Was inter-population connectivity of Neanderthals and modern humans the driver of the Upper Paleolithic transition rather than its product?

Gili Greenbaum, David E. Friesem, Erella Hovers, Marcus W. Feldman, Oren Kolodny

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The transition from the Middle Paleolithic (MP) to the Upper Paleolithic (UP), circa 40kya, is viewed as a major turning point in human evolution, in terms of the material culture, demography, and geographical expansion of modern humans. However, attempts to identify an origin of this so-called ‘revolution’ in the form of a particular stone-tool techno-complex, representing cultural modernity, which spread across the human range, have failed. Instead, the archaeological record of this period comprises multiple ‘transitional techno-complexes’, some associated with modern humans and others with Neanderthals. The cultures that these techno-complexes represent are characterized by precursors of the material cultures of the UP, often alongside features that suggest local cultural continuity. The broadly simultaneous appearance of these transitional cultures, despite a lack of a clear common origin, is puzzling. We suggest that these local ‘revolutions’ had a common underlying driver, which explains the simultaneous appearance of transitional techno-complexes, but that this driver did not determine the particular form of each local revolution. We propose that the driver of the transition to the UP was an increase in inter-population connectivity, both within- and between-species, which allowed local cultures to rapidly evolve and to attain greater complexity than ever before. We suggest that this change was driven by the interaction between modern humans and Neanderthals. In this article we outline processes that are likely to have influenced inter-population connectivity, bringing together evolutionary and ecological perspectives alongside insights from the field of cultural evolution.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)316-329
Number of pages14
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
StatePublished - 1 Aug 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Anna Belfer-Cohen, Nigel Goring-Morris, David Gokhman, Wayne Getz, and Aaron Stutz for insightful comments and suggestions. We are also grateful to Richard Klein, who does not necessarily accept the proposed hypothesis, but who played a role in the shaping of these ideas via insightful and invigorating discussions. GG and OK are funded by the Stanford Center for Computational, Evolutionary, and Human Genomics (CEHG) ; OK is also funded by the John Templeton Foundation .

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Elsevier Ltd


  • Cultural evolution
  • Cultural revolution
  • Initial Upper Paleolithic
  • Levant
  • Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition
  • Modern humans
  • Neanderthals
  • Paleogeography
  • Population connectivity
  • Transitional techno-complexes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology
  • Geology


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