Are most people "behaviorally modern"?

By Razib Khan | November 6, 2011 7:06 pm

Paintings at Lascaux, Prof saxx

Behavioral modernity:

Behavioral modernity is a term used in anthropology, archeology and sociology to refer to a set of traits that distinguish present day humans and their recent ancestors from both living primates and other extinct hominid lineages. It is the point at which Homo sapiens began to demonstrate a reliance on symbolic thought and to express cultural creativity. These developments are often thought to be associated with the origin of language.

First, I’d like to put into the record that I suspect that Neanderthals had language as we’d understand it. I suspect within the next few decades genomics may clarify the issue, because people with congenital linguistic defects will probably be sequenced to the point where we’ll get a sense of all the many regions of the genome necessary for language competency. We can then crosscheck that against the Neanderthal genome. So let’s take that off the table, even if it’s under dispute.

The term “behavioral modernity” is important because “anatomically modern humans” predate them by tens of thousands of years in Africa. Over 2 million years there had been a gradual increase in cranial capacity in the hominin lineage up until a leveling off ~100,000 years or so before the present. It is stated by many that in fact that the maximal cranial capacity of any hominin lineage was attained by the Neanderthals.

In the post below I suggest that perhaps the transition to modern humans as we understand them had less to do with a switch in “human universals” than a more complex change on the margins of a few individuals here and there. Greg Cochran has wondered if the majority of humans today would actually be termed “behaviorally modern” by an objective third-party observer. To bring the point home: consider how many humans can actually describe in any detail how an automobile works, as opposed to using an automobile? Cultural production as we know it today is almost magical in the way complex systems arise out of the coordinated activities of many people who have no idea as to the nature of the whole. This mysterious productive endeavor seems likely to distinguish behaviorally modern humans from their predecessors. But I suspect that this required far less change on a per person basis than we might think. The average modern human understands the inner working of a computer as well as a H. erectus.

MORE ABOUT: Human Evolution

Comments (22)

  1. Francesco D’Errico has an interesting take on this issue in a 2003 Evolutionary Anthro article. I think it can be found in PDF form if you do a google scholar search. “The Invisible Frontier: a multiple species model for the origin of behavioral modernity” Evolutionary Anthropology 12(4):188-202.

    Towards the end, D’errico argues:

    “Behavioral modernity has been a useful concept to highlight the inconsistencies of the revolution model, but we now need to go further.”

    A lot has changed since this piece was written, though, both on the archaeological side of things and, more dramatically, the genetic side.

  2. Dwight E. Howell

    At a guess I’d say full blown language has been around for _at least_ half a million years and language has been around for _at least_ a million years.

    Modern behavior is at best a cultural adaption that requires a certain number of people living at least X years and sharing their knowledge with a group consisting of at least Y people with X and Y being numbers. A major fraction of the population is coasting on the abilities of others.

    A remarkable number of people still seem to be living by pure thuggery and are remarkably antisocial/criminal in their behaviors. Our society is doing a poor job of discouraging such behavior.

  3. supersnail

    hahahahahaha this is funny. 🙂

  4. wendy

    But what does understanding the inner workings of a computer or how an automobile works have to do with behavioral modernity? We are not talking about “modernity” as in the “present time,” but modernity as in the acquiring of symbolic thought and language. It’s simply a means of distinguishing “modern humans” (200 thousands years ago) with our ancestors. To change the term to be relevant to our CURRENT modern society seems pointless and unnecessary.

  5. We are not talking about “modernity” as in the “present time,” but modernity as in the acquiring of symbolic thought and language.

    it’s an analogy. how do we know that the behaviorally modern humans engaged in symbolic thought? art. now, could most ‘behaviorally modern humans’ get into the details of how to produce magnificent cave art? i doubt it. it was probably the product of a few specialists. others could appreciate it. similarly, we can appreciate technology, but most of us couldn’t produce it. i suspect that neanderthals could appreciate art too, even if they couldn’t produce it. just like most ‘behaviorally modern humans.’

  6. Doug Young

    With respect, you might possibly – both in this and previous post, be cherrypicking with hindsight. Choosing the minority with the specific qualities (leader, technologist, artist) that seems to have contributed disproportionally to our rise.

    This minority is more likely to be a symptom of an underlying sea-change – the ability to handle complexity.

    As an example, I live deep rural and am constantly amazed by the amount of information that people can story and arrange in their heads about relationships – both gossip wise and family connections to places as well as each other.

    People do this differently – some tag places with people and their ancestors (who moved where, who used to live there etc.) while some have a hugely complex map of relationships in their head. No, they can’t explain how an engine works but they handle a complexity that I can not – gossip. I also know that I can handle a degree of nuanced complexity far above what most people can – but I still share the core ability with other humans.

    This ability to handle complexity would also be essential to produce the specially skilled that you are referring to without needing to make them unique.

    The rise of complexity in humans would offer a real difference between other species, an evolutionary advantage and need only be a matter of increment in evolutionary terms.

  7. doug, your comment strikes me as contentless in terms of value add. it’s just robin dunbar’s thesis. and i’m convinced by crancial capacity parallelism that ability to ‘handle complexity’ in a generic sense may not be a feature of our lineage, but was a convergent tendency across most branches of homo for nearly 2 million years. in other words, i suspect that neanderthals gossiped.

  8. Doug Young

    Possibly, Razib – but choosing gossip as an example maybe made it too dunbar-like. You are suggesting changes in a few individuals – individuals with qualities that I suspect can be cherry picked to suit a certain view of the human rise.

    Complexity doesn’t need to be manifested in social relations at all, my point was that it can be and can be just as complex as understanding how an engine works.

    The talents that your ‘marginals’ display I just don’t see as unique – just a difference in degree. Complexity might be an explanation (amongst other possibilities).

  9. #8, you aren’t saying anything. and no shit it’s a difference of degree. why the hell did i plot them on a distribution?

  10. Eurologist

    I brought this whole thing up several expressions ago when I facetiously stated “I thought all modern humans were painters, sculptors, musicians, and seamstresses when they arrived in Europe 40000 ya?”.

    As then, I still think that division of labor is much more important and a much overlooked cultural achievement and one that productively resonates with capabilities genetically expressed. Wouldn’t you want to be part of a largish group from which you could receive the best footwear, the best coat, the best bedding, the best spear, and the best hand weapon – while being incapable of even coming close to that in almost anything? Except what you could do best?

    The latter could be snares, fishing, hide preparation, smoking/preserving/cooking, intoxicating drinks/ herbs/ medications, etc. The myth of modern paleolithic people being generalists is just that. Smart and wise people outside a couple of standard deviations are simply better adapted at filling any of the above niches, as required and opportune – no need to invoke brutish charismatic leaders like Alexanders or Caesars.

    Conversely, division of labor also allows the average or below-average member to contribute at the highest achievement level, possible.

  11. Garvan

    Do your ideas on how modernity came about really explain the driving force behind it, or just one cog in the mechanism? I expect that there will be exceptionally clever monkeys, just as there were exceptionally clever Neanderthals and exceptionally clever humans.

    I prefer Chris Stringers ideas about what drove the change. In the origin of our species, he mulls over the idea that it was population pressure that drove this change. He thinks that Neanderthals occasionally expressed modernity, but that it was lost because of low density, fragmented populations and a marginal existence. The key then would be an environment that can support higher population densities over a long period, and how this in turn could drive evolution to the extent that modern people became more adaptable.

    Maybe this feeds into Eurologist’s ideas, but I think specialization could only happen with higher densities of populations.


  12. “To bring the point home: consider how many humans can actually describe in any detail how an automobile works, as opposed to using an automobile?”

    Considering how many 1954 Plymouths are still cruising along the roads of Cuba I daresay quite a few. I recall being astounded at the technological sophistication of the Afghan mountain tribesmen in a mid 1970’s National Geographic magazine dedicated to their country. They had furnaces and kilns up in the middle of nowhere and could actually cast pistons for 2-stroke motorbikes along with any necessary spare parts for Moisin-Nagant and Kalashnikov rifles.

  13. jb

    I agree with #4. Modern technology brings in a whole new level of complexity, and I don’t think the number of people who understand a car or a computer today tells us much about the transition to behavioral modernity thousands of years ago. I think the better question is what percentage of hunter-gatherers understand hunter-gatherer technology. Based on what I know of recent hunter-gatherers, the percentage is quite high.

  14. Justin Giancola

    Last I heard, Neanderthals had beads, and other ornaments. The act of burying dead could hold symbolic thought?

  15. gaffa

    Are there really any clear indications that Neanderthals differed from sapiens in any significant ways? A lot of people seem to assume that they were fairly different, but I’m wondering if there’s really any support for that. Also consider that individuals from the two groups produced viable, fertile offspring – they can’t have been too different for that to work.

  16. ryan

    #2, I’m not sure why you think thuggery is not behaviorally modern.

    Anyway, Razib, over the course of these posts where you’ve defined your galt-evolution model, if you will, you seem to ignore the counterhypothesis. A collection of individual capacities may have developed and become fixed in the genome before the social developments upon which modern development is built. That rather than a few “leaders”, what modern societies depend on is role-playing cued by genetic, social and most importantly developmental factors. (After reading more comments, I’d acknowledge that Eurologist is saying something very similar.)

    Because as some have pointed out, leadership isn’t really predictable. Instead, it’s contextual and contingent. That’s to some degree true of IQ as well. I’d argue that one of the essential aspects of human group dynamics is that it’s ‘serial overdetermined’ – rigidly codified until the moment it that something contingent happens to liquify everything. No one in Egypt dares question Mubarak until the moment that everyone questions him. This plays out in small groups everywhere – a guy who is the captain of his soccer team is timid in class; a woman who tells jokes amongst her teen friends cowers in the corner in her church sunday school. Prince Hal becomes Henry V.

    In other words, people are not born to lead so much as they “assume the mantle”. And they assume each of the other roles of the standard group – the Cassandra, the brown-nose, the inquisitive and the gung-ho. Most human groups if isolated will resolve into a similar array of characters if isolated and the confronted by a problem that binds them into a team. Confidence and support reinforce both interest and focused intelligence, so that reasonably good artists will pop up in most human groups not because one or another of us has the art gene, but because many of us do, and some will see that facet of their character nurtured.

    Just my opinion. I’d argue there’s at least as much support for it as for your theory that a few hyper-intelligent people forged the behaviors, adaptations and evolutionary successes we call modern.

  17. ryan

    Just thought I’d mention that I edited out much of the tendentious rhetoric in my previous post, but missed the 15-minute deadline before getting to all of it. I know you don’t like that kind of posting, and I’ll try to keep it out in future.

  18. There are a number of things about modern humans that suggest to me that they are behaviorally modern even relative to our ancestors of say, 8,000 years ago.

    1. We are nearly universally literate and the typical person will often in life resort to reading to learn new things from how to cook a new recipe to how to deal with a clogged toilet without getting face to face instruction or training from anyone. The typical person may not know how an engine works but would know where to look in a library or on the internet if a skilled expert were not available.
    2. The typical person has a relatively decent, anatomically correct understanding of a lot of human health (e.g. causes of disease, nutrition considerations, mechanism of inheritance, a fairly solid understanding of pregnancy from start to finish, knowledge of the major body systems and what they do), compared to even professional doctors among our predecessors, even if professional medical terminology may escape them.
    3. The typical person is familar with using intuitive versions of the scientific method to solve problems when using technology even when it is extremely complex (e.g. ruling out possible causes of problems in a complex system with trial and error).
    4. The typical person is more comfortable dealing with total strangers than our predecessors of even one or two thousand years ago.
    5. The typical person is much better at knowing how to function within a large group of unrelated people and following general rules and laws of behavior imposed from above. The nearly seamless conversion from daylight savings time to standard time last weekend without much organized direction is an example of that kind of modern behavior; in the early 1700s the notion of showing up to work at a particular hour was rare for anyone but cloistered monks. Few people know how to fix engines, but many know how to follow traffic laws and know to be very careful when driving.
    6. The typical person is much less prone to violence and has more respect for property (even in very close quarters).
    7. The typical person has enough of a working understanding of mathematics to manage reasonably well in a monetary economy with taxes and accounting, and to have a very facile numerical sense of time.
    8. The typical person is much better at regulating their own fertility in the interests of economic well being.
    9. The typical person is much less rigid in modeling their own behavior on tradition, and instead is comfortable with having many different norms than people just a generation or two earlier. For example, most people have far more diverse diets and musical tastes and styles of dressing and gender roles than their grandparents did at their age. We are used to constant change in behavioral patterns.
    10. The typical person is much more instinctively hyperhygenic than our ancestors.

  19. Sandgroper

    #15 – One is division of labour, i.e. the observation that some Neanderthal females had the same ‘rodeo rider’ type injuries as males that have been interpreted to result from getting up close and personal with large animals, which has been taken to mean that the girls went on big game hunts and participated physically the same as the guys. This could have been a function of family group size – the women were needed to make up sufficient numbers to bring down a big animal. So it looks like there were some significant differences in behaviour and social organisation, depending on what ‘significant’ means.

  20. megan

    I say test for true modern human intelligence & mental capacity by subjection to the Bene Gesserit Pain Box. =)

  21. Justin Giancola

    I think comment 18 “jumped the shark.”

    I’m finding this whole BH concept increasingly murkly. Though I still take to the what I see is thrust of Razib’s argument that society may have more indepted to exceptional individuals than the societies viewed as wholes. It’s reminds me of ascribing to one’s self the glory of (insert country/civilization) cause you have ancestry from said place.

  22. floodmouse

    @ megan: 🙂

    A lot of examples cited in these various posts are about “knowledge,” not “behavior.” The argument about whether you understand how your toaster works is interesting, but it’s not really about behavior (except as a tiny subset of economic relationships / division of labor, i.e., not everyone makes toasters). Social dynamics & interpersonal relationships are more central to defining any kind of “behavioral modernism.” I’m not really convinced modern society is more complex socially. In fact, the rise of the nuclear family is often cited by anthropologists as a sort of degenerative pathology that leads to the loss of extended family and complex community dynamics. It seems like North America went through a phase of “rugged individualism” (idealized pioneer ethic), then progressed to a sort of centralization monomania, and now local grassroots community is trying to reassert itself. “Behavioral modernism” doesn’t seem to have any correlation with civilization or level of violence. When gas prices first hit $4 and there were rumors of shortages, I saw a fight almost break out between the SUV zombies at a local gas station. (I had to laugh, because I was already starting my bike commute.) “Behavioral modernism” might be best defined as relationships with images, machines, & symbols substituting for a greater & greater proportion of the former direct relationships between people and their co-evolved domestic animals. Here I am staring at a computer screen, looking at the “reflections” of all your thoughts, but this interaction is cerebral not social. We influence each other at remote control.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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