated adaptations. As applied ecologists know, a small change in one aspect of an environment may generate a chain reaction among many plant and animal species. Furthermore, there is much short-term and long-term instability in the abiotic component of most environments (and this instability was especially pronounced in northern latitudes during the Pleistocene [Frenzel 1968]).
In recent years, "something of an anti-adaptationist backlash" has arisen in biology and anthropology (Eldredge 1985, 141). The causes of this backlash are understandable, and lie in the wretched excess of past applications of the adaptation concept. Organisms have often been subdivided into a collection of traits, and adaptive explanations concocted for each trait. The literature abounds with such "just-so stories," which ignore the possibility that organisms reflect not only selection for adaptive characters, but other effects (e.g., drift, pleiotropy), and that selection can favor nonadaptive characters (Gould and Lewontin 1979). Adaptation should be invoked as an explanation "only where it is necessary" (i.e., when all other plausible explanations have been exhausted) (Williams 1966, 4). Nonadaptive characters are almost certainly present among both archaic and modern humans in northern Eurasia (Howell 1957; Hublin 1998; Holliday 1999).
Another central concept in evolutionary ecology is the niche, which has been defined as the "profession" of an organism-as opposed to its habitat or "address" (Odum 1975, 44). A niche may comprise an intricate fourdimensional component of the environment. In broad terms, it is useful to distinguish between the narrow niche of a "specialist" and the wide niche of a "generalist" (Pianka 1978, 253-256). The niche is closely linked with models of competition between species, and the principle of competitive exclusion (i.e., that no two species can occupy the same niche) is an important element of ecological theory (MacArthur 1972, 21-58).