The Dawn of Human Culture


February 10, 2003

Teaser: By Richard Klein with Blake Edgar Hardcover: 288 pages; Dimensions (in inches): 0.98 x 9.46 x 6.44; illustrations: 62 b/w, Publisher: John Wiley & Sons; ISBN: 0471252522; 1st edition (March 29, 2002), List Price: $27.95

Anatomically modern humans show up in the fossil record some 125,000 years ago-perhaps even earlier. Despite their modern guise, however, culturally these people relied on the same unchanging life ways as their processors had for over 1.6 million years. Then 40,000 years ago suddenly, almost overnight it seems, these same people began to produce sophisticated stone tools, followed in short order with technological innovations such as sewing needles, fish hooks, spear throwers, bow and arrows, permanent living shelters, culminating in art and other complex symbolic behaviors such as elaborate and intentional burials and music.

It would seem that very behavioral innovation must be the outgrowth of a physical innovation, yet judging from the bones at least, these people were anatomically identical on either side of this cultural divide. How then to account for it? To answer this question the authors take us back to the beginning of human evolution.

They identify three previous "punctuated" events the evolution of humans, each followed by long periods of cultural and/or anatomical stasis-the punctuated equilibria model of Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould. The first, bipedalism, the second, the invention of stone tools, and the third, cephalization (the enlargement of the human brain), each triggered by major environmental turnovers in Africa. The fourth punctuated event is the Upper Paleolithic cultural revolution the authors speculated was triggered by a neurological rewiring within the human brain.

The authors admit this rewiring left no mark on fossilized bones of early Homo sapiens. The recent discovery by Svante Paabo and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, of a "language" gene unique to H. sapiens does lend credibility to their intriguing speculation. The Dawn of Human Culture is a book that will grow in stature as time goes by.


Peter Nevraumont

Peter N. Nevraumont is publisher of Nevraumont Publishing Company where he has produced books by many prominent scientists, including Donald Johanson, Niles Eldredge, Ian Tattersall, Lynn Margulis, and R. McNeill Alexander.

Prior to that he was a reporter for Women's Wear Daily (now W), an editor at Macmillan Publishing, Managing Editor of the Columbia University Forum, an assistant producer at Universal Pictures, National Director of Advertising and Promotion at Films Incorporated, and Vice President at Ruby Street.

Peter lives in the Wall Street area of New York with his wife, Ann Perrini.