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The classificatory system is creating an abrupt transition that is not really there

John Hoffecker, a famous American archaeologist, is answering questions of Alexander Sokolov, editor of Antropogenez.Ru website. Translated into Russian by Dmitry Lytov.

- Do you think that Oldowan-to-Acheulian transition was evolutionary, gradual or rather a sharp jump? What do you think contributed most to this transition?

Although the archaeological definition of the Acheulean (i.e., presence of large bifaces) creates an abrupt transition because an artifact is either classified as a biface or not a biface, I note that: (a) there is a long history of bifacial flaking in the Oldowan, and some Oldowan tools (e.g., proto-bifaces) are similar to bifaces; and (b) the early bifaces of the Acheulean are very crude and often only partially flaked (so that the shape of the biface is not wholly dissimilar to that of the original cobble or fragment from which it was flaked). In other words, I think that there is a close connection between bifacially flaked Oldowan artifacts and the early bifaces, so that the introduction of the latter is not a really a sharp jump or break.

I think this is a case in which the classificatory system of (modern human) archaeologists is creating an abrupt transition that is not really there.

I now believe that Prof. S. Mithen has proposed the simplest and most logical explanation of the Lower Paleolithic bifaces-as some form of courtship display or similar display of social solidarity. I would guess that other forms of display (such as gestures and vocalizations that are not visible to us in the archaeological record) already had evolved in early humans, probably related to the development of long-term pair-bonds between males and females (which is likely reflected in the reduction in sexual dimorphism ~1.8 mya), which in turn is probably related to major changes in foraging strategy that allowed humans to occupy less biologically productive environments at this time. Thus, the bifaces probably were an added form of display. Much later, biface design (on a smaller scale) acquired functional properties.

A similar question about the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition. What may be its main cause(s)?

I believe that modern human behavior or modernity is best defined as "creativity" or the faculty for recombining units of non-genetic information stored in synaptic pathways of the brain into a potentially infinite variety of arrangements or structures in hierarchical form (i.e., with potentially many levels and sub-components like the phrase structure of syntactic language), and the capacity for expressing this faculty in many forms, such as language, visual art, ritual, music, ornamentation, dance, cuisine, and technology. In linguistics, this faculty is often referred to as "discrete infinity" or "recursion." I gave a presentation at IIMK in May 2006 on the subject.

While syntactic language is not represented in the archaeological record until a few thousand years ago, many other manifestations of creativity are evident in the archaeological record, beginning with ornamentation and decorative design between 135,000 and 60,000 years ago, and with visual art after 45,000 years ago. The earliest evidence for visual art is a probable figurine head from Kostenki 14, Layer IVb, discovered by Dr. Sinitsyn in 2001. Music is documented, by implication by sophisticated wind instruments (we do not know the musical compositions), by 40,000 calibrated years ago in Western Europe.

The changes in the archaeological record that are traditionally ascribed to the Middle/Upper Paleolithic transition may be largely, but not wholly, equated with the evolution of creativity. Probably, lithic technology and typology is the least useful aspect of the archaeological record for identifying creativity. This is because: (a) pre-modern humans, including Neanderthals, developed Levallois blade technology and made most of the tool types found in the Upper Paleolithic (as Prof. Lyubin showed many years ago); and (b) modern humans continued to make most of the same types of stone tools as their predecessors, especially simple, expedient tools associated with large mammal kill-butchery sites.

Anatomically modern humans in Africa evolved the faculty of creativity at some point before their dispersal out of Africa roughly 60,000 years ago. Recently, I have suggested that the same selection pressures that probably drove the increases in brain size after 2 million years ago (see R. Dunbar's "social brain hypothesis") also lie behind the evolution of creativity. I think that creativity evolved after brain size had reached a maximum level in humans, and it may have evolved in the African population (and not the Neanderthals) because there is a lower threshold for maximum brain size in the tropical zone (mean of less than 1300 cc).

Was artistic activity in Pleistocene a hobby of single persons or a group process? How do you imagine creative persons of that period? What distinguished them from modern artists?

I do not think that it is possible to know if the art of the Upper Paleolithic was made by a few individuals within each group or if many or most of the group participated in making art (and music). However, by middle Upper Paleolithic times (Gravettian), it is apparent that many artists are sharing the same visual concept (e.g., Venus figurine), although each is interpreting it in his or her own way. I think that it is difficult for us to appreciate how important visual art must have been in Upper Paleolithic times, because we are so familiar with mechanically produced visual images. Visual art, like language, is the product of a unique human cognitive faculty, in this case for projecting two- and three-dimensional visual mental images outside the brain. In Upper Paleolithic times, I would guess that these images had a powerful emotional impact on people.

What 5 or 6 examples best represent the Paleolithic creativity in your opinion?

I believe that creativity in the Upper Paleolithic is best illustrated by visual art in two-dimensional form (paintings, engravings, sketches) and three-dimensional form (sculptures). The reason for this is that both the paintings and sculptures contain examples that are complex with many hierarchically-organized levels and embedded components, and that illustrate the potential range of variations (which seems to be almost infinite) in for example, the sculpture of a person, man or woman, or the painted image of a horse or mammoth.

I also believe that Upper Paleolithic technology provides good examples of creativity, although often we have only isolated bits and pieces of what were probably very complex "artifacts," including some simple mechanical devices. The needle fragments that Dr. Golovanova has recovered from the earliest Upper Paleolithic level at Mezmaiskaya Cave (Layer 1C) are especially exciting, because they probably reflect some very complex, hierarchically-structured technology in the form of tailored clothing. If equipped with hoods and drawstrings, it would be mechanical technology (i.e., with moving parts). They are the oldest needles known in Europe, and they are apparently connected to an early movement of modern humans from the Near East directly into Eastern Europe via the Caucasus region.

 What is your opinion about the hypothesis of multiple centres of human genesis (polycentrism) in the light of recent discoveries of archaeology, palaeoanthropology, palaeogenetics etc?

New genetic data indicates that there may have been some genic exchange among anatomically modern humans and various other human groups during the global dispersal of the former, specifically there is some evidence for genic exchange with both the Neanderthals (in the Near east, not Europe) and the Denisovans in the Altai region. However, I do not see strong evidence for a polycentric origin for modern human behavior; I think this is probably evolving in Africa with little or no contribution from other human populations, such as the Neanderthals. There is some evidence for creativity in the Neanderthals, but it is limited and problematic, in my view (either derived from assemblages that probably represent a mixture of modern human and Neanderthal artifacts, such as the Chatelperronian, or assemblages that have been erroneously attributed to the Neanderthals, such as those of the Uluzzian).


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