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Emergence and Diversity of Modern Human Behavior in Paleolithic Asia

Emergence and Diversity of Modern Human Behavior in Paleolithic Asia

by Yousuke Kaifu

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Despite the obvious geographic importance of eastern Asia in human migration, its discussion in the context of the emergence and dispersal of modern humans has been rare. Emergence and Diversity of Modern Human Behavior in Paleolithic Asia focuses long-overdue scholarly attention on this under-studied area of the world.

Arising from a 2011 symposium sponsored


Despite the obvious geographic importance of eastern Asia in human migration, its discussion in the context of the emergence and dispersal of modern humans has been rare. Emergence and Diversity of Modern Human Behavior in Paleolithic Asia focuses long-overdue scholarly attention on this under-studied area of the world.

Arising from a 2011 symposium sponsored by the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, this book gathers the work of archaeologists from the Pacific Rim of Asia, Australia, and North America, to address the relative lack of attention given to the emergence of modern human behavior as manifested in Asia during the worldwide dispersal from Africa.

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Emergence and Diversity of Modern Human Behavior in Paleolithic Asia

By Yousuke Kaifu, Masami Izuho, Ted Goebel, Hiroyuki Sato, Akira Ono

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2015 Texas A&M University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62349-277-9


Some Key Issues in the Emergence and Diversity of "Modern" Human Behavior

Paul Mellars


The term modern human behavior (or alternatively, modernity) plays a central role in nearly all recent discussions of the origins and geographical dispersal patterns of modern human (Homo sapiens) populations. The aim of this paper is to review the different approaches to the concept and definition of "modern" human behavior as reflected in the recent archaeological and evolutionary literature. Three broadly different approaches to these questions can be identified in the recent literature: those based strictly on archaeological evidence from different regions of the world; those based on more hypothetical models of underlying shifts in the innate neurological structures and associated behavioral capacities of the evolving human brain—especially the capacities for explicitly "symbolic" thinking and the emergence of fully modern language and those derived from recent complete-genome studies of samples of "ancient" (Neanderthal) DNA, in comparison with those of present-day populations. Other relevant issues relate to the role of environmental adaptations, demographic history and the "founder effects" of progressive geographical dispersals of modern human populations in shaping the different expressions of cultural and cognitive "modernity" in different geographical regions, as well as the notion of apparent "revolutions" in human behavioral patterns at specific times and places in the past. The available archaeological evidence for the appearance of distinctively modern behavioral patterns is reviewed from the respective regions of Europe, Asia and Africa. Unsurprisingly, these appear to reflect an emergence of specific features of modern behavior in Africa that is more gradual than in other regions, in accordance with the generally accepted evolutionary origins of anatomically and genetically modern Homo sapiens populations in the African continent. Overall, the evidence appears to support the hypothesis that the documented contrasts between the behavioral and cognitive patterns of archaic (e.g., Neanderthal) and fully modern populations reflect, at least in part, a significant shift in the cognitive and neurological capacities of the progressively evolving human brain, extending over at least the past half-million years.


Debates over the meaning, definition, origins, and wider cultural and "cognitive" significance of "modern" human behavior have largely dominated the literature on modern (Homo sapiens) behavioral origins and geographical dispersal over the past 10 years. Clearly central and fundamental to these debates is the meaning, and consequent definition, of "modern" behavior. In the past two decades, this issue has been approached from a number of different archaeological and theoretical perspectives, which can be summarized broadly under three headings:

1. Approaches based purely on the archaeological evidence in the different regions of the world, in terms of their respective, and highly variable, components of allegedly "modern" behavioral features—often expressed as regional "trait lists" of the modern behaviors in question (Bar-Yosef 2002; Henshilwood and Marean 2003; Klein 2008; McBrearty 2007, McBrearty and Brooks 2000; Mellars 1973, 1989a,b, 1994) (see tables 1.1, 1.2; figures 1.1, 1.2).

2. Approaches that attempt to identify one or more hypothetically critical, general features of modern behavior. In the recent literature these have tended to focus on two principal elements: either on seemingly explicit evidence for "symbolic" behavior or expression in the archaeological records (e.g., Chase and Dibble 1987; Donald 1991; Henshilwood and Marean 2003) or, alternatively, on inferences derived from a variety of sources on the presence or absence of fully "modern," syntactically structured language—that is, language that exhibits all of the distinctively "syntactical" or grammatical structures that ultimately underlie all of the different forms of language documented among all present-day societies worldwide (Bickerton 1990, 2007; Chomsky 1986; Gibson and Ingold 1993; Jablonski and Aiello 1998; Mellars 1998; Mithen 1996a, 2007; Noble and Davidson 1996; Pinker 1994). Most, if not all, of these authors infer that these cognitive changes reflect significant shifts in the mental capacities and neurological structure of the evolving human brain.

3. Inferences derived from recent "complete genome" analyses of ancient DNA samples extracted from Neanderthal skeletal remains, which appear to reflect genetic mutations in areas that are known in present-day populations to be involved in a number of significant cognitive functions of the brain (Green et al, 2010; Prüfer et al. 2014).

These different approaches to the definition of behavioral, cultural and cognitive "modernity" are outlined and discussed in the following sections.

Archaeological Perspectives

Ultimately, any concrete and empirical evidence for the emergence of fully "modern" behavior and associated cognition must derive from the "hard" evidence of human cultural and behavioral patterns—evidence that only archaeology can provide. Viewed from this perspective, I would propose a fairly simple and pragmatic "working definition" of distinctively modern behavioral patterns in the following terms:

Behavioral and archaeological features that are observed in most—though not necessarily all—anatomically and biologically modern (Homo sapiens) hunter–gatherer populations, but that are not reliably documented in the archaeological records of preceding "archaic" (e.g., Neanderthal or earlier) populations, except in situations of demonstrably direct or indirect contacts and interactions with intrusive biologically modern populations.

The qualifications inherent in this pragmatic, "working definition" of distinctively modern features are, I hope, self-evident. The reference to modern "hunter–gatherer" societies is both appropriate and essential, since all recent discussions of the emergence of "modernity" in recent human evolution have been related specifically to societies long preceding the emergence of agricultural, let alone metal-using, communities, and at least in these terms can be directly compared in an overall cultural and behavioral sense. The caveat that not all behaviorally and cognitively modern societies need exhibit all of the features frequently included in published "trait lists" of modern behavioral features seems equally self-evident. As discussed further below, there are several reasons why specific features of typically modern behavior may be lacking from particular hunter–gatherer societies, in both the past and the present. These may be the result of certain combinations of environmental conditions that make certain aspects of modern behavior effectively impossible (or at least "maladaptive" in evolutionary terms) in specific environmental and demographic situations. Equally, if not more, significant is that they may arise from a variety of environmental, social, or demographic factors that can lead to the loss of specific behavioral features, either as a result of demographic isolation, the difficulties of maintaining certain cultural innovations under conditions of low population densities, or simple statistical and stochastic processes of "cultural drift" (Boyd and Richerson 2005; Henrich 2004; Jones 1978; Mellars et al. 2013; Shennan 2001, 2002). In other contexts, the impact of "founder effects" on the cultural repertoires of relatively small, progressively dispersing human groups can lead to a similar loss of specific behavioral features, as discussed further below (Henrich 2004; Jones 1978; Shennan 2002). These features are most graphically illustrated by the case of the Tasmanian aboriginal populations. The isolation of these island communities from populations on the adjacent Australian mainland, as a result of rapidly rising sea levels during the Holocene period, was demonstrably followed by the loss of a whole range of distinctively "modern" features, such as the construction of watercraft, the cessation of fishing activities, and the reversion to simpler forms of stone and bone technology (Henrich 2004; Jones 1978; Langley et al. 2011; Mulvaney and Kamminga 1999; O'Connell and Allen 2012). Clearly, the recent Tasmanian populations were in no sense cognitively "inferior" to their immediate ancestors on the Australian mainland, and the absence of more "advanced" cultural and technological features in these populations can be explained only by the combination of environmental, social, and demographic mechanisms referred to above.

"Trait Lists" of Modern Human Behavior in Europe and Asia

In much of the recent literature, I have been either credited or criticized for attempting to identify distinctively "modern" behavior in the archaeological evidence (McBrearty 2007, McBrearty and Brooks 2000, Henshilwood and Marean 2003, Shea 2011). This is usually traced back to a chapter I published in 1973 (based on a conference on "The Explanation of Culture Change" held in 1971—now over 40 years ago!) entitled "The Character of the Middle–Upper Paleolithic Transition in Southwestern France. I focused explicitly—and exclusively—on the exceptionally rich and well-documented archaeological evidence from the classic Périgord region of southwestern France (Mellars 1973). In this I analyzed in detail, essentially for the first time, the contrasts in the documented archaeological records of the Upper versus Middle Paleolithic periods, which demonstrably correlate closely in this region with the replacement of anatomically "archaic" Neanderthal by fully modern Homo sapiens (locally termed "Cro-Magnon") populations. As emphasized above, this was viewed from the outset as a strictly pragmatic and empirical analysis of the available archaeological evidence from that particular region, and, as I have repeatedly stressed "was never intended as more than an empirical contrast between the archaeological records of the Upper versus Middle Paleolithic periods in one small region of Europe ... and never intended or presented as any kind of global characterization of "modern" behavioral patterns across Europe as a whole, let alone on a more continental scale" (Mellars 2005a, 24; 2007, 3).

The archaeological features I identified in my 1973 paper as marking the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic (and associated Neanderthal-to-modern) transition within this specific region in southwestern France are summarized in Table 1.1, supplemented by a number of essentially new archaeological contrasts that have emerged from research over the past four decades. It is this particular range of archaeological features that has frequently been referred to in the recent literature as the "trait list" (or, more flippantly, "shopping list") approach to the identification and definition of distinctively modern behavioral features in the archaeological records of particular regions (though never itemized as a "trait list" in my own paper) (Henshilwood and Marean 2003; McBrearty 2007; McBrearty and Brooks 2000; Shea 2011). It has frequently been given a vastly broader geographical significance than I ever intended—or visualized—in my original 1973 paper. The central and critical point to be reemphasized is that in this particular region of extreme western Europe, and for that matter throughout effectively the whole of Europe and the closely adjacent regions of western Asia (Bar-Yosef 2000; Hublin 2000, 2007; Klein 2009; Stringer 2012), all of these archaeological reflections of "modernity" were viewed from the outset as a reflection of the demographic replacement of the local archaic (i.e., Neanderthal) populations by entirely new and intrusive populations of distinctively anatomically and genetically modern humans. The origins of these modern humans lay clearly outside the bounds of Eurasia and (as the DNA evidence subsequently confirmed) within some region of sub-Saharan Africa (Forster 2004; Hublin 2000, 2007; Stringer 2002, 2012). In other words, it was emphatically never seen as a process of local, in situ evolutionary development from the preceding archaic Neanderthal populations, and in this sense it was not a strictly indigenous "evolutionary" process in any meaningful sense of the word (Mellars 1989a, 1996a,b, 2007). These issues are, of course, entirely independent of all of the long-running and sometimes heated debates over the extent of any subsequent—and demographically inevitable—social interactions and cultural exchanges (i.e., "acculturation") between the indigenous Neanderthal and incoming, African-derived "modern" populations, who we now know were expanding progressively from east to west across Europe between at least 45,000 and 40,000 years ago (in calibrated radiocarbon terms) (Conard 2006; d'Errico et al. 1998; Mellars 1989a, 2005a,b, 2006c; Tostevin 2007). How far this was associated with significant and fertile interbreeding between the two populations remains a matter of continuing debate (Green et al. 2010; Prüfer et al. 2014; Stringer 2012; Zilhao 2001) (see below).

The other important point to emphasize is that in the course of the period of 5000 years or more of progressive demographic expansion across Europe, the dispersing modern human populations would have been forced to cope with a range of sharply contrasting (and chronologically rapidly oscillating) climatic and associated environmental conditions (Van Andel and Davies 2003). This would inevitably have required new economic and related social adaptations and associated innovations (or "inventions") in their repertoire of sociocultural behavioral patterns, as reflected in the local archaeological records of the different regions of Europe (Gamble 1999; Henshilwood and Marean 2003; Mellars 1996a, 2005a). A further source of "pressures" for new cultural and social adaptations and innovations would almost certainly have arisen from the progressive increase in overall population numbers and densities within the individual regions, leading to increased levels of social interaction and potential competition both within and between the geographically expanding modern human populations within the different regions (Mellars 1996a; Mellars and French 2011, 2013). This would inevitably have given rise to new and varying patterns of technological, economic and social reflections of these adaptations in the local archaeological records (Conard and Bolus 2003; Gamble 1999; Henshilwood and Marean 2003; Mellars 2006c; Nigst 2006, 2012), not to mention the effects of any local—and demographically inevitable—interactions with the native Neanderthal populations in the different regions of the continent, as noted above.

A largely predictable outcome of this demographic scenario is that one might well expect certain aspects of the cultural and associated archaeological records to have become more complex and diversified in the course of the east-to-west expansion across Europe. One might also expect the cumulative effects of these socioeconomic adaptation processes to be reflected most strikingly in the extreme western regions of Europe, and perhaps especially in the economically and environmentally exceptionally rich and densely populated area of southwestern France and the adjacent Franco-Cantabrian region, which are adjacent to the rich Atlantic coastline (the reasons for which have been discussed in detail elsewhere [Mellars 1985, 2009]). As these papers discussed, it is perhaps not surprising that nearly all of the most impressive reflections of early Upper Paleolithic cave art are found within this particular region of western Europe. The similarly rich environments of parts of west-Central Europe adjacent to the Danube Valley (and especially in the Swabian Alps region of southern Germany) reflect an equally impressive explosion of early Upper Paleolithic (Aurignacian) mobiliary art forms (principally animal and human figurines laboriously carved from mammoth ivory [Conard 2006; Conard and Bolus 2003]). These features are at present conspicuously lacking from the contemporaneous archaeological records of western France and Cantabria, but in Central Europe without any expression of the breath-taking cave-art "sanctuaries" of the Franco-Cantabrian region.

The Archaeological Records in Asia

In the case of southern and southeastern Asia, the archaeological records of the dispersal of the earliest modern human populations progressively eastward from their inferred eastern African homeland appear to reveal a significantly different pattern from those in Europe and adjacent areas of the Middle East (Mellars 2006b; Mellars et al. 2013; Rabett 2012). There is now fairly widespread agreement that the eastward expansion of the earliest modern human populations followed a primarily coastal route (Field and Lahr 2005; Forster and Matsumura 2005; Macaulay et al. 2005; Mellars 2006b; Mellars et al. 2013; Stringer 2000, 2012). This allowed them to maintain a broadly similar range of coastal environments and their associated range of exceptionally rich, varied, and economically "reliable" food resources, across most, if not all, of the 7000 km or so of coastlines from eastern Africa, via western and southern Asia, and ultimately into the combined "Sahul" landmass of Australia and New Guinea. Crudely described as a pattern of repeated "beach-hopping" from one coastal location to another, this expansion was almost certainly facilitated by the use of boats or other forms of water travel (Bailey et al. 2007; Bulbeck 2007; Field and Lahr 2005; Mellars et al. 2013; Mulvaney and Kamminga 1999; O'Connell and Allen 2012). If this model (the "coastal express route" to Australia [Forster and Matsumura 2005]) is correct, then one might well expect to find significantly different patterns of cultural development from those reflected in the predominantly land-based, terrestrial patterns of modern human colonization (largely focused on the "Danubian corridor": [Conard and Bolus 2003; Mellars 2006c; Nigst 2006, 2012]) across the highly variable terrestrial environments of eastern, central, and western Europe, as discussed above (Mellars 2006c). According to this model, the predominant factor controlling the repertoire of human cultural expressions along the "southern" dispersal route would be much more likely to reflect the impact of successive "founder effects,"—as the relatively small dispersing populations shifted successively from one coastal habitat to another—combined with the effects of variable supplies of stone and other raw materials (e.g., bamboo) in the different regions (Boyd and Richerson 2005; Henrich 2004; Mellars 2006b; Mellars et al. 2013; Rabett 2012; Shennan 2002). This pattern has already been clearly documented in the progressive loss of overall genetic and cranial diversity, as the eastward-dispersing groups expanded along the successive regions between Africa and Australia (Manica et al. 2007; Prugnolle et al. 2005). Expressed in cultural terms, this would likely be reflected in a corresponding loss of specific cultural features from west to east, along this hypothetical coastal dispersal route (Henrich 2004; Shennan 2002).


Excerpted from Emergence and Diversity of Modern Human Behavior in Paleolithic Asia by Yousuke Kaifu, Masami Izuho, Ted Goebel, Hiroyuki Sato, Akira Ono. Copyright © 2015 Texas A&M University Press. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
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Meet the Author

YOUSUKE KAIFU is the head of the Division of Human Evolution of the Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, Japan, and is also affiliated with the department of biological sciences at the University of Tokyo. MASAMI IZUHO is an associate professor of archaeology at Tokyo Metropolitan University. TED GOEBEL is professor of anthropology and assistant director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans in the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M University. HIROYUKI SATO is a professor in the Department of Archaeology of the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology at the University of Tokyo. AKIRA ONO is a professor of prehistoric archaeology, director of the Center for Obsidian and Lithic Studies, Meiji University, and emeritus professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University.

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