Stabroek News ‘History This Week’ Article

‘The Upper Paleolithic “Cultural Revolution”: Humanity’s Universally Shared Cultural Heritage’

10 June, 2010

By Dr. Christopher Carrico
What is culture?
Welsh literary and cultural critic Raymond Williams once wrote that ‘Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.’  According to Williams, the word first entered the English language in the early 15th century, and originally referred to the tending of animals and crops.  Traces of this early usage of the word culture can be still found in words such as agricultural and horticulture.

Around one hundred years later, the word culture was first used in a metaphorical sense to refer not only to the cultivation of animals and crops, but also to the cultivation of the human mind.  Gradually, the meaning of culture extended to include a general social process having to do with the acquisition of particular manners and sensibilities.

By the nineteenth century, different uses of the word culture were taking on particular class connotations.  One of these usages was the emergence of an elite notion of high culture, which referred to the manners, customs, and sensibilities of the upper class, and to the artistic, literary, and other creative works that the upper class considered to have value.

At the same time that this elite notion of culture was being consolidated, writers in the European Romantic tradition were beginning to develop a notion of folk culture that found value and meaning in the ways of life of ordinary people.  The Romantic Movement generally held the customs, values, oral traditions, creative productions, etc. of Europe’s peasantry and other non-elite classes to be more genuine and authentic than the elite notion of what it meant to be a ‘cultured’ person.

The Romantic notion of particular folk and national cultures is one of the important forerunners of the idea of culture as it emerged in the field of anthropology during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  E.B. Tylor’s 1871 definition in Primitive Culture is exemplary as a modern anthropological definition:

Culture, or civilization, ¼is that complex whole which included knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.

By the modern anthropological definition of culture, culture is a universally shared characteristic of all living human beings.

Our Shared Natural and Cultural History

The same year that Tylor published his classic definition of culture, Charles Darwin published his second great work: The Descent of Man.  The Descent of Man built on Darwin’s earlier work The Origin of Species (1859), and clarified what Darwin believed to be the implications of his theories for human evolution.

One of Darwin’s observations in The Descent of Man that has been clearly supported by subsequent scientific research is the idea that all living human beings are descended from common ancestors.  Particularly since the genetics research published by Rebecca Cann and her colleagues in the late 1980s, biological anthropologists have increasingly reached a consensus that all living human beings share a common female ancestor who lived in East Africa less than 200,000 years ago.  This is sometimes referred to as the African Eve hypothesis.

200,000 years ago is also around the time that paleoanthropologists have found the first fossil evidence of anatomically modern human beings (Homo sapiens sapiens), again first in East Africa.  Ancestors of these early humans had already walked upright, had dexterous hands with opposable thumbs, used simple wooden and stone tools, and had gradually increasing brain sizes for several million years.  The control of fire and the use of complex language before this time are still matters of debate.  By 200,000 years ago, human skulls and skeletons appear that are strikingly similar to the form that human beings have today.

Many anthropologists, however, make a clear distinction between the emergence of anatomically modern humans, and the emergence of behaviourally modern humans.  While some believe that modern human culture emerged gradually during the Lower and Middle Paleolithic (200,000 – 50,000 years ago), others believe (following Eldredge and Gould’s idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’) that the available archaeological evidence suggests that there was a blossoming of modern human culture that happened rather suddenly around 50,000 years ago.  Jared Diamond calls this the ‘Great Leap Forward’, and Richard Klein calls it the ‘Dawn of Human Culture’.  The terminology is perhaps not important, but I like to think of it as the first human cultural revolution.

Beginning around 50,000 years ago, there is clear evidence of the emergence of the cultural characteristics that are shared by all living human beings.  The ability to use highly complex language from this time is indisputable.  More complex language led to the ability to form more complex kinship relations and other kinds of social bonds.  The tools that human beings used became more complex, and fishing was added to their repertoire of hunting and gathering.  They regularly and indisputably cooked their food.  They began to create artwork in abundance: figurative art including paintings and figurines.  They began to decorate their bodies with tattoos, paints, and jewelry.  They began to exchange goods and materials over long-distances.  They created musical instruments, and accompanied the playing of these instruments with singing and dancing.  They began to bury their dead, and to hold complex funeral rituals that demonstrate that they were developing notions of religion and of an afterlife.

Human cranial capacity, brain structure, and ability for intelligence seems to have changed little since this cultural revolution occurred, and the major changes that have taken place among human beings during the last 50,000 years are mainly cultural, and are not physical in nature or based on the further evolution of the human brain.

The cultural characteristics of behavioural modernity that all living human beings share is thought to have emerged first in Africa, and to have moved within the next 3 – 4 thousand years into Europe and the Near East, where the bearers of this modern culture completely or nearly completely replaced the Neanderthals who were living in these areas.  Modern humans are thought to all be descended from the more recent migrants from Africa (the Cro-Magnons), and to have little or no Neanderthal ancestry (hominids living in Europe and the Near-East who were replaced by modern humans).  Behaviourally modern human beings spread throughout the Old World, including into areas that were previously uninhabitable by hominids.  One of these areas was the tundra of Northern Asia, and by at least 16,000 years ago, modern humans were spreading into the New World as well: migrating across the Bering Straits and colonizing the Americas.

Social organisation
Foraging – hunting, fishing, and the gathering of wild plant materials – was the universal mode of human existence at all times during the Paleolithic.  The organisation of society was kinship based.  There existed no notion of private property, and social life was communally organised.  Paleolithic foragers probably lived in small bands of perhaps 25 – 50 persons at the most, and the ethic of sharing was one of the most fundamental principles within and between these groups.  These societies had what is known as an immediate return economy, where food that was procured during foraging was immediately consumed, more than could be consumed was not sought, and there was no attempt to accumulate a surplus of wealth of any kind.  There were no haves or have-nots — no rich or poor — in these societies.  There were no homeless people, or children, sick or elderly who did not have a communal support network that took care of them.

Foraging societies never developed any kind of state authority or class stratification.  Indeed, foraging societies have a strong tendency towards egalitarianism in all aspects of social life: including in gender relations.  Generally the only authority recognized in these societies is the shaman, who is shown respect by other members of the society because of her or his recognized abilities in healing and expertise in spiritual matters.  While violence undoubtedly existed in Paleolithic societies, there is also little evidence to indicate that systematic warfare existed at any time prior to the Neolithic.

With the exception of classes and states, and all of the coercive and violent mechanisms that are put into place to protect and expand class and state power, all of the basic human institutions were developed during the Paleolithic, and during a time before any modern humans had yet migrated out of Africa.  All of the things that make us human (having large brains, walking upright, using tools, using complex language and forming complex social bonds, creating art, music, and religion, and forming beliefs about the cosmos, the afterlife, and the meaning of human existence) were characteristics first developed during our shared pre-history in Sub-Saharan Africa.  These traits are universal in the human species, and are shared by all living human cultures.

The societies of the Upper Paleolithic were once categorized as being in a state of ‘savagery’ and many still think of these societies in this way.  When one considers the juncture that the human race is currently at in the world, we have much that we could learn from the original creators of our shared human heritage.


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