Being a Modern Human: essentialist and hierarchical approaches to the emergence of 'modern human behaviour'

Terry Hopkinson

School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester, LE1 7RH. United Kingdom. Email:

Cite this as: T. Hopkinson 2013 'Being a Modern Human: essentialist and hierarchical approaches to the emergence of 'modern human behaviour'', Internet Archaeology 34


The emergence of the modern human mind and modern human behaviour is a prominent issue in palaeolithic archaeology. The consensus has been that modernity, understood in terms of increased rates of innovation and the emergence of symbolism, is enabled by a heritable neurophysiology unique to Homo sapiens. This consensus is characterised as biological essentialist in that it understands modernity as genotypically specified and unique to Homo sapiens. 'Archaic' hominins such as the Neanderthals are understood to have lacked the modern neuroanatomical genotype and therefore to have been innately incapable of modern cognition and behaviour.

The biological-essentialist programme, however, is facing a serious challenge as evidence for innovation and symbolism is found in the archaeological records of the Eurasian Middle Palaeolithic and the African Middle Stone Age. An alternative programme is emerging that understands modern human behaviour as an emergent property of social, demographic and ecological dynamics. It is argued that this programme is currently inadequate since it cannot explain the emergence of symbolically charged material culture and relies on inexorable long-term population growth.

It is suggested here that the problem is better understood in terms of hierarchy theory, a body of ideas concerned with systems organised on multiple scales. Palaeolithic behaviour is reconceptualised as social practice emerging from a multi-scale knowledge system. It is shown that enhancements in the rate at which knowledgeable practices disseminate through social fields – the social transmission of knowledge - will have the effect of increasing the likelihood that novel practices will be incorporated into long-term structuring principles and thus become persistent practices. They will also effect a scalar convergence of domains of knowledgeability such that technical practices become incorporated into the construction of personhood as meaningful or symbolically charged material culture.

It is therefore concluded that 'modernity' is an emergent property of life lived at particular conjunctures of social, demographic and ecological temporalities. As such it is a relational phenomenon, and there is no reason to think that 'archaic' peoples such as the Neanderthals were innately incapable of modernity.

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