The evolution of modern human behavior in East Asia: Current perspectives


  • Christopher J. Norton,

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    • Dr. Christopher J. Norton is a paleoanthropologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He is involved in paleoanthropological research projects in East Asia focusing on the topics of Out of Africa I and modern human origins.

  • Jennie J.H. Jin

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    • Jennie Jin is a doctoral candidate at the Pennsylvania State University. Her doctoral dissertation is a taphonomic analysis of an Early Holocene faunal collection from Yunnan Province, China.


Behavioral modernity is considered one of the defining characteristics separating modern humans from earlier hominin lineages. Over the course of the past two decades, the nature and origins of modern human behavior have been among the most debated topics in paleoanthropology.1–7 There are currently two primary competing hypotheses regarding how and when modern human behavior arose. The first one, which we shall term the saltational model, argues that between 50–40 kya modern human behavior appeared suddenly and as a “package”; that is, the entire range of traits appeared more or less simultaneously. The proposed reason most often cited for this sudden change in behavior is a genetic mutation, possibly related to communication,7 that occurred around 50 kya. The second major hypothesis, which we shall term the gradualistic model, argues that modern human behavior arose slowly and sporadically over the course of the past 150,000 years and may be related to increasing population pressure.2 In general, many European scholars subscribe to the saltational model, while many Africanists seem to prefer the gradualistic model. As McBrearty and Brooks2 noted, the disagreement may be related to different developmental histories underlying the research traditions in Europe and Africa.