The Emergence of Ornaments and Art: An Archaeological Perspective on the Origins of “Behavioral Modernity”


João Zilhão


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Publication Date

January 2007


The earliest known personal ornaments come from the Middle Stone Age of southern Africa, c. 75,000 years ago, and are associated with anatomically modern humans. In Europe, such items are not recorded until after 45,000 radiocarbon years ago, in Neandertal-associated contexts that significantly predate the earliest evidence, archaeological or paleontological, for the immigration of modern humans; thus, they represent either independent invention or acquisition of the concept by long-distance diffusion, implying in both cases comparable levels of cognitive capability and performance. The emergence of figurative art postdates c. 32,000 radiocarbon years ago, several millennia after the time of Neandertal/modern human contact. These temporal patterns suggest that the emergence of “behavioral modernity” was triggered by demographic and social processes and is not a species-specific phenomenon; a corollary of these conclusions is that the corresponding genetic and cognitive basis must have been present in the genus Homo before the evolutionary split between the Neandertal and modern human lineages.


Art, Modern Humans, Neandertals, Ornaments

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Journal of Archaeological Research, Vol. 15, no. 1 (2007).