Behavioral Modernity

While discussing the Upper Paleolithic during lecture on Thursday (March 5th), we talked for a bit about the topic of behavioral modernity in the Upper Paleolithic and its reference to the cultural and behavioral traits that distinguish our ancient ancestors from modern humans today. As mentioned, the major breakdown of behavioral modernity (in brief) includes religious belief/behavior, artistic expression, and long-distance trade.

The four main areas of human existence that saw change and growth during this time were:

  1. Ecology– through an expansion in geographic range and resource exploitation
  2. Technology– bone tools, projectile points, stone tools, special purpose tools, etc.
  3. Social and Economic Organization– through specialized hunting strategies, group/organized hunting, structured settlements, the increased use of complex language, expansion of exchange/trade networks, care for the elderly, systematic burials of the dead, etc.
  4. Symbolic Behavior– through the use of red ochre (as dye), personal ornaments, abstract symbols and artistic expression, etc.

Eager to learn more, I did a bit of research on the topic and discovered that there have been two major proposed theories for the emergence of modern behavior. The first theory, known as the ‘Great Leap Forward’ or ‘Upper Paleolithic Revolution’, states that behavioral modernity was initiated as a sudden event ca. 50 KA, and is believed to have occurred as a result of a major genetic mutation or biological reorganization in the brain (which would have promoted the creation of language). The opposing theory disagrees with this single technological and/or cognitive revolution, but instead argues for this emergence of modern behavior to have been a result of gradual accumulation of knowledge, skills, and culture over the course of hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution.

Pardon me if I seem to go on a tangent, but bear with me- now, based on what I’ve learned during my brief time with archaeological courses, in addition to the many years of evolutionary studies that I’ve completed, the first proposed theory (the ‘Great Leap Forward’) simply does not seem reasonable to me. When we dissect all the elements that compose behavior and cultural universals, we find language, art, song and dance, cooking, myths and folklore, religion, and games and jokes, among so many other things. Further, we need to consider the time that it takes to invent and adopt to behaviors and change. When we consider the great strides taken to establish the complexities in behavior during this time period, it seems unlikely that the proposed ‘genetic mutation’ or ‘biological reorganization in the brain’ would have all occurred as a singular occurrence. Great things take time in the geological record of life on Earth. Realistically, I believe that the emergence of modern behavior would have occurred slowly, through small changes over a long period of time, as is described in the second theory.


Websites for further research:

One thought on “Behavioral Modernity

  1. I find the point you raise to be a very interesting one. It seemed odd to me that the general accepted idea was that around 50 KA humans suddenly adopted the behavior that gave way to modern humans. With the name “Upper Paleolithic Revolution” it does make it seem like it was a spontaneous event that leapt humans from a primitive state to that of the behavioral modernity. As you mentioned, the “Great Leap Forward” fails to account for how the behaviors needed to grow and develop within the human society. Sure, these traits could have all developed and appeared during this time together, but it is highly unlikely that this happened. It does not make sense that all of the cultural traits we see today in modern humans simultaneously emerged giving birth to modern humans. It seems more likely that these traits had begun long before and were honed and refined until the point that it was easier to see them in the archaeological record. I agree that the random genetic mutation and brain reorganization ideas do seem a far-fetched way to explain these changes. Instead, I think it makes more sense that all of the traits of modern humans either already present or being refined at this point. What we call the “Upper Paleolithic Revolution” could have sprung from the integration of multiple practices from different groups of humans instead of the simultaneous emergence of all the traits during this time period. This would make more sense as the traits of modern humans that were observed were quite complex and must have been present and used for quite some time before becoming as complex as seen approximately 50 KA.

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