The Revolution That Wasn’t: A New Interpretation of the Origin of Modern Human Behavior – Mcbrearty & Brooks, 1999

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on the PBS documentary series opener of The Human Spark – Becoming Us, the majority of which struck me as being out of date and out of touch, with far too much emphasis being placed on looking for specious differences between anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals co-habiting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.

See also: Center For the Study of Human Origins, New York University


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

8 thoughts on “The Revolution That Wasn’t: A New Interpretation of the Origin of Modern Human Behavior – Mcbrearty & Brooks, 1999

  1. “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”.

    What? So we don’t all descend from just a single unbelievably small group comprising entirely Y-hap A and mtDNA L1? That’s going to horrify a few people I’ve been corresponding with. Especially one of them.

  2. In any case, research such as this needs much greater recognition, as it relates a far more interesting story about perceived aspects of modernity than many would have us believe.

  3. The McBrearty and Brooks article is a great one. For a more recent contribution and comprehensive perspective of the African origins of modern human behavior, I would also recommend the archaeological text by Barham and Mitchell (2008), The First Africans: African Archaeology from the Earliest Toolmakers to the most recent Foragers. It still surprises me how many major institutions teach only Klein’s Human Revolution scenario as the basis for the origin of modern human behavior–as originating in Europe during the Middle Palelithic–despite all the evidence otherwise. Tim is right, it may be time to re-evaluate what exactly defines modernity and modern human behavior

  4. Ana – thanks for the book recommendation, which I might well check out – as you say, it’s pretty recent too, so it’s probably well worth the read, at least judging by the ‘Look Inside’ feature at Amazon.

    I’ve just caught a glimpse of Klein appearing in another documentary, espousing exactly what you describe – very curious indeed, in this day and age.

  5. Terryt Tim, and all:

    We may get our “morph” and our genome from some relatively small group of Africans who lived approximately 200,000 years ago. However, the “human revolution” that some people favor, was more likely a cultural one, and that being the probable case, may, as Bednarik and others suggest, have originated much earlier, perhaps was even “invented” at different places and times, with different people, just as agriculture was discovered in several distinct locations and spread. And what we now call “behavioral modernity” may well go back much farther, even, than the African finds suggest.

    Anne G

  6. “the ‘human revolution’ that some people favor, was more likely a cultural one”

    I’ve consistently tried to point out to many different people that technological and cultural change doesn’t necessarily correlate with genetic change. Or the other way round. And this is demonstrated as far back as the Acheulean and eastern Homo erectus.

    The assumption many people make is that the change to modern human is closely associated with a marked technological, cultural or genetic change. This article shows that the assumption is false.

    I’ve shown elsewhere that the transition from archaic to modern in Central Asia does not coincide with any technolgical or cultural change. Neither, really, does the transition in India.

    The reason we find no Neanderthal Y-chromosomes in modern humans is the same as why we don’t find pre-Gravettian (if even as old as that) modern human Y-chromosomes. They’ve been drifted out. The same applies to the mtDNA. The mtDNA lines H and U may go back to the Gravettian, or even the Aurignacian, but they may not. As various technologies and cultures have expanded over time various male and female haplogroups have become replaced in regional populations.

  7. Terryt:

    Your last two paragraphs make especially good sense if, as I believe, we are talking about relatively small populations here. There just weren’t very many of anybody even in Gravettian times, let alone Aurignacian ones, or earlier.
    Anne G

  8. Anne and Terry – the idea that population numbers in Europe were very low early in the UP and later, is possibly given added weight by the fact that Neanderthals and AMH co-existed for nigh on 20,000 years, something that would have been impossible if there really had been prolonged and intense competition for land and resources between the two groups, one of which was supposedly technologically/culturally far superior to the other, as is often portrayed.

    I can’t recall the details off-hand, but I’m sure I read recently of a sudden and unexplained UP population expansion sometime around the Solutrean or Magdalenian? not sure of the exact dating – but the impression I have is that this happened post-Neanderthal era, not during.

    Regarding Neanderthal culture, I just listened to a podcast interview with Brian Hayden, namely ‘Prehistoric Religion’ at:

    About 40 mins in there’s a great description of Hayden’s visit to Bruniquel Cave and the Neanderthal presence there – ( they’ve kindly linked to a post of mine at remote central on the same cave) – really worth a listen, and I’ll try and add a lengthier description in a later post here.

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