Although archaeologists today are usually careful to distinguish what we actually know about the humans who lived before us from the media portrayal of those humans, the “pop culture” view of ancient man remains largely irreverent. The Flintstones aside, our society usually portrays ancient man as brutish, unduly aggressive, and physically abnormal.
A new paper appearing in the journal Current Anthropology is the latest in a long line of research challenging that view. Stony Brook University archaeologist John Shea leverages the difference between “behavioral modernity” and “behavioral variability” to argue that ancient man—a term that, in his view, stretches to some 100,000 years ago or more—weren’t so different from ourselves.
The “behavioral modernity” theory says that humans only grew sophisticated in the last 50,000 years or less, finally using tools, developing advanced techniques for fire-making, and the like. Before that, our behavior was thought to be more like that of the pop culture caveman. As for the cause of that advance, archaeologists still don’t know. But Shea rejects this view and points instead to “behavioral variability”: what if all the differences in human cultural sophistication are explained by natural variation in terms of the costs and benefits of, e.g., particular toolmaking strategies and the practical needs of living in unique environments? If true, there need not have been any revolution in human behavior, and the history of Homo sapiens is consistent with our high intelligence and cultural sophistication. Moreover, Shea criticizes the ranking of ancient human populations, which suggests different levels of advancement without consideration of environmental pressures. What we should be studying, he argues, is why living in certain environments led to unique behavioral patterns.
Given the variation in human societies, we need no evidence of “sophistication” in certain human populations to show that they were fully human. After all, a fully “modern” human living on a deserted island may well leave behind only “primitive” tools, for example.
Shea’s view is quite supportive of several creationist points. First, we have noted in the past that it’s sometimes easy to see a progression (whether it be of behaviors or anatomy)—especially if one presupposes that a progression exists—when in fact there is only variation. Second, given the variation in human societies, we need no evidence of “sophistication” in certain human populations to show that they were fully human. After all, a fully “modern” human living on a deserted island may well leave behind only “primitive” tools, for example. Factoring all this in, it is easy to understand all known human artifacts as fitting in to a post-Babel human history, wherein people groups dispersed after Babel and built relatively isolated civilizations. While all were descendants of Adam—and thereby bore the image of God—we observe variation in what their lifestyles were like due to natural variation in their circumstances.
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