The role of culture in the process of geographic expansion

Michael Bolus - Andrew W. Kandel

In addition to the well-documented biological evolution of the genus Homo, another important human hallmark is the advanced development of a material culture. The archaeological part of this project will explore the role that culture played as hominins expanded their home range in Africa and Eurasia during the time between 2.5 million and 20,000 years ago.

The first advances in culture began about 2.5 million years ago with the intentional production and use of stone tools. These cultural advances continued through the cold maximum of the last glacial period about 20,000 years ago, and thereafter. Over this course of time, early humans sought out increasingly more suitable raw materials for the production of tools, sometimes importing them from great distances up to several hundred kilometers away. With time early man chose raw materials for stone tools more carefully and obtained these raw materials from further afield. As cultural developments advanced, the production of stone implements proceeded from simpler forms to targeted products, such as handaxes. The production of handaxes demonstrates a considerable ability in forward planning.

Examples of the earliest figurative art and musical instruments, 32-35,000 years old, from Hohlenstein-Stadel, Gei

As the process of cultural evolution continued, intentionally formed tools made from organic materials began to complement the existing assemblages of stone tools. A diverse array of spear points supports the idea that early humans could adeptly hunt large, wild animals. The use of stone tools in making organic tools shows that the process of manufacture involved more complex pathways than those shown by the production of stone tools alone. Furthermore, the use of tools to make tools demonstrates the expanded cognitive capabilities of their makers. In evolutionary terms another significant advance is marked by the regular use and control of fire. Improved stone tool technologies and the control of fire offered early humans a considerably more effective way to utilize the nutritional resources available in their habitat. In this time frame, the final quantum leap is illustrated by the appearance of figurative art, musical instruments and further objects that enabled communication on a symbolic level. These advanced innovations in material culture offer archaeologically demonstrable traits of cultural modernity and can be interpreted as a mirror of the social changes that occurred in tandem with advances in the biological development of humans.

Remains of a fireplace filled with gray ashy deposits from the Middle Paleolithic Layer VII of Wadi Mushkuna in the Damascus Province, Syria.

As we investigate the spatial and chronological distribution of different cultural developments, signs of the innovations that delivered an increased potential for territorial expansion to the early humans should become visible. Advancements in the production of stone tools, the use and control of fire, the diversification of the tool kit, the increased use of organic artifacts, and the ways that these behaviors contributed to improving the subsistence strategies of humans can each be seen as a critical innovation. However, viewed together, these behavioral advances enabled populations of early hominins of the genus Homo to undertake expansions on a regional, and eventually continental, scale.

Map tracing the potential routes of early modern Homo sapiens out of Asia and into Europe.

Such cultural innovations could have only been transmitted effectively when the information about their production and use was passed on to other individuals and groups. For this to happen, the necessary information had to enter the collective knowledge of increasingly larger groups, for in the end, only enduring innovations can deliver an archaeologically visible signature. In addition to biological and ecological factors, the origin of human culture and the further emergence of cultural innovations that led to cultural modernity played a pivotal role in the expansions of the family of Homo between 2.5 million and 20,000 years ago. In fact, these were requirements that were indispensable to the populating of new continents. Another aspect of this project will be to investigate what role culture―or the conferred cultural advantage―played in the replacement of archaic forms with modern forms of humans.