Origin of Modern Humans
Shara E. Bailey, New York University
The origin of modern humans has been debated for decades. At issue is whether modern humans emerged once from Africa around 200,000 years ago, and subsequently spread out replacing the archaic humans who were living in the rest of the Old World, or whether modern human features evolved in multiple areas of the Old World through a process of evolution from and/or mixing with archaic groups. The current consensus of genetic research supports a single African origin for modern humans. Yet, paleontological evidence suggests that there were multiple dispersals by apparently anatomically modern human groups. An early dispersal into the Levant included people who look ‘modern’ but who were relying on the same cultural resources as their archaic predecessors. It was not until more than 50,000 years later that a subsequent dispersal event included modern humans bearing innovative new tools, weapons, paint brushes and personal adornment. For years researchers have wondered why there was an apparent lag between biological modernity and cultural modernity, and they have marveled at what appeared to be a ‘Cultural Revolution’ associated with this later dispersal of modern humans. What could have caused it? Could it have been a mutation in a gene for language? Could it have been a subtle but important reorganization of certain neural connections? Or, as recent research suggests, was the ground work for these apparent innovations actually present in Africa early on? Our speakers will address these questions and more about what it means to be a modern human.