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Modern Human Origins : Evidence from the Near East

Publication Date
DOI: 10.3406/paleo.1995.4616
  • Homo Sapiens
  • Near East
  • Africa
  • Upper Pleistocene
  • Paleogenetics
  • Homo Sapiens
  • Proche-Orient
  • Afrique
  • Pléistocène Supérieur
  • Paléogénétique
  • Archaeology


Near East is large and anatomically diverse. On the basis of cranial and skeletal features, this sample has been divided into two distinct groups. One grouping, composed of specimens from the sites of Shanidar, Tabun, Wadi Amud and perhaps Kebara, possesses features similar to those of the European Neandertals. The other group, represented by the samples from the Qafzeh and Skhul caves, possesses many features linking them with modern humans. Neither of the two major models proposed to account for modern human origins, rapid replacement, or regional evolutionary continuity, emphasize these sizable collections from the Near East in their formulations. This is understandable because the fossil and archaeological data from the Near East do not provide supporting evidence for either model. Close examination of the rapid replacement model indicates that this widely held notion that the origins of anatomically modern humans took place on the African continent is not currently supported by the evidence. Two kinds of evidence have been used to support the rapid replacement model : comparative molecular and fossil data. The molecular evidence is from comparisons of the nuclear and mitochondricd genetic material from a number of living human populations. These data document a relatively recent common origin for modern human populations, but they are not able to specify the continent where this origin occurred. The data can be equally interpreted to place this origin locale in Africa or in Eurasia. Thus, the molecular data does not support an "Out of Africa" model as being any more likely than one that suggests an origin in Asia. The fossil evidence in support of the rapid replacement model comes from three sub-Saharan sites : the Kibish Formation along the Оmо River in southern Ethiopia; Border Cave, from the border area between South Africa and Swaziland; and from Klasies River Mouth Cave on the southern coast of South Africa. Each of these fossil samples have difficulties which make their acceptance as representatives of early modern humans disputable. The Klasies River Mouth sample is fragmentary and incomplete, making any anatomical judgements about its modernity provisional. There continue to be questions about the contemporaneous association of the Border Cave hominids with the ancient archaeological levels in which they were found. Finally, the dating techniques used to place the Оmо Kibish fossils at more than 100,000 years ago are suspect when utilized on materials like shells. Thus, the currently earliest known, well documented anatomically modern human samples are those from the Skhul and Qafzeh caves. This evidence, however, is not complete enough to allow us to draw any conclusions about the time and place of modern human origins. Indeed, through much of the latter part of the Middle Pleistocene and almost all of the Late Pleistocene, there is virtually no archaeological or fossil hominid evidence from much of southern Asia. Reasonably, at the present time, given the quality of evidence documenting an African origin for modern humans, as well as the lack of data from southern Asia, an Asian origin must be considered as equally plausible.

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