The Longest Transition or Multiple Revolutions?

Curves and Steps in the Record of Human Origins
  • John A. J. Gowlett


Preservation and the history of archaeology have led to classification of a Stone Age in stone, in which there are naturally phases and transitions. A major issue is whether the phases have an overriding reality, and whether they give a good fit between biological and cultural evolution. In the evidence of biological evolution there is a surprisingly smooth curve documenting the rise in brain size through the Pleistocene. Models of social competition and the managing requirements of a ‘social brain’ have claims to explain much of the change without reference to archaeological phasing. In contrast the cultural scheme has to take into account detailed variation in artefacts (e.g., ‘traditions’ including the Oldowan and the Acheulean; and their polythetic aspects of presence and absence; that Acheulean hand-axes run on into later periods, and then changes in functional solutions, such as hafting). The other major biological scheme, that of hominid palaeontology, presents other complications as there is not full agreement over speciation issues such as chronospecies and anagenesis. To add to all this, recovery of genomes indicates that selection in large numbers of individual genes occurs through the same time. Transitions as we see them in a single discipline may thus be artefacts of the nature of the proxy; in sets of disciplines they may be reinforced or undermined by coincidental factors. Their significance may be unintentionally enhanced by our focus on them, and our tendency to ascribe a reality to entities simply because they have been named. Here a multidisciplinary approach is advocated as necessary to isolate real major changes in human capabilities. Concentrating on the total number of cultural traits available for study, the paper concludes with the view that a first human revolution had been achieved by about 1.6 million years, that a second revolution, largely silent archaeologically, had occurred by about 500,000; that a third revolution, of modernity, occurred thereafter. These are aspects within the dominating continuity of an evolutionary trend into a cognitive niche.


Brain Size Modern Human Stone Tool Large Brain Tool Type 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I am grateful for funding support from the British Academy within the Lucy to Language Project; to Marta Camps and Parth Chauhan for the opportunity to contribute, to V Macaulay, Iris Glaesslein, Adam Newton, Stephen Lycett and Robin Dunbar for discussion.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • John A. J. Gowlett
    • 1
  1. 1.British Academy Centenary ProjectUniversity of LiverpoolLiverpoolUK

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