1. Introduction: Modern Human Origins and Biological Essentialism

The origin of modern human beings has been a dominant research problem in palaeolithic archaeology and palaeoanthropology for over three decades. Archaeology's distinctive contribution to this has been to explore the evolutionary emergence of modern human behaviour. The broad consensus view has been that modern human behaviour is an expression of a uniquely modern mind, which in turn is enabled by a uniquely modern genetically specified neurophysiology and neuroanatomy that evolved in the course of our species' phylogeny. 'Archaic' hominins of the mid- and later Pleistocene, such as the Neanderthals of the western and central Eurasian Middle Palaeolithic and Homo erectus in East Asia, by contrast, are held to have lacked this heritable modern neurophysiology and therefore to have been innately incapable of modern cognition and behaviour (e.g. Klein 1985; 1995; 2008; Deacon 1997; McBrearty and Brooks 2000; Coolidge and Wynn 2001; 2005; 2007; 2009; Deacon and Wurz 2001; Henshilwood and Marean 2003; Mellars 2004; 2005; Wynn and Coolidge 2007; Henshilwood and Dubreuil 2011).

This consensus can be characterised as 'internalist' or 'brain-bound' (Malafouris 2011, 385) or as biological essentialism. It casts cognitive and behavioural modernity as a genetically specified and transmitted condition, as an inherent property of the modern human being. It has dovetailed with and contributed to a coherent 'Out of Africa' narrative of modern human origins in which Homo sapiens emerged in Africa by some 160 thousand years ago (kya) or earlier; and then, equipped with modern minds and behavioural repertoires, undertook a long diaspora that began perhaps 60 kya and culminated by 30 kya in their/our global dispersal and the extinction of cognitively under-equipped archaic hominins (Klein 1995; 1998; 2008; McBrearty and Brooks 2000; Barham 2002; Henshilwood and Marean 2003; Mellars 2004; 2005; 2006; Henshilwood 2007; Marean 2007). From this perspective, 'modern human beings' amount to people like us, essentially indistinguishable from ourselves. Archaic hominins, by contrast, are conceived as the primitive 'other', prevented by their very natures from attaining modernity (Ingold 2000).


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