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Modern Humans & Art

Facts about H. sapiens
Culture & cave painting

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Living reconstruction of modern Homo sapiens, or anatomically modern humans (AMH)
Living reconstruction of modern Homo sapiens, the species of modern humans who now dominate the globe.Image by Neanderthal-Museum, Mettmann. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Who were Modern Humans?

In paleoanthropology, the term 'modern humans' refers to the modern variant of Homo sapiens, which emerged in East Africa around 200,000 years ago.

As we shall see, their contribution to Stone Age culture is unmatched by any other species.

Modern humans superceded an earlier variant known as archaic Homo sapiens, which originated in Africa about 350,000 years ago, and is the species to which we all belong, today.

Modern human hunter-gatherer, Kalahari desert, South Africa
Modern humans were the first to develop animal painting and sculpture - a major advance on Neanderthal culture. In addition, they revolutionized tool-making. For example, they developed microliths - small stone tools about 1-cm in length - used as spear points and arrowheads. They also made a range of smaller and lighter tools, from bone, antler and ivory, such as harpoons, darts, bows and arrows, needles, awls, and smoothers. Image by SAT. (CC BY 2.0)

Our Hominin Ancestors

Note: hereafter, the terms "modern humans" and "Homo sapiens" are used interchangeably.

For details of the first prehistoric art from the Lower Paleolithic, see: World's Oldest art (from 540,000 BC).

Where did Homo sapiens Come From?

Archaeogenetics analysis shows that all modern humans originated in Africa. At the time, the African continent contained a number of areas that acted as 'incubators' for the development of new hominins.

When did Homo sapiens Leave Africa?

Modern humans began leaving Africa in numbers from around 120,000 BC. This is the date of the oldest 'modern' fossil, which was found in Qafzeh Cave, Israel.

However, the recent find of a jawbone fossil at Misliya Cave in Israel, belonging to a modern H. sapiens has disrupted this timeline.

The jawbone is estimated to be around 177,000 to 194,000 years old, thus significantly pushing back the first migration of moderns out of Africa.

The deceased Misliya modern is likely to have been part of a small group, so the main timeline may be largely intact.

Certainly, according to DNA analysis, the major migration of moderns from Africa took place around 70,000–60,000 BC, shortly after the supervolcanic eruption at Toba (Sumatra) in 72,000 BC.

All present-day humans are substantially descended from the waves of H. sapiens that left Africa after 100,000 BC.

Typically, the main migratory pathway went north to the Middle East, and from there diverged into three routes:

(1) Northeast to central and east Asia.
(2) East to SE Asia and Australasia, or
(3) West into Europe.

Modern humans who arrived in Europe between about 54,000 and 10,000 BC, are commonly called Cro-Magnons, after the French type-site Abri de Cro-Magnon, where the first fossils of modern Europeans were found.

Digging Up the Human Past

For a short guide as to how archaeologists find out about the behaviours and travels of early moderns like Cro-Magnons, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient.

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When did they Arrive in Europe?

Modern humans began arriving in Australia (via SE Asia) around 65,000 BC (or later), and in Europe about 54,000 BC.

Archaeological evidence from Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria reveals that moderns were already living in Eastern Europe by 43,000 BC - but more recent evidence from Mandrin Cave in france, shows an occupation by modern humans around 54,000 BC.

Archaeological data from Boker Tachtit shelter in Israel's Negev Desert - a key site in tracing the migration of modern humans from Africa into Europe - shows that the transition from Middle Paleolithic culture (dominated by H. neanderthalensis), to Upper Paleolithic culture (dominated by H. sapiens), began about 48,000 BC and ended about 42,000 BC.

In view of the Mandrin Cave occupation, this transition may have begun 6,000 years earlier.

How are Hominin Remains Dated?

Answer: By using a mixture of relative and absolute dating technologies. For details, see: Dating Methods in Archaeology.

Facts About Modern Humans

Body Shape

Culture

The first modern humans produced some relatively advanced tools but no great art. However, by the time they arrived in Europe, they were capable of sustaining a range of complex and highly innovative behaviours.

How they achieved such a significant advance is not known.

One hypothesis suggests that population growth in Europe engendered cognitive and cultural improvements, leading to greater innovation and imitation.

Language

Scientists still don't know when humans began using language. But recent experiments have shown that teaching people how to make stone tools is much faster when the teacher is able to communicate verbally.

Doubtless, the same can be said about the teaching of other skills, which raises an interesting point.

Looking at the history of stone tools over the past 300,000 years, can we identify a point in time when humans made sudden, rapid and tangible advances in tool technology and culture?

If so, then perhaps we have also identified when we started to communicate verbally with each other.

So, if we're looking for an explanation as to why Homo sapiens experienced a sudden surge in technological and cultural achievements, between (say) 43,000-33,000 BC, perhaps a growing capacity for language was a key contributor.

Tools

Archaic Homo sapiens - the initial variant which appeared in Africa about 300,000 years ago - began by making so-called 'type 3 technology' stone tools. These included flake tools struck from prepared cores, that were the same as those made by Neanderthals.

Coinciding with the movement of modern humans out of Africa, around 100,000 BC, a more advanced type 4 technology appeared, featuring long, thin stone flakes or 'blades', as well as microliths, burins and others.

Later, about 40,000 BC, coinciding with the dispersion of Homo sapiens across Europe, we see the emergence of type 5 technology, characterized by very small blades (microliths) that were often used in composite tools made up of several parts. These tools included arrows, barbed spear heads and spear-throwers.

New tools like skin-scraping tools (end scrapers), were also made to speed up animal butchery, thus maximizing the food-take from a kill, before the arrival of scavengers, like lions and hyenas.

Tools for sewing and clothes-making also appeared. Being able to sew materials together enabled animal furs to be made into coats, and provided far better protection from the cold than materials that were merely tied together.

In addition, greater standardization was introduced (itself, a cognitive advance), while new tools appeared made out of new materials, including bone, antler, ivory and wood.

In Europe, these new forms of tool making are known as the Aurignacian culture - after Aurignac Cave in the French Pyrenees where they were first discovered in 1860 - and are associated exclusively with moderns.

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Hunting

As well as inventing new hunting tools, Cro-Magnon moderns also developed more efficient hunting methods and focused their efforts on specific animals.

They established Stone Age settlements and populated shelters in certain specific locations, such as particular river valleys, which served as major migratory routes used by the game animals they hunted, like reindeer, bison, red deer and horses.

For example, the valleys of the Dordogne and Vézère rivers hosted regular seasonal migrations of reindeer from summer pastures higher up on the Massif Central, to the warmer, low-lying winter pastures of the Atlantic plain.

As a result, the Dordogne became a major base for modern human settlements.

In addition, especially in more northerly latitudes, some hunter gatherer settlements set up storage facilities to store food for use in the winter, when supplies dwindled.

Personal Adornment

Moderns also harnessed their organizational and tool-making skills to produce items of personal adornment.

For instance, at Abri Castanet and Abri Blanchard in the Dordogne, archaeologists discovered workshops for the manufacture of beads and pendants, involving complex incising, grooving and splitting of ivory rods, created specially for large-scale production of personal ornaments.

This indicates that some humans had progressed from mere survival, and were now interested in their appearance.

Homo sapiens' Art Revolution

In addition to their cultural advances in areas like tool-making, hunting, clothes and diet, modern humans revolutionized Stone Age art around the world. Their achievements included:

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Types of Art Created By Modern Humans

Much of the Stone Age art created by Homo sapiens was not for decorative purposes or for public viewing, but for private viewing at ceremonies conducted in deep cave sanctuaries.

Most of the heavily decorated paleolithic caves are located in the zone of Franco-Cantabrian Art, in the southwest region of France, the Pyrenees and the northern coast of Spain.

The main art forms practiced by Homo sapiens, with examples, include:

Where did Homo sapiens Learn to Create Art?

Answer: no one knows. Although scientists now believe that modern humans brought their artistic toolkit with them when they left Africa, there is no evidence of them having produced any Stone Age parietal art, before arriving in Europe.

The first real cave art was created in SE Asia in the limestone karsts of Sulawesi, about the time that moderns were arriving in Europe.

More persuasive, is the fact that Cro-Magnons used only 32 abstract signs and symbols in the whole of the Upper Paleolithic (40,000 -10,000 BC), and that two-thirds of the symbols were used within 10,000 years of their arrival in Europe.

This suggests that the painting of symbolic signs was part of modern man's cognitive toolkit before he touched down in Europe.

How Advanced Were Modern Humans?

In order to gauge the behavioural modernity of H. sapiens, we need a checklist with more than a single component.

So let's take: cognitive advances, new tools and technologies, communication skills, organizational skills and group awareness, as well as art and culture.

Using this checklist, modern humans stand head and shoulders above all earlier hominins.

For more about the chronology of cave painting and engraving, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (540,000 BC).

References

(1) Nitecki, Matthew H; Nitecki, Doris V (1994). "Origins of Anatomically Modern Humans." Springer. ISBN 1489915079.
(2) Stringer, C (2012). "What makes a modern human". Nature. 485 (7396): 33–35.
(3) Reich, David (2018). "Who We Are And How We Got Here – Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past." Pantheon Books. ISBN 978-1101870327.
(4) Klein, Richard (1995). "Anatomy, behavior, and modern human origins". Journal of World Prehistory. 9 (2): 167–98.
(5) Lewin, R.; Foley, R. A. (2004). "Principles of Human Evolution". (2nd ed) UK: Blackwell Science. p. 311. ISBN 0-632-04704-6.

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