Thursday, January 07, 2010

Modern human behavior in East Asia

In a recent paper, Christopher Norton and Jennie Jin review the evidence for 'modern' human behavior in the Late Pleistocene archaeological record of East Asia (i.e., China, Japan, and Korea). This is a welcome effort fits in with other recent reviews of the record of other parts of the Old World that, for various reasons, remained marginalized in most pre-2000 discussions of modern human origins, including Australia (Brumm and Moore 2005), Sahul (Habgood and Franklin 2008), and South Asia (James and Petraglia 2005). A thorough review of the situation in East Asia is also important in light of recent publications on early diagnostic Homo sapiens remains found at Tianyuan Cave in China (Shang et al. 2007) and reviews of modern human origins in the region that contrast somewhat with models popular in other parts of the Old World (e.g., Wu 2004).

Based on their review of the Pleistocene material culture and, to a lesser extent, the hominin fossil record in the region, Norton and Jin (2009) highlight the distinctive nature and internal heterogenetiy of the archaeological record of East Asia and conclude that:

"...based on the current state of the evidence from East Asia, we suggest that it is premature to argue for or against the saltational or gradualistic models. Second, evidence of watercraft and adaptation to higher altitudes should receive greater consideration for reconstructions of modern human behavior, particularly in East Asia. Interestingly, the evidence from northern China, Korea, and Japan lends more support for the saltational [replacement] model, while the evidence for southern China appears to corroborate the gradualistic [continuity] model. We postulate that this may in part be related to ecological differences between the two regions..." (Norton and Jin 2009: 258).

Adaptations to high altitudes is a bit surprising in this context, since the authors themselves indicate that current evidence suggests that only the lowest (< 3000m above sea level) parts of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau were settled by the end of OIS 3. This falls within the topographic range even of Neanderthals several tens of millennia earlier (Hopkinson 2007). That said, they are right to emphasize the importance of watercraft use and island colonization as important innovative behaviors, and their discussion of the human settlement of the Japan archipelago to illustrate this is quite good, drawing on both 'paleobathymetric' data and obsidian sourcing studies that show that obsidian traveled across open bodies of water to reach several Upper Paleolithic Japanese sites.

This is a very useful addition to the literature on the origins of modern human behavior on two levels. First, it succintly condenses a large body of research from a region that remains generally poorly-known by most paleoanthropologists, which is always a good thing in and of itself. Second, and most importantly, it underscores how distinctly the shift to behavioral 'modernity' unfolded in various parts of the Old World and even within single regions. Despite what some like to think, it is increasingly clear that this wasn't a uniform phenomenon across the Old World, and indeed that it couldn't have been. Their reference to ecological factors as one potential explanation for this is good, but I think that their discussion about different population densities in northern and southern East Asia is likely to have been even more important in fostering the need "for different foraging groups... to distinguish themselves from each other" (Norton and Jin 2009:247).


Brumm, A., and M.W. Moore. 2005. Symbolic revolutions and the Australian archaeological record. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 15:157-175.

Habgood P.J., and N.R. Franklin. 2008. The revolution that didn't arrive: a review of Pleistocene Sahul. Journal of Human Evolution 55:187-222

Hopkinson, T. 2007. The transition from the Lower to the Middle Palaeolithic in Europe and the incorporation of difference. Antiquity 81:294-307.

James, H.V.A., and M.D. Petraglia. 2005. Modern human origins and the evolution of behavior in the later Pleistocene record of South Asia. Current Anthropology 46:S3-S27.

Norton, C.J., and J.J.H. Jin. 2009. The evolution of modern human behavior in East Asia: current perspectives. Evolutionary Anthropology 18:247-260.

Shang, H., H. Tong, S. Zhang, F. Chen, and E. Trinkaus. 2007. An early modern human from Tianyuan Cave, Zhoukoudian, China. PNAS 104: 6573-6578.

Wu, X.Z. 2004. On the origin of modern humans in China. Quaternary International 117:131-140.

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