Monday, June 9, 2014

Using Ethnography to Reconstruct the Culture of Early Modern Humans

Roger Blench
December, 2007
(Link)
 
Abstract

It is now widely accepted that modern humans evolved in Africa and that they spread out of Africa around 100,000 years ago. Moreover, they displaced hominids who then populated the Old World so effectively that by ca. 30,000 BP these had been eliminated. The balance of opinion is that there was no genetic interchange between modern Sapiens populations and the resident Homo erectus. It is widely, though less formally, accepted that the reason for this dominance is cultural, that the incomers had the technology, the social organisation and religious belief systems that enabled them to out-think the hominids. It has been proposed, for example, that modern humans had language which enabled them to organise in novel ways. Many of these assumptions are unprovable by standard archaeological methods. In recent years, finds from Southern and Eastern Africa have begun to underpin notions about the elaboration of the culture of modern humans. We have, for example, harpoon points, bone needles, and more strikingly, intentionally incised bone and rock at Blombos cave, striking evidence of ‘behavioural modernity’. In other words, our estimates of the complexity of the culture of modern humans is constantly increasing. Nonetheless, there is much about the culture of early modern humans that can never be constructed from the archaeological record. Many materials rarely preserve and particular aspects of social and cultural life cannot be reconstructed with confidence. However, this paper will propose a wholly different method of attributing elements of culture to modern humans, using ethnographic reconstruction based on the world-wide distributions of material and social culture. By re-interpreting the evidence for the distribution of culture traits we can develop hypotheses concerning the non-archaeological culture of early modern humans before and after the dispersal out of Africa. The paper discusses the nature of evidence, the pattern of cultural bottlenecks and also some possible candidates for worldwide cultural traits.

Introduction

It is now widely accepted that modern humans evolved in Africa (Horai et. al, 1995; Thomson 2000; Yue Hai Ke et. al. 2001) and that they spread out of Africa prior to 100,000 years ago (Stringer and Gamble 1993). Moreover, they displaced the existing hominids who populated the Old World so effectively that by ca. 30,000 BP these had been eliminated (Trinkaus 1983; Stringer and Gamble 1993). The balance of opinion is that there was no genetic interchange between modern Sapiens populations and the resident Homo erectus.

The exact dates and routes by which modern humans spread remain controversial, but early dates for Australia indicate that modern humans reached there between 60-50,000 BP (Connell and Allen 1998). Since Quintana-Murci et al. (1999) it is now fairly widely accepted that there were two routes out of Africa, through the Sinai peninsula and across the Bab el Mandeb, from the Horn of Africa to Yemen(Stringer 2000). When this second route opened is debated, but presumably prior to 70,000 BP, to give enough time for coastal migrants to reach Australia, where first settlement is now dated to 55-50,000 BP.

The New World remains controversial and for many years it was difficult to get the academic establishment to accept dates earlier than the ‘Clovis Horizon’ which was little more than 13,000 BP. This is now changing and many scholars accept dates of at least 20,000 BP. Given the dates for modern humans in Siberia, there seems to be no reason in principle why such early dates are not acceptable. It is true, however, that there is a distinct absence of Pleistocene sites in the New World compared with insular SE Asia, in which case the initial colonisers were few and scattered. A similar curious lacuna is the absence of modern humans in Europe for so long after they apparently left the Middle East. Whatever the details, it seems that a general pattern of spread and dominance over hominids emerges.

It is widely, though less formally, accepted that the reason for this dominance is cultural, the social organisation and religious belief systems that enabled them to out-think the hominids. It has been proposed, for example, that modern humans had syntactic language which enabled them to organise in ways that were unavailable to hominids. Anatomical studies of the Neanderthal voice-box show that in principle they could have spoken, though perhaps more slowly than modern humans (Stringer and Gamble 1993). There is evidence, for example, that modern humans ranged much more widely than Neanderthals in search of materials for tools and that they lived in larger groups (Stringer and Gamble 1993). Also, it seems that Neanderthals did not have throwing spears, in contrast to modern humans. Nonetheless, appreciation of the cultural potential of hominids is growing and references for cannibalism, cranial deformation and pigment use are all cited in this paper as possibly cultural behaviour that preceded the expansion of modern humans.

Many of these assumptions are unprovable by standard archaeological methods. In recent years, finds from Southern and Eastern Africa have begun to underpin notions about the elaboration of the culture of modern humans. We have, for example, harpoon points from 75 ka from Semliki (DRC), bone needles and projectile points from the MSA (ca. 70 ka) at Blombos (Henshilwood et al. 2001), and more strikingly, intentionally incised bone and rock (d’Errico et al. 2001) striking evidence of ‘behavioural modernity’. In other words, our estimates of the complexity of the culture of modern humans is constantly increasing. Nonetheless, there is much about the culture of early modern humans that can never be construed from the archaeological record. Many materials rarely preserve and particular aspects of social and cultural life cannot be reconstructed with confidence. However, this paper will propose a wholly different method of attributing elements of culture to modern humans, using ethnographic reconstruction based on the worldwide distributions of material and social culture. In some ways, this is a reprise of the Kulturkreislehre methods of the nineteenth and twentieth century German and Swedish ethnologists, and much of what follows re-interprets their observations, although they would no doubt have been very surprised at the use to which they are now put.

Ethnologists such as Ankermann, Sachs and Lagercrantz expended much time in categorising cultural traits into layers, which were essentially complexes of traits that were supposedly found together. Thus there was supposedly an ‘Indonesian’ layer whose influence could be detected in Africa. An Eurasian ‘Steppehunting’ layer that was responsible for much to the culture of North Eurasia and North America. similarly a supposed Oceanic complex which may or may not have influenced South American culture (e.g. Nordenskiöld 1919-1931; Sachs 1928; Lagercrantz 1950). These debates now seem largely pointless because they were not founded on a significant awareness of either the processes or chronology of human settlement. This is not to say that these issues are fully resolved; but rather that the distributional data these scholars so assiduously compiled can now be placed within a wholly new interpretative framework.
 
 
 

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