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Cro-Magnons

Early Modern Humans in Europe
Upper Paleolithic Art Revolution

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Reconstruction of the face and body of a Cro-Magnon hunter-gatherer
Reconstruction of a painted Cro-Magnon hunter-gatherer, the first species of modern human to arrive in Europe. Image by Matteo De Stefano/MUSE. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Who are Cro-Magnons?

Cro-Magnons were the first species of Homo sapiens to settle in Europe.

Modern humans originated in East Africa about 200,000 years ago. They began migrating out of Africa shortly afterwards (albeit in small numbers), gathering initially in the Middle East and western Asia.

From here, some migrated further afield - to East Asia, south-east Asia, or Europe. Those who settled in Europe are now known as Cro-Magnons.

Black drawing of weasel, by Cro-Magnon artist, Reseau René Clastres, Niaux
Sublime charcoal drawing of a weasel, at Niaux Cave by an unknown Cro-Magnon artist. It was executed in 10 exact strokes of a charcoal stub. In contrast, Neanderthals had lived in Europe for 250,000 years before the arrival of Cro-Magnons, without creating a single animal figure. Image by Christelle Molinié. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Why are They Famous?

Because they introduced the Upper Paleolithic Revolution, a renaissance of art, culture and tool-making (aided perhaps by the development of language), which revolutionized many aspects of Stone Age culture, in Europe and elsewhere.

Stone Age Terminology

Cro-Magnons used to be called 'Early European modern humans' (EEMH). Today, they are more commonly referred to as 'anatomically modern humans' (AMH), even though they demonstrated significant behavioural modernity.

When Did Cro-Magnons Arrive in Europe?

Cro-Magnon hunter-gatherers first arrived in Europe no later than 54,000 BC. That's according to archaeogenetics analysis of DNA obtained from a child's tooth, as well as artifacts (Neronian-style tools), recovered from Mandrin Cave in southern France.

[Note: Prior to traces found at Mandrin Cave, the earliest sign of modern humans in Europe was found at Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria.]

However, the earliest evidence of their presence was unearthed in 1860, at Aurignac Cave in the French Pyrenees. As a result, this cave gave its name to the Cro-Magnon's first tool culture, the Aurignacian (40,000-30,000 BC).

See also: World's Oldest art (from 540,000 BC).

Did Cro-Magnons Interact with Neanderthals?

Yes. DNA evidence shows they interbred with indigenous Neanderthals both in Europe and in Western Asia.

However, for reasons that remain unclear, Neanderthals became extinct by 37,000 BC.

It seems likely that they were unable to maintain themselves in the face of rising numbers of Cro-Magnon migrants. Weakened by a declining population, low birth rates and inter-breeding, they must have slowly faded away.

What Happened to Cro-Magnons?

We don't know, exactly. No other prehistoric species, or sub-species of humans appeared on the scene - either in Europe or elsewhere - so they must have been absorbed into the European populations that followed.

Digging Up Hominins

For a short guide to how archaeologists find out about the human past, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient.

Dating Art & Artifacts

For a simple explanation of all major relative and absolute dating techniques, please see: Dating Methods in Archaeology.

Discovery

Cro-Magnons are named after the Cro-Magnon rock shelter, the French rock shelter near the village of Les Eyzies in the Dordogne, where the first fossils were discovered.

The cave was excavated in 1868 by the French paleontologist Édouard Lartet (1801-71), who unearthed the partial skeletons of four prehistoric adults and one child, along with numerous artifacts and animal bones.

Dated to about 26,000 BC, the skeletons had the characteristic high forehead, upright posture and slender (gracile) skeleton of all early modern humans - quite different to the stockier build of H. neanderthalensis.

As a result, Lartet identified them as a more modern species than Neanderthal Man, whose own remains had first come to light twelve years earlier, in the Neander valley in Germany.

Two years later, archaeologists discovered a huge find of bones and stone tools at the Rock of Solutré, a Cro-Magnon hunting centre in Burgundy - later adopted as the type-site of the Solutrean.

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Physique

In general, African modern humans were taller and more slender than Neanderthals, who had a short, stocky and heavy build. What's more, they were the first humans with a prominent chin.

That said, early Cro-Magnons possessed features that are reminiscent of Neanderthals as well as their African ancestors.

For instance, they had the slightly flattened skullcap, thicker, more robust bones, and heavier build of H. neanderthalensis, as well as the height and dark skin colour of African H. sapiens.

Cro-Magnon brain capacity was about 1,600 cc, a little larger than the average for present-day Homo sapiens, but roughly the same or slightly smaller than the average Neanderthal brain.

Were Cro-Magnons More Intelligent Than Neanderthals?

It seems so. Groundbreaking research at the Max-Planck-Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, has revealed distinct differences in the brain development of modern humans and Neanderthals.

Put simply, Neanderthal brains seem to create neurons more slowly in the brain's cortex during development, which scientists say is likely to cause superior cognitive abilities in modern humans, like Cro-Magnons.

According to Wieland Huttner, who led the work at the Max-Planck-Institute, making more neurons sets the basis for higher cognitive function. (Think of it as the brain’s basic computing capacity.) "This is the first compelling evidence that modern humans were cognitively better than Neanderthals."

The experiments that underpinned this conclusion, focused on a gene, called TKTL1, which controls neuronal production in the developing brain.

The Neanderthal variant of the gene is slightly different from the one inside modern humans.

When the gene was inserted into mice, scientists found that the Neanderthal variant led to the production of fewer neurons, notably in the frontal lobe of the brain, the location of most cognitive functions.

Facts About Cro-Magnons

Population

Health

Life expectancy during the Stone Age - for both Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals - rarely exceeded 40 years.

Analysis of the prehistoric skeletons found at the Abri de Cro-Magnon reveals that several of the individuals had fused vertebrae in their necks, as a result of traumatic injury.

The adult female was suffering from a fractured skull, while another male was afflicted by Neurofibromatosis type I, a genetic condition which would have given him large cysts or tumours on his face.

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Tools

Cro-Magnons were among the most innovative of Stone Age tool makers.

They produced a range of stone tools (Mode 4 technology), notably blades (Aurignacian culture), tanged tools (Gravettian culture), bifacial arrow and spear points (Solutrean culture), and Mode 5 technology geometric microliths (Magdalenian culture).

In general, tools became smaller, more specialized and were made from a wider range of materials, including wood, bone and ivory, as well as stone. (See also: History of Stone Tools.)

Hunting

Cro-Magnons introduced several new hunting methods. They corralled game animals into natural confined spaces in order to slaughter whole herds, or cause them to jump off a cliff.

They fashioned sharp reusable spearpoints from bone and antler, as well as stone, then hafted them onto darts and javelins.

They introduced innovative weaponry, such as spear throwers, bows and arrows, harpoons and throwing sticks.

They populated rock shelters close to the main seasonal routes taken by migrating herds, and maintained close contacts with other communities to pool manpower resources for hunting drives.

Dwellings

Cro-Magnon bases are most often found in shallow caves formed by rock overhangs.

In addition, open air settlements were established at numerous sites including Dolní Věstonice (Czech Republic) and Kostenki (Russia), consisting of primitive teepee-like huts, or some made entirely out of stones and earth.

Temporary hunting camps were also established, typically in the mountains.

Burial and Care

Cro-Magnons buried their dead, though most likely only those with high communal status received burial.

More importantly, fossils show they cared for sick members of the community, although. then again, perhaps only for important members.

Clothing

Early European moderns used their organizational skills to increase production of decorative beads and other items made from shells, animal teeth, eagle claws, ivory, stone, bone, and antler.

Beads were often symbols of status or wealth, revealing a wider outlook than mere survival.

The Upper Paleolithic also gave birth to a highly sophisticated and standardised textile industry, producing single-ply, double-ply, triple-ply, and braided string and cordage; a range of knotted nets and wicker baskets; plus various types of woven cloth.

Music

Cro-Magnons manufactured flutes and whistles, perhaps also drums and idiophones (bells and gongs).

They also carved flutes from hollow bird bones and mammoth ivory, which were capable of producing a wide range of tones. These instruments involved a huge investment of time and skill.

Language

Early moderns are generally thought to have had the same speech and hearing physiology (e.g. FOXP2 gene, hyoid bone), as present day humans.

This implies that Upper Paleolithic humans possessed the same language capability and sound range as present-day humans, although no evidence of language has survived.

Even so, the Upper Paleolithic (40,000-10,000 BC) witnessed a revolution of art and culture, as well as a revolution of toolmaking and other activities.

How did modern humans manage to accomplish so much, in such a short space of time? Answer: they started talking.

Only talking could have helped them to achieve so much. Neither before or after, has such relative success been achieved.

Art by Cro-Magnons

Early European moderns were responsible for the wonders of Upper Paleolithic art - 30,000 years of sublime creativity.

They introduced the first representational cave art, featuring both naturalistic cave painting and rock engravings of animals, along with a few anthropomorphs (human-like figures).

Landscape was never depicted.

Animals featured, include dangerous species (lions, rhinoceros, cave bears, mammoths) as well as game animals (bison, reindeer, red deer, horses, ibex), and a few birds and fish.

In addition, they produced a range of simpler markings, such as hand stencils and handprints, as well as digital tracings or 'finger fluting.'

But the most common type of prehistoric art created by Cro-Magnons was abstract signs and symbols.

They included: lines and dots, Placard-type signs or aviforms, geometric motifs like circles and triangles, as well as tectiforms including the more complex Spanish tectiforms, plus zigzags and crosshatch patterns, and more.

According to sign-expert Genevieve von Petzinger, no more than 32 basic signs are present in the caves.

Painting materials included charcoal and manganese black; ochre pigments in red, orange or yellow, and more. Pigments were applied by moss pads or brushes made of animal hair, or twigs.

Hollow thin bones were also used to spray paint onto rock surfaces, notably when creating hand stencils.

Cro-Magnons also created a range of prehistoric sculpture including:

Deep Caves, No Inhabitants

Most Cro-Magnon art is found in deep caves, rather than rock shelters. What's more, most decorated caves were not inhabited.

Instead, scientists believe they were reserved for ceremonial activities of various sorts.

Strangely, many cave paintings and rock carvings are located in the least accessible parts of the cave, adding further to the mystery surrounding the purpose of their art.

Most Famous Cro-Magnon Caves

Caves that exemplify the artistry of early moderns, include the following:

For a complete list, see: the top 80 Paleolithic Caves.

Other Early Humans

The best known hominins and early human species include:

For more about the chronology of Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (540,000 BC).

References

(1) "Human TKTL1 implies greater neurogenesis in frontal neocortex of modern humans than Neanderthals." Anneline Pinson et al. SCIENCE. 9 Sep 2022. Vol 377, Issue 6611.
(2) Lieberman, D. E. (1998). "Sphenoid shortening and the evolution of modern human cranial shape". Nature. 393 (6681): 158–162.
(3) Bocquet-Appel, J.-P.; Demars, P.-Y.; Noiret, L.; Dobrowsky, D. (2005). "Estimates of Upper Palaeolithic meta-population size in Europe from archaeological data". Journal of Archaeological Science. 32 (11): 1656–1668.
(4) Iakovleva, L. (2015). "The architecture of mammoth bone circular dwellings of the Upper Paleolithic settlements in Central and Eastern Europe and their socio-symbolic meanings". Quaternary International. 359–360: 324–334.
(5) Clottes, J. (2016). What Is Paleolithic Art?: Cave Paintings and the Dawn of Human Creativity. University of Chicago Press. pp. 7–19. ISBN 978-0-226-18806-5.

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