I’ve recently commented on the PBS documentary series opener of The Human Spark – Becoming Us, the majority of which struck me as being out of date and out of touch, with far too much emphasis being placed on looking for specious differences between anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals co-habiting in Late Middle – Early Upper Palaeolithic Europe, as Alan Alda and his chosen guests set out to reinforce most of the worn-out, stereotypical views that pitted the supposedly ingenious AMH against their allegedly half-witted Neanderthal cousins.
However, even in the worst documentaries there’s usually the odd gem secreted within, and Becoming Us proved no exception, as in Chapter 4, the focus turned from Europe to Africa, where we met up with Professor Alison Brooks (see also) and her team of researchers at three sites – one of which was Olorgesailie, located near Lake Magadi in the Eastern Rift Valley of Kenya. Over many years of excavations, they have uncovered strong evidence to suggest that much of what is credited to AMH behavioural modernity in UP Europe, actually began tens if not hundreds of thousands of years earlier in Africa – as noted amongst others by Bednarik, whose prodigious output over the years has suggested exactly the same sorts of ideas. I for one had somehow completely missed out on, forgotten about, or just overlooked this particular story, so a big hat-tip to the documentary for this alone. Although I think it would have been better had this section of the film been placed much nearer the beginning, the fact it was included at all came as a welcome relief to what had gone before.
To watch this excerpt, click the link and move the video-player slider to around the 11-minutes-remaining mark.
Next up, here’s the abstract of a paper which Brooks co-authored in 1999 with Sally Mcbrearty – for full access you can opt for the $53 plus tax version (53 bucks and more – for a paper – seriously?), the $19.95 version here, or if money’s not your thing, there’s a free (PDF) reproduction right here.
Proponents of the model known as the “human revolution” claim that modern human behaviors arose suddenly, and nearly simultaneously, throughout the Old World ca. 40–50 ka. This fundamental behavioral shift is purported to signal a cognitive advance, a possible reorganization of the brain, and the origin of language. Because the earliest modern human fossils, Homo sapiens sensu stricto, are found in Africa and the adjacent region of the Levant at >100 ka, the “human revolution” model creates a time lag between the appearance of anatomical modernity and perceived behavioral modernity, and creates the impression that the earliest modern Africans were behaviorally primitive.
This view of events stems from a profound Eurocentric bias and a failure to appreciate the depth and breadth of the African archaeological record. In fact, many of the components of the “human revolution” claimed to appear at 40–50 ka are found in the African Middle Stone Age tens of thousands of years earlier. 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 behaviors in Africa, and its later export to other regions of the Old World. The African Middle and early Late Pleistocene hominid fossil record is fairly continuous and in it can be recognized a number of probably distinct species that provide plausible ancestors for H. sapiens.
The appearance of Middle Stone Age technology and the first signs of modern behavior coincide with the appearance of fossils that have been attributed to H. helmei, suggesting the behavior of H. helmei is distinct from that of earlier hominid species and quite similar to that of modern people. If on anatomical and behavioral grounds H. helmei is sunk into H. sapiens, the origin of our species is linked with the appearance of Middle Stone Age technology at 250–300 ka.
This is a pretty long paper, with much of the data presented in tables that you need to tilt your head sideways to read at a right angle, (unless you print it out), and for the time being I’ll refrain from commenting further till I’ve had time to read it properly through – I don’t know for how long the free PDF version will remain online, so my advice would be to grab it now. Suffice it to say though, it’s packed with information, and there’s a very well written and thoughtful conclusion that at one point goes so far as to exhort Africanist researchers to consider that these early innovative behaviours dating back over 200,000 years may themselves have directly prompted morphological changes to early humans as they evolved into what we refer to as anatomically modern.
The Revolution that Wasn’t: A New Interpretation of the Origin of Modern Human Behavior – by Sally Mcbrearty and Alison S. Brooks, Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 39, Number 5, November 2000 , pp. 453-563(111) doi:10.1006/jhev.2000.0435