The Upper Paleolithic Revolution

When I was first studying archaeology, the prevailing theory was that although anatomically modern humans first emerged around 100,000 years ago, thereafter there seemed to have followed a period of around 60,000 years when the lifestyle of the modern humans changed little from that of their predecessors. It was not till around 30,000 years ago that the archaeological record reveals the emergence of technical and social advances which we modern humans can understand as fundamentally like our own. This dramatic change was known as the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution. The revolution comprised new technologies, hunting techniques, human burials and an artistic tradition of astonishing competency.

However, the last 15 years have seen a shift in our understanding away from the view of a dramatic change and toward a more gradual evolution of primitive to modern humans.

The Upper Paleolithic Revolution(UPR) proposition  was supported by evidence of new stone tools emerging in the period include first examples of the blade; a flake-like tool twice as long as it was wide. Replication had shown that blades require a high level of skill to make, due to their shape, indicating a higher level of hominid complexity. At the same time, an elaborate bone technology was developed including the use of composite tools, such as harpoons (Klein, 1989).

Ecologocal evidence such as evidence of changing populations and extinction events in other species can be cited of evidence of modern humanity’s impact on the environment. If we consider that 33 of North America’s total of 55 large mammalian genera became extinct shortly after the arrival of modern humans to that continent 100,000 years ago, then it is plain to see that a connection, between the two events, while not proven is distinctly possible. Colin Tudge believes it significant that, “The large mammals that survived the advent of human beings were largely of Eurasian origin. In other words, they were accustomed to human beings: they had already been hunted by them for tens of thousands of years.”

We can also look at symbolism in art and equate that with the symbolic nature of language. The fossil record of artistic symbolism in humans doesn’t run further back than 50,000 years ago, so perhaps, as Alan Walker argues, language doesn’t either.

At Paviland Cave, on the Gower peninsula in Wales (an Upper Palaeolithic site, dating to around 30,000 – 20,000 years ago), the ceremonial burial of a young male, dated to 26,350 +/- 550 years ago provides fine evidence of a new aesthetic sensibility. Grave goods include perforated seashells and artefacts of mammoth ivory (rods, bracelets and a pendant). The corpse was also covered with ochre at the time of burial.
Randall White, of the Department of Anthropology, New York University investigated the large quantity of personal ornaments, including ivory and stone beads, animal teeth and ivory rings and pendants recovered by André Leroi-Gourhan from the grotte du Renne at Arcy-sur-Cure in central France. He and others used them as ammunition for debates surrounding Neanderthal symbolic capacities and relationships between Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal populations around 35,000 years ago. The crux of White’s argument is that Neanderthals made these ornaments. If the Neanderthal was capable of symbolic expression, then this ability is most unlikely to be the ‘edge’ that Cro-Magnon people had over their Neanderthal neighbours.
Lastly, the first deliberate remains appear in the record. The cave paintings at Lascaux on the northern slopes of the Pyrenees reveal for the first time an aesthetically modern human. Whatever their direct purpose, be it worship, teaching, decoration or ritual magic, the execution reveals artistic flair and creativity. Analysis of the charcoal used to mark the walls can date the pictures; understanding of what animals are depicted tells us about the environment; colour coding may even show us something about what they thought of the animals; but ultimately, we feel we understand the impulse to create works like this and so when we discover them we feel we have unassailable evidence for the emergence of truly modern humans.

However arguments against the UPR have gained in strength in the intervening years. They are based on two points, one philosophical, the other material.

The pholosophical point is that UPR proponents are alledged to be exhibiting an ingrained eurocentricism which finds it easy to posit the idea that our ancestors hung around in Africa for 60,000 years but it was only upon leaving that continent that humanities great flowering occurred. This is worthy of investigation, but is somewhat moot because the evidence dug up from the soil in the last 15 years has pretty much destroyed the concept of a UPR occuring 30000 years ago.

New evidence continually pushes back the dates for the ‘firsts’ of these cognitive markers by which we measure modern humans against anatomically modern humans.

For example, the earliest cave paintings  were not European as previously thought. New datings from 2014 show the earliest known cave paintings of animals are at least 35,000 years old from Indonesia, at Maros on the island of Sulawesi.

When we look at this and other evidence proponents of the UPR model are forced to either continually push back the date of the UPR (latest textbooks talk of 40-65,000 years ago), or to dismiss the theory altogether and adopt a gradualist model.

Chris Brown (updated 2016)