"...the behaviour of most present day humans remains moderated by magical thinking-type mental processes (lack of integration between the left prefrontal cortical areas and memory), underwritten by sub-optimal cause and effect perception."

Robert G. Bednarik, An aetiology of hominin behaviour, Homo, 2012

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Evolution revolution or saltation: an evaluation revealing systematic bias


Evolution, revolution or saltation scenario for the emergence of modern cultures? by the prestigous Chris Stringer and Francesco D’Errico was published in 2011. Delivered originally at a Discussion Meeting issue ‘Culture evolves’ it represents a good example of the current Pleistocene archaeological narrative. The expressed intent of the authors was to study the evidence indicating “whether modern cognition and associated innovations are unique to our species and whether they emerged abruptly, gradually or as the result of a discontinuous process.” Upon assuming an a priori knowledge of what constitutes the “quintessential human features such as modern cognition, language, imagination, art, religious beliefs and so forth” (since no argument is provided for why these activities define “human-ness” or indeed is there any attempt made to define the fuzzy term “modern cognition”) the authors embark on what can only be described as some sort of haphazard journey through the past selectively presenting facts. Combining this approach with musings that clearly reflect the authors preferred version of pre-history the paper appears to be more romantic than scientific. Undeniably the pretext of the objective assumes that there is “something unique” about “our” species.


This retrospective analysis takes a simple approach in analysing the work by Stringer and D’Errico awarding a score for each “fact” or generalisation attributed to either “anatomically modern humans” or other hominins (primarily Homo sapiens neanderthalis) mentioned in the paper. In this way it should be possible to determine whether the evidence selected and subsequently presented was biased toward activities that until recently were perceived to be the unique preserve of so-called “modern humans” or whether a bias existed toward presenting the fashionable case that Neanderthals were “possibly more intelligent than we’ve given them credit for”.

Each fact, set of facts or generalisation is printed in italic with comments directly underneath where applicable. A rolling score is provided in the format (HSS vs HSN/other) in addition to a table of scores provided at the end. Occasionally points are deducted or not awarded, for example, because there is a caveat, or to reflect the implied meaning (usually in favour of HSS as becomes evident).



Subsistence strategy and technology…

Blade technology and formal stone tools in the form of backed pieces—tools modified by retouch on a side—are signalled at sites such as Twin Rivers and Kalambo Falls, Zambia, dated at approximately 300 ka. (2 – 0)

• Uncertain instances of small blade production come from a Pinnacle Point cave dated at approximately 160 ka. (3 – 0)

• changes in lithic technology are recognized between the MSA I (approx. 110–115 ka) and the MSA II (approx. 94–85 ka) at Klasies (4 – 0)

• Still Bay . Characterized by foliate bifacial points used as spear tips (figure 1a), this technocomplex apparently spans only 1–3 ka, and disappears near the transition between the end of the last interglacial (sensu lato) and the downturn to Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 4 (approx. 70 ka) (5 – 0)

• production of small blades retouched into segments [23], and other backed pieces (figure 1b), called Howiesons Poort (HP), spanning between approximately 65 ka and 59 ka (7 – 0)

•…gives way, during the following post-Howiesons Poort, to unifacial points on flakes (figure 1c) (9 – 0)

• similar to the Mousterian points made by Neanderthals in Europe(9 – 1)

• unstandardized microlithic tools produced by the bipolar technique during the early LSA (10 – 1)

• A precocious emergence of technical innovation is also observed in north Africa, where new dating situates the earliest occurrences of the distinctive pedunculate point forms typical of the Aterian at 145 ka (11 – 1)

• controlled use of fire to increase the quality and efficiency of stone tool manufacturing processes has been reported from Pinnacle Point, Mossel Bay, approximately 72 ka (12 – 1)

• Laborious heat treatment to produce compound glues combining plant gum and ochre is attested in the Howiesons Poort layers of Sibudu Cave (13 – 1)

• Location of such adhesives on small HP backed pieces indicates the latter were used as barbed spear [23] or arrow points (15 – 1)

• Large harpoons made from substantial mammals limb bones (figure 1d), found at Katanda, central Africa, may possibly go back to approximately 90 ka (16 – 1)

• Fully shaped bone tools (projectile points, awls and spatulas) are found at southern African Still Bay and HP sites such as Blombos and Sibudu (21 – 1)

• The careful deliberate polishing of the approximately 75 ka Blombos bone projectile points (figure 1e) has no apparent functional reason and, rather, seems a technique used to give a distinctive appearance and/or an ‘‘added value’’ to this category of artefacts. This may imply that symbolic meaning was attributed to bone tools. (22 – 1)

• Reduction in size between the Still Bay and HP projectile points (figure 1f) has been tentatively interpreted as a shift from the use of hand-delivered bone spear heads to bow and bone arrow technology, possibly with the use of poison (24 – 1)

• New discoveries and reappraisal of key Mousterian sequences in Europe and the Near East identify trends in Neanderthal subsistence strategies and technology that parallel in many respects the pattern of innovation followed by disappearance described for Africa. (25 – 2)

• Ongoing research on the technological variability of the Mousterian in Europe identifies variations in time and space in lithic technology and tool types interpreted as discrete cultural adaptations, comparable to those observed in contemporary African populations (26 – 3)

• punctuated emergence and disappearance of blade technology (figure 1g) (26 – 4)

• more ‘formal’ stone tools (figure 1h) since 200 ka, with an apparent acceleration in the turnover of types of débitage and tools after the last interglacial culminated in a clear regionalization of cultural features during the millennia that immediately preceded the recognized arrival of modern humans in Europe (26 – 5)

• Research conducted in the Levant reveals that at sites with diagnostic Neanderthal and modern human remains, the two populations hunted the same species, produced their tool kits by applying Levallois flaking and manufactured a comparable range of tool types (29 – 8)

• Differences between the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic of Europe in lithic raw material procurement strategies [38] have been interpreted as evidence for more reduced Neanderthal geographical ranges and social networks (30 – 8)

• However, such distances are extremely variable within the Mousterian, for example reaching figures comparable with those recorded in the Upper Palaeolithic in eastern Europe [39]. On the other hand, very local procurement strategies are recorded at many MSA sites in South Africa, including HP sites (30 – 9)

• Recent research has shown that Neanderthal hunting weapons were comparable to those used by broadly contemporaneous Middle Stone Age populations in southern Africa. Wooden spears over 2 m long, made of spruce and pine, have been discovered at Schöningen in Germany, dating from approximately 300 to 400 ka. These were probably used as thrusting spears but might also have been javelins, as suggested by their forward centre of gravity (31 – 10)

• Moreover, a large literature now supports the view that the hunting equipment of Neanderthals was not limited to simple wooden spears. Tip morphology, evidence of hafting and the presence of diagnostic impact scars indicate that at a number of sites from Europe and the Levant, going back at least to early MIS 6 (approx. 186 ka), Levallois and retouched Mousterian points were used as weapon armatures (31–14)

• As far as hafting and the production of composite tools are concerned, the level of technical development of Neanderthals seems comparable to that recently identified at HP sites from South Africa (32 – 15)

• At the Italian site of Campitello, dated to MIS 6, Neanderthals heated birch bark in a reductive environment to temperatures of ca 350° in order to obtain pitch for hafting flint flakes, found associated with elephant bone (32 – 16)

• A similar treatment is attested at the Middle Palaeolithic site of Königsaue in Germany, dated to approximately 48 ka, where two fragments of birch-bark pitch (figure 1i) still show the imprint of the bifacial tool once adhering to them (32 – 17)

• Heat treatment of lithic raw material to facilitate knapping is so far unrecognized among Neanderthals, Upper Palaeolithic modern humans before the Solutrian (approx. 22 ka), and most African and non-African modern humans contemporaneous with or posterior to the Pinnacle Point instances of this technique (33 – 16)

• The most common use of bone during the Eurasian Lower and Middle Palaeolithic is that of long-bone shaft fragments to retouch lithic tools [45]. Knapped handaxes and scrapers were also occasionally produced at Acheulian and Mousterian sites. (33 – 17)

• Bone industries showing a level of technological complexity equivalent to that normally associated with Upper Palaeolithic cultures are only found in ‘transitional’ technocomplexes such as the Châtelperronian in France (figure 1j) and the Uluzzian in Italy (figure 1k). The former technocomplex is now firmly attributed to Neanderthals [46] while such an attribution is still tentative for the latter due to the scarcity and undiagnostic character of the human remains associated with those layers. (34 – 19)

• The interpretation of the Châtelperronian bone tools and, as we will see later, personal ornaments, in particular those from the Grotte du Renne, Arcy-sur-Cure, is controversial (34 – 19)

• Archaeozoological, technological and microscopic analyses of Châtelperronian and Uluzzian bone tools [48,51] demonstrate that they are not expedient tools used in single instances to fulfil immediate needs, but rather are the result of planned chains of complex technological actions, shared by groups belonging to the same cultural tradition. This is demonstrated by the consistency that we have identified in the choice of the species and bone type, technique of manufacture, overall tool morphology and resharpening techniques (34 – 21)

• This indicates that even if it was demonstrated that the use of bone tools or personal ornaments by Neanderthals was the result of cultural contact with moderns, this would in fact reinforce rather than dismiss the modern character of their cognition, as it would show their ability, as observed in many historical instances among modern human populations, to incorporate external stimuli and reshape those influences in order to make them an integral part of their own culture (35 – 21)

Symbolic mediated behaviour…

inhumation and treatment of the dead are generally regarded as quintessential features of modern humanity (1-0)

• The claim for a polish suggestive of curation of a skull at the approximately 160 ka old site of Herto in Ethiopia has not, so far, been supported by further data (2-0)

• At present, the approximately 115 ka cave occupation of Skhul in Israel has the oldest known symbolic burial, an early modern male interred clasping the lower jaw of a massive wild boar (3-0) 

• The 100 ka occupation of Qafzeh Cave near Nazareth also has a number of modern human burials, one of which was a child whose body was covered by deer antlers (4-0)

• three MSA burials are known, that of the Border Cave, with a possible age of 70 ka, and those of Nazlet Khater [56], and Taramsa, Egypt [57] dated, respectively, to 40 ka and 68 ka. (7-0)

• In Europe the oldest burials are Gravettian and date to approximately 30 ka. (8-0)

• The bodily traces of earlier moderns in Europe, the Aurignacians, are mainly in the form of pierced human teeth [58] suggesting that they preferred to carry traces of their enemies or their ancestors with them rather than burying them (9-0)

• Around 40 ka two individuals were interred separately at Mungo [59] in south eastern Australia—a woman was cremated at high temperature and another adult (sex uncertain) was buried stretched out and with a covering of haematite pigment (perhaps originally on the skin, or perhaps on some covering material such as a hide or bark). (10-0)

• Neanderthal burials in the Levant are as old or might be even older than those of moderns, if one accepts the most ancient date for the Tabun C1 burial (10-1)

• Neanderthal burials in Europe are numerous but concentrated in a few areas, suggesting that Neanderthals, as modern humans in Africa, may have engaged in funerary practices leaving no traces in the archaeological record (11-2)

• Although in a number of cases this information is difficult to verify now, grave goods consisting of stone tools, bone retouchers, engraved bone and a rock slab engraved with cupules were reported at Neanderthal burials such as La Ferrassie, La Chapelle-aux-Saint, Le Moustier in France, Amud and Dederiyeh in the Middle East (11-6)

• The oldest known human bone used as a tool is a fragment of Neanderthal skull from La Quina in the Charentes region of France (11-7)

• Red pigmental material, attested in Africa at archaeological sites dated to approximately 160 ka [6] and possibly at sites dated to approximately 280 ka [5] becomes a common feature of approximately 100 ka (figure 1l) and younger MSA sites [5,63]. (14-7)

• In the Middle East the oldest evidence for systematic use of pigments dates back to approximately 100 ka (figure 1m,n) and comes from Qafzeh [66] and Skhul [65] Clear evidence of heating, probably to change the colour of the pigmental material, is attested at these two sites (16-7)

• Pigments, mostly black but also red, have been used by Neanderthals in Europe (figure 1o,w) since approximately 300 ka [64], but their use became systematic only after approximately 60 ka [64] (16-8)

• The last-known Neanderthals in France made intensive use of both black and red pigments. A case in point is the 18 kg of red and black pigments, often bearing traces of use, found in the Châtelperronian layers of the Grotte du Renne, Arcy-sur-Cure [50], the largest quantity of pigmental material found so far at a Palaeolithic site. (16-10)

• Convincing evidence for the use of personal ornaments, consisting of perforated marine shells belonging to a single species at each site, is found from caves in south Africa, north Africa and the Middle East dated to between 120 and 70 ka (18-10)

• At Blombos Cave, 49 deliberately perforated Nassarius kraussianus shell beads (figure 1p) with clear evidence of use-wear, some bearing traces of ochre come from approximately 75 ka old levels (20-10)

• The perforated Conus shell from Border Cave, associated with the burial of a young individual may be as old as 76 ka according to the recent chronological attribution of this burial (22-10)

• Perforated Nassarius gibbosulus shells were recovered at the Aterian site of Oued Djebbana, Algeria (figure 1q), and Skhul from approximately 100 ka levels that include 10 Homo sapiens burials (25-10)

• Perforated shells of the same species (figure 1r,s) showing traces of intentional modifications, possible deliberate heating to change the colour of the bead, use-wear and traces of red ochre were recovered from approximately 80–70 ka levels at Grotte des Pigeons, Rhafas, Ifri n'Ammar and Contrebandiers in Morocco (28-10)

• Other marine shells interpreted as beads (figure 1t) come from the approximately 90 ka Mousterian levels at Qafzeh Cave in Israel [69]. They consist of 10 naturally perforated Glycymeris insubrica shells. (29-10)

• The only Neanderthal site that has yielded possible evidence for the use of shell beads by Neanderthals is the Cueva de los Aviones in southern Spain [12]. The Mousterian layers of this site, dated to approximately 45–50 ka BP, contained a marine shell assemblage including three valves of Acanthocardia and Glycymeris, bearing natural perforations (figure 1v). One of the latter contained a residue of red pigment identified as haematite. (29-12)

• approximately 40 ka old beads from Europe are associated with both Neanderthals and AMH They differ from their approximately 120–70 ka antecedents in that they take the form of hundreds of discrete types, identifying regional patterns (30-13)

• As with formal bone tools (see above), the minimalistic consensual interpretation of personal ornament use by Neanderthals (figure 1x) is that they were fully able to incorporate new categories of symbolic items in their own culture. (31-14)

• At approximately 40 ka, beads in Africa were made on ostrich egg shells (figure 1u), and only later are diverse ranges of raw material introduced for bead manufacture (32-14)

• In southeast Asia, the oldest documented ornament is a perforated tiger shark tooth found in New Ireland, New Guinea at a site dated between 39.5 and 28 ka (33-14)

• The earliest evidence for bead use in Australia comes from the site of Mandu Mandu, Cape Range of Western Australia, where 22 Conus sp. shell beads were recovered in a layer radiocarbon dated to ca 32 ka (34-14)

• The earliest secure abstract designs, engraved on bone and ochre, are found in South Africa and are dated to ca 100 ka [72]. Examples are the complex geometric patterns on ochre (figure 1y) from approximately 100 to 70 ka levels at Blombos Cave and from MSA layers at Klein Kliphuis in the Western Cape, and approximately 73 ka old notched and engraved bone from Blombos and Klasies. (36-14)

• Evidence from the Middle East includes an engraved cortex dated at approximately 50 ka from the Mousterian site of Quneitra that could be associated with H. sapiens or Neanderthals, and an engraved lithic core from approximately 90 ka levels at Qafzeh (38-15)

• A number of objects bearing putative engravings have also been reported from Lower and Middle Palaeolithic sites in Europe. Some of these ‘engravings’ resulted from natural phenomena and carcass processing. Others were deliberate engravings [64], but still need detailed publication (38-16)

• Figurative representations consisting of painted, engraved and carved animals, are so far only well dated to much later, at approximately 31 ka in Africa, at Apollo 11 shelter [74], Namibia, and at approximately 35 ka in Europe, for example at Chauvet, Fumane and in southern Germany (40-16)

• The oldest known carved musical instruments, consisting of flutes made of bird bone and mammoth ivory decorated with notches, are found in Europe and also date back to approximately 35 ka (41-16)

• No convincing musical instruments are associated with Neanderthals, so far (42-16)


Table 1

Homo sapien sapiens
Other Hominins
Subsistence strategy and technology
35 (62%)
21 (38%)
Symbolic mediated behaviour
42 (72%)
16 (28%)
Total Score
77 (68%)
37 (32%)


Discussion (a limited commentary)
Chauvet Cave is unscholarly attributed to HSS whilst Bednarik has refuted this suggestion years ago and provided evidence that more clearly associates the work to Robust hominins (i.e. Neanderthals). As mentioned many of the “facts” quoted are simply wrong – a quick look at my timeline demonstrates this.

Concerning blade production, the three counter examples provided here were googled in a matter of seconds.

"But this view has been challenged in recent years as researchers discovered blades that dated to 380,000 years in the Middle East and to almost 300,000 years ago in Europe, where Neandertals may have made them (ScienceNOW, 1 December 2008). Now it appears that more than 500,000 years ago, human ancestors living in the Baringo Basin of Kenya collected lava stone cobbles from a riverbed and hammered them in just the right way to produce stone blades. Paleoanthropologists Cara Roure Johnson and Sally McBrearty of the University of Connecticut, Storrs, recently discovered the blades at five sites in the region, including two that date to between 509,000 and 543,000 years ago. "This is the oldest known occurrence of blades," Johnson reported Wednesday here at the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society. Johnson and McBrearty found the stone blades in a basalt outcrop known as the Kapthurin Formation, including four cores from which the blades were struck. "These assemblages would have been made by a different species of human," Johnson said. "Who were they?" The blades come from the same part of the formation where researchers have found two lower jaws that have been variously described as belonging to Homo heidelbergensis or H. rhodesiensis, human ancestors in Europe and Africa that predate the origin of our species, H. sapiens."

Note how although the instances of blade production quoted in the original article are, according to the authors themselves, “uncertain”, they are still mentioned - most likely because they strengthen the foregone conclusions of the authors. Even a minor change in the archaeological record perceived to be associated with the elusive anatomically modern humans is registered as significant whereas many such changes could be provided for other hominins that are far more significant few of which have been provided by the authors.

The Mount Carmel finds from Qafzeh Cave and Skhul Shelter exhibit prominent tori and receding chins including Qafzeh 9 which is claimed to be of the most modern appearance. Skhul 9 shows distinct prognathism directly comparable to that of the "classic Neanderthal". Even Chris Stringer himself has admitted that the material is "transitional" (Bednarik 2011). Additionally, the lack of evidence of a "superior technology" usually attributed to AMH by SR proponents is telling, as are the nearby "Neanderthal" burials in Tabun Cave and the association of all three with 'Mousterian tools'.

Again, it is a questionable assertion that unstandardised microlithic tools produced by bipolar are at all indicative of a significant innovation. Bipolar reduction industries are numerous throughout the Lower Palaeolithic and all the way through to the Holocene. They occur where large quantities of homogenous material suitable for reduction by free hand direct percussion are not available. Invariably, bipolar reduction techniques produce a wide range of “unstandardised” tools, many of which could be classed as microlithic, for instance, the Jackkobien from the Netherlands.

D’Errico and Stringer strangely single out ‘Aterian’ point forms as representative of the “innovation” they perceive occurring (uniquely?) in Africa. No reasoned argument is provided for why these forms are considered to be particularly innovative or indeed any explanation given for why such a perceived innovation is likely to be indicative of the “quintessential” characteristics defining “modern humans” as opposed to say the development of the stylised bifacial “hand-axe”. In defence of the often misunderstood Neanderthals and in the interests of science this is as good a place as any to raise the issues of taphonomic logic and the random order in which all archaeological evidence is acquired which the authors neglect to mention let alone account for. This particular “innovation” may be rare precisely because this technique is superflouous where good quality material is available, indeed it is rarely seen even much later on in the archaeological record and is therefore clearly not pivotal to “modern cognition”.

A quintessential feature of modern humanity might include the ability to store symbolic information outside of our brains and subsequently to use this symboling capacity to modify the physical environment on a massive scale (again see Bednarik...). Such evidence (of symboling) however is scantily assessed or addressed if at all in this piece of "professional research".

No mention is made of the evidence for burials at the Pleistocene site of Lake Fezzan which is of the Acheulian (Lower or Middle Palaeolithic) or stone huts from Morocco.

It soon becomes clear that Stringer and D’Errico assume that HSS are responsible for any evidence of "modern cognition" at archaeological sites in Africa especially and even those widely recognised to be “mixed” (or intermediate) such as Qafzeh and Skhul, for example despite the clear Mousterian designation. It is arguable that many of the other sites “assumed” by the authors to be occupied by HSS have no clear evidence of association with HSS since Eve advocates are unable to provide any evidence of “fully anatomical modern humans” living during the Pleistocene. Make no mistakes, D'Errico and Stringer's argument relies upon the unsupported supposition that the fossil skeletons identified as modern humans by some are inherently cognitively different from those identified as Neanderthal. (They have yet to grasp the full enormity of culturally defined sexual selection favoring neoteny.)

A pattern in the evidence presented is evident. Each example in favor of HSS is drawn out in detail and numerous individual examples are provided, whereas for HSN examples are lumped together, not expanded upon, played down but more often than not simply not quoted. I cannot believe that two academics could not be aware of the evidence for sea-faring 840,000 years ago and yet it is unmentioned despite the obvious implications in any discussion involving "modern cognition" or "quintessentially human characteristics". Indeed very little of the evidence in support of early indications of cognitively "advanced" behaviour or even "culture" is mentioned, either due to selection bias, or ignorance. Of course the ostrich eggshell beads from El Greifa, Libya are not mentioned although they are twice the age of those quoted for HSS (and laden with culturally imbibed significance) nor too any of the cupules from Asia, the meandering line and on and on.

In summary, I am astounded that such a biased paper ever made it to press.

This review was first published in November 2013 on



Stringer, C. B. and D’Errico, F., 2011, Evolution, revolution or saltation scenario for the emergence of modern cultures? Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 366: 1060–1069 doi:10.1098/rstb.2010.0340