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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: April 2012

21 - Integration of the genetic, anatomical and archaeological data for the African origin of modern humans: problems and prospects

from Part III - Modern human origins: patterns and processes

Summary

Abstract

In the early to mid 1990s many anthropologists and geneticists concluded that a synthesis of the origin of modern humans was possible: modern humans evolved in Africa between 200 000 and 100 000 years ago, migrated to Israel by 100 000 years ago, and completed the colonisation of the Old World between 50 000 and 30 000 years ago. However, by the late 1990s to early 2000s, genetic and archaeological evidence had made many aspects of this synthesis debatable. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and Y-chromosome data provided different ages for their last common ancestors; that of the Y-chromosome was probably too young to support a 100 000-year-old exodus from Africa. There was also a delay of at least 50 000 years between the appearance of anatomically modern morphology in Africa and the successful colonisation of much of Eurasia and Australia. New finds of early anatomically modern humans from Herto and revised dates for the Omo Kibish specimens from Ethiopia increase the length of this delay to 100 000 to 150 000 years. Great controversy surrounds the issue of how to identify fully modern behavioural patterns in the African and Eurasian archaeological record, but whether they view the behaviour of earlier Middle Stone Age (MSA) humans as fully modern or not, most archaeologists agree that the behavioural record between 70 000 to 40 000 years ago in Africa demonstrates the capacity for a variety of sophisticated behaviours present in later humans. New data from mtDNA on the age of the modern human settlement of Eurasia indicates a rapid settlement starting at around 63 000 years ago. Other data from mtDNA hints that there may have been a contemporaneous expansion of people through Africa bringing with them new Y-chromosomes and perhaps a novel form of the FOXP2 gene, which may have been a crucial component of fully modern language. Industries from Tanzania to South Africa dating to 55 000 to 70 000 years ago such as the Howiesons Poort in South Africa, the Lupembo-Tshitolian in northern Angola, and Tshangulan in Zimbabwe, and Mumba Industry in Tanzania all feature the prominent use of backed blades, segments and crescents in addition to generic sidescrapers. Unifacial or bifacial points may be the archaeological handiwork of this expanding population. However, the absolute ages of many of these assemblages need further clarification before this hypothesis can be accepted unreservedly. It is still possible that the capacity for ‘modern’ behaviour was in place long before this date, perhaps even before the appearance of anatomically modern humans.

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