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Job Talk for Origins of Human Culture archaeology search: "High and dry: the centrality of marginal environments to human origins research" by Brian Stewart

Friday, February 15, 2013
12:00 AM
411 West Hall

Mounting evidence suggests that modern human behavior evolved gradually within Africa over 200 millennia or longer.

Mounting evidence suggests that modern human behavior evolved gradually within Africa over 200 millennia or longer. The spasmodic nature of the resulting Middle Stone Age (MSA) archaeological record contrasts sharply with the high drama of the Out of Africa II event(s). Within as little as 10,000 years of dispersing from Africa, modern humans had suffused and adapted competently to an astounding array of alien and often challenging environments from India to Australia. The speed and fluency with which our species were able to adjust, chameleon-like, to terrae incognitae strongly suggests that our capacity for such remarkable adaptive plasticity developed within Africa itself. Severe climatic instability across late Pleistocene Africa likely placed premiums on fluid settlement systems, techno-economic ingenuity and extended information networks, a scenario consistent with recent genetic insights suggesting intense paleodemographic fluctuations. Nowhere was the evolution of these strategies more crucial than in marginal environments, or those with low ecological productivity and/or predictability. To date, however, archaeologists have largely neglected these areas to focus rather on resource-rich savannas and coasts, where research has pursued modernity via important but rare diagnostics such as material symbols. This paper presents current results of a multidisciplinary project that takes an alternative, biogeographical approach to the behavioral evolution of our species. Termed Adaptations to Marginal Environments in the Middle Stone Age (AMEMSA), the project explores and compares early modern human adaptive responses to two under-investigated, challenging habitats in southern Africa: (1) the afromontane grasslands of highland Lesotho and (2) South Africa’s Namaqualand desert. By integrating multiple archaeological and paleoenvironmental datasets from rockshelter and landscape contexts, the project aims to better understand the development of the flexible socio-economic behaviors so characteristic of modern foragers. In both areas, human strategies are shown to shift from sporadic visits to more sustained occupations even during periods of climatic deterioration, revealing the very processes by which our species first colonized and learned to exploit exacting landscapes before encountering the full range of global ecosystems. It is suggested that such an approach, which emphasizes behavioral flexibility as modernity, may prove more productive than searching for elusive symbolic indicators or other similar trait-list milestones.