Symbolism and Social Exchange Leads to Homo sapiens Expansion
By DANIEL BARIL - PAST HORIZONS
Added: Wed, 16 May 2012 03:11:34 UTC
The disappearance of Neanderthals still remains a mystery, but paleoanthropologists are increasingly understanding what allowed their evolutionary cousins, Homo sapiens, to conquer the planet.
According to Ariane Burke, Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Université de Montréal, the rapid dispersal of anatomically modern humans was not so much due to superior intelligence or improved hunting or gathering techniques, but rather to the creation of symbolic objects that allowed them to extend their social relations across vast territories.
A swift expansion
Homo sapiens arrived in Europe some 45,000 years ago, from Africa. In less than 15,000 years, they managed to occupy the whole of Europe and Eurasia—an extremely rapid expansion. Neanderthals, on the other hand, were born of Europe, appearing on the continent more than 250,000 years ago, after their ancestors, Homo ergaster, had become established there 600,000 years earlier.
Though physiologically well adapted to the cold climate of the glacial and post-glacial periods, why were Neanderthals not as successful as their human rivals in colonising the continent?
“Neanderthals were quite capable of hunting herd animals and big game,” said the researcher. “They also knew how to feed on shellfish, plants, and nuts.” They occupied diverse territories, with a variety of climate zones, ranging from the Iberian Peninsula to the Middle East and the Altai Mountains. Yet current knowledge suggests they never occupied the northern plains of Europe, where they would have been able to survive quite well.
Based on these present known facts, and considering that the territories occupied by Neanderthals were small and distant from each other, Burke speculates that the greatest superiority of Homo sapiens was in their social organization, which developed during the Middle Palaeolithic period between 200,000 and 35,000 years ago.
Long distance relationships
This “modern” social organization can be characterized in he maintenance of personal relations despite the absence of the persons involved over distance. These extended relationships were made possible by the invention of cultural and symbolic objects that facilitated intergroup exchanges.
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