There’s a common story about the human past that goes something like this. For a few hundred thousand years during the Stone Age we were kind of limping along as a species, in a bit of a cognitive rut, let’s say. But then, quite suddenly, around 30 or 40 thousand years ago in Europe, we really started to come into our own. All of a sudden we became masters of art and ornament, of symbolism and abstract thinking. This story of a kind of “cognitive revolution” in the Upper Paleolithic has been a mainstay of popular discourse for decades. I’m guessing you’re familiar with it. It’s been discussed in influential books by Jared Diamond and Yuval Harari; you can read about it on Wikipedia. What you may not know is that this story, compelling as it may be, is almost certainly wrong.
My first guest today is Dr. Eleanor Scerri, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, where she heads the Pan-African Evolution research group. My second guest is Dr. Manuel Will, an archaeologist and Lecturer at the University of Tübingen in Germany. Together, Eleanor and Manuel are authors of a new paper titled ‘The revolution that still isn’t: The origins of behavioral complexity in Homo sapiens.‘ In the paper, they pull together a wealth of evidence showing that there really was no cognitive revolution—no one watershed moment in time and space. Rather, the origins of modern human cognition and culture are to be found not in one part of Europe but across Africa. And they’re also to be found much earlier than that classic picture suggests.
Here, we talk about the “cognitive revolution” model and why it has endured. We discuss a seminal paper from the year 2000 that first influentially challenged the revolution model. We talk about the latest evidence of complex cognition from the Middle Stone Age in Africa—including the perforation of marine shells to make necklaces; and the use of ochre for engraving, painting, and even sunblock. We discuss how, though the same complex cognitive abilities were likely in place for the last few hundred thousand years, those abilities were often expressed patchily in different parts of the world at different times. And we consider the factors that led to this patchy expression, especially changes in population size.
I confess I was always a bit taken with this whole “cognitive revolution” idea. It had a certain mystery and allure. This new picture that’s taking its place is certainly a bit messier, but no less fascinating. And, more importantly, it’s truer to the complexities of the human saga.