"...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

Saturday, 27 September 2014

The "Aurignacian" and the Humpty Dumptys of Pleistocene archaeology

Amongst a plethora of papers of a similar nature it appears that in the absence of cultural, genetic or fossil evidence to support either the Out Of Africa (OOA) or Recent African Origin (RAO) models archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists are scrambling to find data from elsewhere which supports the idea that 'Neanderthals' were replaced with 'modern humans'. A pre-publication release from PNAS continues this trend and the mainstream media obediently take up the baton, for example see

Early modern human settlement of Europe north of the Alps occurred 43,500 years ago in a cold steppe-type environment.

Philip R. Nigst, Paul Haesaerts, Freddy Damblon, Christa Frank-Fellner, Carolina Mallol, Bence Viola, Michael Götzinger, Laura Niven, Gerhard Trnka and Jean-Jacques Hublin.

Quoted below in bold are the Abstract and a shorter summary titled Significance from PNAS


Modern humans dispersed into Europe and replaced Neanderthals at least 40,000 years ago. However, the precise timing and climatic context of this dispersal are heavily debated. Therefore, a new project combining paleoenvironmental and archaeological fieldwork has been undertaken at Willendorf II (Austria), a key site for this time period. This project has concluded that modern humans producing Aurignacian stone tools occupied Central Europe about 43,500 years ago in a medium-cold steppe environment with some boreal trees along valleys. This discovery represents the oldest well-documented occurrence of behaviorally modern humans in Europe and demonstrates contemporaneity with Neanderthals in other parts of Europe, showing that behaviorally modern humans and Neanderthals shared this region longer than previously thought.


The first settlement of Europe by modern humans is thought to have occurred between 50,000 and 40,000 calendar years ago (cal B.P.). In Europe, modern human remains of this time period are scarce and often are not associated with archaeology or originate from old excavations with no contextual information. Hence, the behavior of the first modern humans in Europe is still unknown. Aurignacian assemblages—demonstrably made by modern humans—are commonly used as proxies for the presence of fully behaviorally and anatomically modern humans. The site of Willendorf II (Austria) is well known for its Early Upper Paleolithic horizons, which are among the oldest in Europe. However, their age and attribution to the Aurignacian remain an issue of debate. Here, we show that archaeological horizon 3 (AH 3) consists of faunal remains and Early Aurignacian lithic artifacts. By using stratigraphic, paleoenvironmental, and chronological data, AH 3 is ascribed to the onset of Greenland Interstadial 11, around 43,500 cal B.P., and thus is older than any other Aurignacian assemblage. Furthermore, the AH 3 assemblage overlaps with the latest directly radiocarbon-dated Neanderthal remains, suggesting that Neanderthal and modern human presence overlapped in Europe for some millennia, possibly at rather close geographical range. Most importantly, for the first time to our knowledge, we have a high-resolution environmental context for an Early Aurignacian site in Central Europe, demonstrating an early appearance of behaviorally modern humans in a medium-cold steppe-type environment with some boreal trees along valleys around 43,500 cal B.P.”

The definitive statement of the first sentence (1) conflicts with the first line of the abstract (2).

“Modern humans dispersed into Europe and replaced Neanderthals at least 40,000 years ago.” (1)

“The first settlement of Europe by modern humans is thought to have occurred between 50,000 and 40,000 calendar years ago (cal B.P.).” (2)

The abstract states that the first settlement of Europe by modern humans is thought to have occurred between two dates whereas (1) states categorically that 'Neanderthals' were replaced by 'modern humans' by 40,000 years ago. The argument by consensus is expanded upon further in the abstract:

“Aurignacian assemblages—demonstrably made by modern humans—are commonly used as proxies for the presence of fully behaviorally and anatomically modern humans.”

'Aurignacian' assemblages are not demonstrably made by 'anatomically and behaviourally modern humans' and herein lies the problem for the paper's authors. Since so-called 'Aurignacian' assemblages have not been shown to signify the presence of a particular species, or sub-species the very foundation of the paper's assertion crumbles. That artefacts are used in this context as proxies for cognition, behaviour or anatomy would have been, I suggest, a more productive course of study. By definition no persons living during the Pleistocene were "fully behaviourally modern" since modern cognition can only be assumed to have arisen several centuries ago at most (Bednarik 2012a) and by definition no persons living during the Pleistocene were "fully anatomically modern" since the transition from robust to gracile continues to this day. If, as we are told, 'fully anatomically modern humans' replaced 'Neanderthals', then why do 'Neanderthal' genes and autapomorphies persist in present day humans?

The association of this so-called typology with 'anatomically modern humans' is painted as if it were a given. Crania from sites such as Vogelherd, Cro-Magnon and Mladeč are often cited as proof of 'modern humans' association with the 'Aurignacian'.

Vogelherd – The four Stetten specimens once regarded as evidence of modern humans are now recognised to be later intrusive Neolithic internments dated to between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago.

Cro-Magnon – This group of fossils is actually quite robust. The pronounced supraorbital torus, projecting occipital bone of cranium 3 are 'Neanderthal'. Despite this they ended up being the type fossil for all 'anatomically modern humans'. Regardless of their attribution to either classification, direct dating to around 27,000 years ago places the 'Cro-Magnon' fossils with the 'Gravettian' rather than the 'Aurignacian' industries (Bednarik 2011).

Mladeč – These specimens are not 'fully anatomically modern humans' and appear to show pronounced sexual dimorphism. Male crania are characterised by thick projecting supraorbital tori, Neanderthaloid posterior flattening, low brain cases, and very thick cranial vaults – typically features of robust not gracile hominins. The Mladeč specimens appear to represent an intermediate stage between robust and gracile. Their occurrence in a cave in indirect association with a handful of supposedly 'Aurignacian' artefacts found is not at all reliable though (Bednarik 2011).

There is no sudden change reflected in the hominin fossil record that would either support or suggest a replacement of one species by another. What can clearly be ascertained from the available archaeological record is that over a period of tens of thousands of years beginning around 50,000 years ago there was a gradual transition from robust to gracile individuals (Bednarik 2012b).

In terms of artefacts, the term ‘Aurignacian' simply refers to the etic interpretation of a loosely defined transition in stone artefact technology deemed to be of particular importance by archaeologists. It is an observer relative institutionalised fact - an archaeofact - having no independent existence outside of the discipline that coined the term.

The 'Aurignacian' is one of fifteen different locally developing 'cultural' traditions recognised within what is termed the EUP (European Upper Palaeolithic - generally regarded to span a period from about 45,000 to around 27,000 years before present) None of these recognised traditions have a precedent in Africa and nowhere in Europe do stone technologies suddenly appear or replace the pre-existing technology (Bednarik 2013). At Theopetra Cave, Greece, this technological transition was recorded in-situ and in association with 'Neanderthal' footprints of small children. ‘EUP’ industries arise at sites from as early as 54,000 years ago (e.g. Senftenberg), to as late as just 8,000 years ago (e.g. Abric Agut) (Bednarik 2011).

The observed transition presents a mosaic of geographically, technologically and chronologically diverse changes in knapping methods across a large region with a tendency toward miniaturisation and increased blade production, none of which are biological markers, and none of which can be assumed to be cultural or ethnic markers either.  Once again then, Nigst et al make the common mistake of conflating technological markers with cultural, biological and behavioural markers.

“In the case of the rejection of symbolic evidence predating the “Aurignacian,” the Humpty Dumptys of Pleistocene archaeology, whose entirely etic terms (of tool types, cultures, traditions, peoples, ethnic groups, etc.) mean whatever they choose them to mean, have collectively fallen off the wall they had erected and sat on for far too long. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot change that the entire replacement hypothesis, particularly the African Eve version, is nothing more than an academic sham. It is bereft of any real substance, was originally based on fake datings of fossils, was then transferred to unsupported genetic claims, sustained by accommodative hypotheses about invented and named tool industries and purported and named cultures, and was presented as a narrative rationalizing racism and genocide. But what is most disturbing about this incredibly naïve notion is that the primary reason for its existence is simply archaeological ignorance.” Bednarik 2011, The Human Condition.


Bednarik, R. G. 2011. The Human Condition, Developments in Primatology, Progress and Prospects, Springer, New York.
Bednarik, R. G. 2012a. An aetiology of hominin behaviour. HOMO - Journal of Comparative Human Biology 63: 319-335.
Bednarik, R. G. 2012b. The origins of human modernity. Humanities 1(1): 1-53,
Bednarik, R. G. 2013. Creating the human past: an epistemology of Pleistocene archaeology. Archaeopress, Oxford.

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