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Why Don't We Call Them Cro-Magnon Anymore?

What are 'Anatomically Modern Humans'?


Early Modern Human Skull from Qazfeh Cave in Israel

Early Modern Human Skull from Qazfeh Cave in Israel


What Are Cro-Magnons?

Cro-Magnon is the informal word once used by scientists to refer to the people who were living alongside Neanderthals at the end of the last ice age (ca. 35,000-10,000 years ago). They were given the name 'Cro-Magnon' because in 1868, parts of five skeletons were discovered in the rockshelter of that name, located in the famous Dordogne Valley of France.

Scientists compared these skeletons to Neanderthal skeletons which had earlier been found in similarly dated sites such as Paviland, Wales; and a little later at Combe Capelle and Laugerie-Basse in France, and decided they were different enough from the Neanderthals, to give them a different name.

Recent research over the past 20 years or so, however, has led scholars to believe that the physical dimensions of so-called 'Cro-Magnon' are not sufficiently different enough from modern humans to warrant a separate designation. Scientists today use 'Anatomically Modern Human' (AMH) or 'Early Modern Human' (EMH) to designate the Upper Paleolithic human beings who looked a lot like us, but did not have the complete suite of modern human behaviors.

Physical Characteristics of EMH

The physical characteristics of Early Modern Human are quite similar to modern humans, although perhaps a bit more robust, particularly seen in femora--the leg bones. The differences, which are slight, have been attributed to the shift away from long distance hunting strategies to sedentism and agriculture.

A recent study by Trent Holliday comparing early and late Upper Paleolithic skeletal materials provided an average male height of 170 centimeters (early) and 168 centimeters (late), and average female height of 157.6 cm (early) and 158.4 (late). However, Formicola and Giannecchini's data revealed that "EUP males are much taller (176.2 cm) and LUP shorter (165.6 cm), with an average difference of 10.6 cm. Similarly EUP females (162.9 cm) largely exceed LUP females (153.5 cm)." I think the jury is still out.

Where Did EMH Come From?

In Africa, early modern humans appeared at least as long ago as 160,000 years BP at sites such as Bouri in Ethiopia, and perhaps as long ago as 195,000 years ago, if the dating of Omo Kibish, also in Ethiopia, is correct. The earliest sites outside of Africa with early modern humans are at Skhul and Qafzeh caves in what is now Israel about 100,000 years ago. There's a large gap in the record for Asia and Europe, between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago, a period in which the Middle East seems to have been occupied by Neanderthals; but around 50,000 years ago, the EMH appear again and flow back into Europe.

This is problematic, because there's very little data for these periods of time. In addition, the relationship between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens is hotly debated in some circles. Behaviorally, in Africa and the Middle East, the Neanderthals and EMH were pretty much the same; they were physically quite different and different scholars debate on our exact relationship with them.

Before the return of EMH to the Middle East and Europe, early technological glimmers of modern behavior are in evidence at several South African sites of the Still Bay/Howiesons Poort tradition, about 75,000-65,000 years ago. But it wasn't until about 50,000 years ago or so, that a difference in tools, in burial methods, in the presence of art and music, and probably some changes in social behaviors as well, became apparent. At the same time, early modern humans left Africa.

What were the Tools Like?

Beginning about 50,000 years ago, the tool kit associated with EMH is the Aurignacian, characterized by what archaeologists call a 'blade industry'. In blade technology, the knapper has sufficient skill to purposefully produce a long thin sliver of stone that is triangular in cross-section. Blades were then converted into all kinds of tools, sort of the Swiss army knife of early modern humans.

Other things associated with early modern humans include ritual burials, such as that at Abrigo do Lagar Velho, Portugal, where a child's body was covered with red ochre before being interred 24,000 years ago. The invention of the atlatl was at least as long as 17,500 years ago, the earliest having been recovered from the site of Combe Sauniere. Venus figurines are attributed to early modern humans of about 30,000 years ago; and of course, let's not forget the amazing Lascaux Cave.

So Why Don't We Still Call Them Cro-Magnon?

The more we learn about early modern humans, the less we feel confident about the early classification systems we developed more than 130 years ago. The term Cro-Magnon doesn't refer to a particular taxonomy or even a particular group located in a particular place. The word is not precise enough, and so most paleontologists prefer to use Anatomically Modern or Early Modern Humans.

Early Modern Human Sites

Sites with EMH human remains include: Predmostí and Mladec Cave (Czech Republic), Cro-Magnon, Abri Pataud, Brassempouy (France), Cioclovina (Romania), Qafzeh Cave, Skuhl Cave, and Amud (Israel), Vindija Cave (Croatia), kostenki (Russia), Bouri and Omo Kibish (Ethiopia)

See Page 2 for bibliographic sources for this project.

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com Guide to the Middle Paleolithic, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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