A study led by researchers at the University of Nagoya Museum in Japan is challenging long-held beliefs about when and how cultural transitions occurred for Homo sapiens as they dispersed across Eurasia between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago.

The findings, published in Nature Communications, suggest that the idea of a singular “revolution” that allowed anatomically modern humans to outcompete Neanderthals and other archaic humans was a more nuanced and complicated process of cultural evolution.

The team focused on the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition, a key boundary between two important phases in human evolution. In the Middle Paleolithic (250,000 to 40,000 years ago), anatomically modern humans, Neanderthals, and archaic humans co-existed. Culturally, modern humans and Neanderthals had similar stone tool-making technologies, such as Levallois flaking which involved striking stones with hammerstones to shape flaked tools.

The Upper Paleolithic (50,000 to 12,000 years ago) saw the geographical expansion of anatomically modern humans and the extinction of archaic humans. New cultural elements emerged in various domains like tool-making, subsistence strategies, seafaring, and artistic expression through ornamentation and cave art.

Traditionally, researchers saw the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition as an abrupt change marked by revolutionary new cultural elements like enhanced cognitive abilities in Homo sapiens that ultimately allowed them to outcompete Neanderthals.

However, the researchers examined tool stone productivity across six cultural phases spanning 50,000 years, from the Late Middle Paleolithic through the Epipaleolithic. They discovered the greatest increases in innovative productivity did not occur before or at the beginning of the initial Homo sapiens dispersals across Eurasia. Instead, it coincided with the development of blade tool technologies in the Early Upper Paleolithic, after initial expansions.

According to lead researcher Seiji Kadowaki, this suggests the cultural transition was a more complex evolutionary process involving multiple changes over an extended period, rather than a single revolution.

In terms of cutting-edge productivity, Homo sapiens did not spread across Eurasia following a swift stone tool technology revolution, but innovation occurred later alongside the miniaturization of lithic blades. The results demonstrate cultural change through multiple stages rather than a singular revolutionary shift.


Sources

Nagoya University | Kadowaki, S., Wakano, J.Y., Tamura, T. et al. Delayed increase in stone tool cutting-edge productivity at the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition in southern Jordan. Nat Commun 15, 610 (2024). doi.org/10.1038/s41467-024-44798-y


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