Royal Society Publishing

The Role of Western Asia in Modern Human Origins

O. Bar-Yosef


Western Asia provides the best collection of human skeletal remains relevant to the two basic models for the emergence of modern humans, namely the `rapid replacement' and the `regional continuity' models. Regardless of the taxonomies of particular hominids, their chronology is of crucial importance. Thermoluminescence (TL) and electron spin resonance (ESR) dates demonstrate that the Acheulo-Yabrudian and Mousterian entities and their associated fossils (Zuttiyeh, Tabun, Skhul, Qafzeh, Kebara, Shanidar, Amud) span the late Middle and Upper Pleistocene period. These new dates initiated major chronological revisions and renewed discussion of the cultural-archaeological implications. One of the most important conclusions is that the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition (or Revolution) 45-40 ka ago has nothing to do with the appearance of anatomically early modern humans in western Asia, which occurred some 100 ka ago or more. The Levant, the coastal region of the eastern Mediterranean, was both a corridor for movement of humans and animals as well as a refugium during climatically harsh periods. The mixture of morphological characteristics among the available Middle Palaeolithic human fossils is interpreted as reflecting the presence of immigrant and local populations. Archaeologically observable behavioural changes are taken as hints to the pre-adaptations of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic revolution. The archaeological record of western Asia can contribute significantly to explaining the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic revolution. This region was the core area where the `Neolithic Revolution' took place. The shift to systematic cultivation and the domestication of animals occurred within a short time. Population increase resulted from predictable supplies of food, and growth initiated the expansion of early Neolithic communities first northward and then westward and eastward. The westward dispersal into Europe was by demic diffusion and acculturation. I recommend adopting the same research strategy employed to resolve the `where' and `when' of the Neolithic revolution for the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition. Once the source region is identified and dated, the search for causes can be more focused.