Growing up in a more literarily and theologically inclined family, much of my paleoanthropological education came from back issues of National Geographic and outdated editions of Encyclopædia Britannica. I read Mary Leakey’s article about her discovery of the footprints at Laetoli in the April 1979 issue, and pored through earlier issues to find articles about her work at Olduvai Gorge — articles like one from October 1961 by her husband Louis S. B. Leakey titled “Exploring 1,750,000 Years into Man’s Past: A Noted British Archaeologist Tells of Dramatic Discoveries at Olduvai Gorge.” I desperately wanted to be a young Leakey boy like (future paleoanthropologist) Richard or (future statesman) Philip, seen with his parents in this photo from that article. Frankly, I’d have settled for being one of Mary Leakey’s ever-present dalmatians.
Over the past 18 months, I’ve immersed myself deeper and deeper in the Paleolithic, reading scores of books and journal articles. Why?
Ever since my first visit at about age four to the Historical Museum of Hokkaido, with its mammoth skeletons and Paleolithic dioramas, I’ve been fascinating by the archaeology of deep human history (as Clive Gamble puts it in the subtitle of his exceptional book Settling the Earth). I wandered by chance onto the Tategahana Paleolithic Site at Lake Nojiri in Nagano during an excavation, walked carrot fields in Yokohama looking for Jomon potsherds, and when I traveled to Jordan during college for an Iron Age dig, I spent my evenings surface-collecting Middle Paleolithic tools from a nearby barley field. The vast, mostly unknown and seemingly unrelatable world of the Stone Age seems so much more interesting than the thoroughly modern world of Archimedes, Hadrian, and Augustine of Hippo.(more…)
The period of the Paleolithic that fascinates me most, as I know it does many archaeologists, is the transition between the Middle Paleolithic and the Upper Paleolithic. I’m particularly fascinated by archaeological work in parts of the world where anatomically modern humans (AMH) and Neanderthals met, potentially interacted, and certainly interbred. The two most likely areas where this happened, based on archaeogenetic and archaeological evidence, are the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Europe.
While the genetics are at this point incontrovertible — all non-African modern humans carry Neanderthal DNA, and recent research has proved that gene flow also occurred in the other direction — what intrigues me most are the cultural markers of interaction between AMH and Neanderthals. Similarly, what constitutes behavioral rather than merely anatomical modernity? Thus, the Mode 3 technologies associated with AMH at several sites in the Levant and Mode 4 technologies (and potentially symbolic behavior such as personal adornment) associated with Neanderthals at Châtelperronian sites like Saint-Cesaire and Les Cottés in France represent amazing opportunities to answer these questions.
- The Palaeolithic Settlement of Europe by Clive Gamble (1986)
- The Human Revolution: Behavioural and Biological Perspectives on the Origins of Modern Humans edited by Paul Mellars & Chris Stringer (1989)
- Context of a Late Neandertal: Implications of Multidisciplinary Research for the Transistion to Upper Paleolithic Adaptations at Saint-Cesaire, Charente-Maritime, France Ed. by François Lévêque, et al (1993)
- Rethinking the Human Revolution edited by Paul Mellars, Katie Boyle, Ofer Bar-Yosef, & Chris Stringer (2007)
- Settling the Earth: The Archaeology of Deep Human History by Clive Gamble (2013)
- Stone Tools in the Paleolithic and Neolithic Near East: A Guide by John J. Shea (2013)
- Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbo (2014)
- The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction by Pat Shipman (2015)
When most of us think about the Paleolithic, if we think about it at all, we think of our “Stone Age” ancestors clad in fur against the Ice Age cold, leaving their brightly painted caves to hunt mammoth. As a teenager in 1989, I visited the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian and bought one of my first books specifically about the Paleolithic in the gift shop, Paul Bahn and Jean Vertut’s gorgeous Images of the Ice Age. Through no fault of the authors, the book reinforced my childhood view of “deep” human history being a time populated by mammoths and men — humans like us.
As true as it may feel, the Upper Paleolithic is hardly ancient in the grand scheme of things, representing as little as one quarter of our species’ existence, and a minuscule fraction of the time our genus Homo has walked the earth. Nevertheless, the Upper Paleolithic, as remote as it may seem to all of us living in the post-Neolithic Holocene, still somehow feels like “our” Stone Age — a time we can relate to, with its art, complex technology, and nearly global scale.
Quibbles with perceptions of antiquity aside, it’s hard to argue that the Upper Paleolithic wasn’t beautiful. The books in my Upper Paleolithic reading list reflect the beauty and complexity of the time when we finally became us.
- Images of the Ice Age by Paul G. Bahn & Jean Vertut (1988)
- The Cave Beneath the Sea: Paleolithic Images at Cosquer by Jean Clottes & Jean Courtin (1994)
- Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave (The Oldest Known Paintings in the World) by Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, with an introduction by Paul Bahn and epilogue by Jean Clottes (1995)
- Kebara Cave, Mt. Carmel, Israel, Part I: The Middle and Upper Paleolithic Archaeology edited by Ofer Bar-Yosef & Liliane Meignen (2008)
- Cave Art by Jean Clottes (2010)