That human evolution follows a progressive trajectory is one of the most deeply-entrenched assumptions about our species. This assumption is often expressed in popular media by showing cavemen speaking in grunts and monosyllables (the GEICO Cavemen being a notable exception). But is this assumption correct? Were the earliest humans significantly different from us?
In a paper published in the latest issue of Current Anthropology, archaeologist John Shea (Stony Brook University) shows they were not.
The problem, Shea argues, is that archaeologists have been focusing on the wrong measurement of early human behavior. Archaeologists have been searching for evidence of "behavioral modernity", a quality supposedly unique to Homo sapiens, when they ought to have been investigating "behavioral variability," a quantitative dimension to the behavior of all living things.
Human origins research began in Europe, and the European Upper Paleolithic archaeological record has long been the standard against which the behavior of earlier and non-European humans is compared. During the Upper Paleolithic (45,000-12,000 years ago), Homo sapiens fossils first appear in Europe together with complex stone tool technology, carved bone tools, complex projectile weapons, advanced techniques for using fire, cave art, beads and other personal adornments. Similar behaviors are either universal or very nearly so among recent humans, and thus, archaeologists cite evidence for these behaviors as proof of human behavioral modernity.
Yet, the oldest Homo sapiens fossils occur between 100,000-200,000 years ago in Africa and southern Asia and in contexts lacking clear and consistent evidence for such behavioral modernity. For decades anthropologists contrasted these earlier "archaic" African and Asian humans with their "behaviorally-modern" Upper Paleolithic counterparts, explaining the differences between them in terms of a single "Human Revolut
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