free trial issue                                                        subscribe                                                       back issues

Athena Review  Vol.2, no.4:   Neanderthals Meet Modern Humans

Book Reviews

The Geography of Neanderthals and Modern Humans in Europe and the Greater Mediterranean

by Ofer Bar-Yosef and David Pilbeam (eds.).

Cambridge MA, Peabody Museum 2000. 197 pp., 36 b/w illustrations, 25 maps, 15 tables and an Appendix. ISBN: 0-87365-958-9. (paperback).

Much of the debate of when, how, and why Neanderthals were replaced by anatomically modern humans has been localized geographically to western Europe, neglecting the disappearance of Neanderthals from eastern Europe, northern Africa, the Caucasus, and the Levant. This group of studies, edited by Bar-Yosef and Pilbeam, takes a more geographically holistic approach than previous efforts in describing the shift in dominance from Neanderthals to anatomically modern humans. It is also the intent of this volume to broaden the understanding of the “revolution” underlying the changes from Middle to Upper Paleolithic technologies, i.e., from Mousterian to Aurignacian tools [see also Athena Review, Vol.2, no.4, box, p.41]. However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is the attention it pays to transitional, or overlapping, tool cultures combining Mousterian and Aurignacian traits (i.e., the Châtelperronian), such as at St. Césaire in France. Most essays in the volume discuss a significant period of thousands of years of coexistence between the two assumedly distinct populations based on the overlapping archaeological evidence.

Middle Paleolithic technologies were gradually replaced by those of the Early Upper Paleolithic in a pattern from east to west. The Iberian Penninsula was apparently the last home of the Mousterian stone tool technology and the Neanderthals, and here the book begins, to gradually work its way eastward to the Levant and the Nile River. In chapter 2 Eudald Carbonell and other Catalán archaeologists present a wealth of settlement and artifactual evidence for the transition between Middle and Upper Paleolithic technologies in Iberia, divided into geographic zones, with useful focus on pollen and climatic data and correlations with OIS (Oxygen Isotope Stages).

As the authors point out, relatively few Iberian sites, suchas the the Basque caves of Lezetzxiki and Axlor, have produced anatomical remains of Neanderthals and most have poor stratigraphic context. The recent find of a juvenile burial at Lagar Velho, Portugal, which may show mixed ancestry (see Zilhão), is not integrated into the discussion by Carbonell et al., but is discussed in the summary (chapter 7) by Jean-Jacques Hublin.

France’s dense concentration of Middle and Upper paleolithic sites (providing the type sites for Mousterian and Levallois, as well as the Aurignacian and Châtelperronian industries), probably reflects rich faunal resources along glacial margins, and major migration routes along the Dordogne and other river valleys. While the Aurignacian tool culture seems clearly tied to the advent of modern Homo sapiens, within the past 20 years Châtelperronian tools have been found with Neanderthal skeletal remains at both St. Césaire and Arcy-Sur-Cure, with radiocarbon dates centering at about 36,000 BP.

Examining the overall dating and abundant site distributions for the Châtelperronian and early Aurignacian in both France and northern Spain, Mellars feels certain these two cultures overlapped by several thousand years in both regions. These transitional sites, however, show much wider usage of Châtelperronian technology in France than in Spain, as evidenced by the use of bone and ivory, personal ornaments, and red ochre at Arcy-sur-Cure (see also White).

In Italy, Kuhn and Bietti (chapter 4) report that Uluzzian tools represented a locally unique transitional culture which is neither Mousterian nor Aurignacian. As one of the oldest technologies from the Early Upper Paleolithic, the type sequence from Grotta del Cavallo in southern Italy shows a seemingly disparate collection of uni- and bi-directional cores, bone tools and perforated marine shells, along with occasional blades. Only two deciduous teeth have been found at this site; the earlier one is likely an anatomically modern human and the more recent appears Neanderthal.

Kozlowski's report on central and eastern Europe (chapter 5) shows a transitional complexity between 50,000-30,000 BP, which (while not focusing on the Aurignacian) may well contain various roots of Western European Upper Paleolithic cultures. Four transitional groups dating from 50-20,000 BP are examined in detail, revealing that their complexity argues against any simplistic concept of the transition to Upper Paleolithic culture.

Ofer Bar-Yosef, in his essay on the Levant and northern Africa (chapter 6), discusses the problem of spatially defining the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition. He argues that if a technology originating in Northern Africa is brought to the Levant, changes to the original technology may well have occurred randomly or opportunistically along the way, depending on local materials and needs, obscuring the path of any gradual transition and making identification of an original core area increasingly difficult. Helpful clues, however, can be provided by the introduction of new tools to the original tool kit, such as the “Y” scar pattern on Levallois points from the Nile Valley also being found on Emireh points in the Levant.

Such complex detail, fascinating for the specialist, can also enthuse and reward many beginning students, provided they realize that this book requires attention and some preparation. The only minor criticisms offered here are a wish for higher quality graphical production in some essays (i.e., the maps from Iberia are obscure), and the lack of an index. Both bibliographies and chronological tables, on the other hand, are excellent. In all important ways, this volume gives a highly useful compendium of the current state of research on the Middle-Upper Paleolithic continuum, and comprises a basic research tool for eventually solving these central problems of the origins of modern humans.

Abridged from Athena Review, Vol.2, no.4 (pp.87-89).

Athena Review Image Archive™   |  Paleoanthropology in the News   |  Guide to Archaeology on the Internet   |   Free issue   |   Back issues

Main index of Athena Review   |   Subject Index   |   Travel Pages   |   Galleries and Museums   |  Ad rates   |  Current issue index |

Copyright  ©  1996-2001  Athena Publications, Inc.  (All Rights Reserved).