Myths of ‘Modern’ Human Origins – Anthropologist John J. Shea, Sigma XI Distinguished Lecturer, at the 44th Annual Student Research Conference at WKU

Sat, Mar 22, 2014, 5pm, Gary Ransdell Hall

john shea, anthropologist

At Field Lab in Omo Kibish, Ethiopia, January 2014
(I. Wallace Photo)

Paleoanthropologist, Antrhropology Department & Turkana Basin Institute, Stony Brook University

Description from Sigma XI, the honor society of research scientists:

John J. Shea is Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York and Research Associate of the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya. He is an alumnus of Boston University (BA 1978) and Harvard University (Ph.D. 1991). Shea’s research focuses on the archaeology of human evolution, namely the origin of our species, Homo sapiens, and the extinction of the Neanderthals. He is an expert at making, using, and analyzing stone tools whose work has been featured in more than a dozen television documentaries and in exhibits in the American Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution). Shea has conducted archaeological surveys and excavations in Israel, Jordan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya. His most recent publications challenge the widely-held theory that Homo sapiens became “behaviorally modern” along the course of our evolution, using evidence from the analysis of stone tools from Eastern Africa. […]

For decades paleoanthropologists have distinguished recent “behaviorally-modern” humans from the earliest member of our species, Homo sapiens. This distinction reflects two longstanding myths in human origins research. The first myth is that the European Upper Paleolithic “revolution” 40,000 years ago marks a crucial turning point in prehistory. The second is there is a unifying trend to human evolution. This lecture challenges both of these myths. The European Upper Paleolithic features impressive art and it is well-documented by archaeologists, but it is just the record of one region, and not one necessarily representative of the whole world. Archaeologists’ use of the Upper Paleolithic as a universal standard for human behavioral modernity is an artifact of history. It reflects the fact that archaeology began in Europe, a continent to which humans dispersed relatively late and not in Africa, where our species actually originated. If there were a trend in human behavioral evolution, it should be apparent in the archaeological record for Eastern Africa, the region with the longest fossil record for Homo sapiens. Analysis of variability in stone tool technology over the last 275,000 years in Eastern Africa reveals no trend in human behavioral evolution, but instead a wide range of behavioral variability from before our species origins to recent times. Such differences as there are between earlier and later stone tools, (chiefly microlithic technology) reflect changes in toolmaking strategies, not the evolution of “behavioral modernity”. This evidence provides no support for a categorical distinction between the earliest members of our species and ourselves. Early Homo sapiens were no less capable of varying their behavior to deal with novel evolutionary challenges than we are. They were different from us, but not inferior. Trend theories about human evolution have a long history of being wrong. The “behavioral modernity” theory is wrong, too. (emphases added)

Shea’s myth of ‘behavioral modernity’ reminds me of Bruno Latour’s deconstruction of the foundational myth of modernity, i.e. the distinction between nature and society/culture, ‘thing’ and ‘human,’ ‘out there’ and ‘in here,’ ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity,’ and hence ‘natural’ and ‘social’ sciences and ‘humanities’ etc. as misleading false dichotomies in his work in the anthropology of science, We Have Never Been Modern (1991).

This reconceptualization and rearticulation of the social and the natural in the context of a relationalist and functionalist understanding of global studies is necessary to adequately comprehend and be able to respond to the Anthropocene.

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