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Neither Neanderthals nor a volatile climate caused innovation 42,000 years ago

On his blog, A Very Remote Period Indeed, Julien
Riel-Salvatore discusses his recent paper about Neanderthals and

I’m quoted [in the press release] as saying,
among other things, that this study helps ‘rehabilitate’
Neanderthals by showing that they were able to develop some of the
accoutrements of behavioral modernity independent of any contact
with modern humans. While I’ve caught a bit of flak from some
friends and colleagues for that turn of phrase, I stand by my
statement -this study helps to cast Neanderthals in a much more
positive light than they have been for a long while now.

In my book, I argue that Neanderthals –though highly
intelligent — did not show a tendency to innovate, because they
did not show a tendency to exchange (their artefacts never come
from far away), and this kept their toolkit much the same till the
end. The discovery of Neanderthals innovating would therefore be a
blow to my argument.

I’m not yet convinced that the Uluzzian technology
Riel-Salvatore describes was made by Neanderthals at all. Nor is

I’m the first one to admit that the fossil
evidence for the ‘transition interval’ in Italy is extremely scant.
The attribution of the proto-Aurignacian to modern humans is based
on a couple of loose while the attribution of the Uluzzian to
Neanderthals is based on three milk teeth from two layers in one
site, Grotta del Cavallo. The only certainty seems to be for
central Italy, where Neanderthal remains are associated with some
of the Late Mousterian assemblages. In the past, the consensus view
– no doubt in part informed by the Chatelperronian situation – has
been that some of those teeth from Cavallo display some affinities
to Neanderthals, in spite of the lowermost tooth originally having
been described as more modern in appearance (Palma di Cesnola and
Messeri 1967), although recent revisions suggest that it falls
within the Neanderthal range (Churchill and Smith 2000).

Whatever the case may be, the fossil record
is extremely thin here, and while people have traditionally been
comfortable with the proto-Aurignacian = modern human and Uluzzian
= Neanderthal equations, my own preference is to remain agnostic
about who made what industry during the transition interval in the
Italian peninsula (Riel-Salvatore 2009). However, because the
generally accepted view is that the Uluzzian was made by
Neanderthals, I’ve used it as an operating assumption in this new
paper, even though I derive none of my hypotheses from that
assumptions. In fact, I think that considering whoever made the
Uluzzian first and foremost as foragers helps to avoid
predetermining interpretations about what the Uluzzian was, how it
came to be and how it disappeared.

Moreover, I don’t find his argument for what triggered this
burst of innovation persuasive. He blames it on an unusually
volatile climate around 42,000 years ago:

Overall then, what I’m proposing in this
paper is that climatic instability selected for behavioral
innovation, one manifestation of which was the Uluzzian in southern
Italy. If Neanderthals are responsible for the Uluzzian, that means
they reacted in very ‘modern’ ways to these conditions by
developing some of the very same innovations that seem to have made
modern humans so evolutionary successful in the long ter

This meme just won’t die. Even evolutionary biologists like it,
arguing that the volatility of the Pleistocene in Africa selected
for big brains in human beings — even though it did not do so for
any other mammal species. The actual empirical evidence for a
volatile climate triggering innovation at any point in history or
pre-history is non-existent. Places with the most volatile climate,
like Australia, saw slow innovation rates, not fast. The settled
climate that came after the ice age, not the wild swings of the
last glacial maximum, caused a burst of innovation, especially in
agriculture all over the world (see Richerson, Boyd and Bettinger’s paper entitled
`Was agriculture impossible during the Pleistocene but mandatory
during the Holocene).

Until there is actual empirical evidence to the contrary, I will
continue to think that the inventiveness of people comes from
demographic density and frequent exchange, not from some fanciful
climate determinant.

Oh, and until there is better evidence than three milk teeth I
will continue to think that the Neadnderthals did not invent the
Uluzzian technology.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist