The Moderns Conquest

With the extinction of the Neanderthals, the archaics had been driven from the Eurasian land mass. Only the little Floresians survived, hidden in the forests of their remote island home. Modern humans, in the 20,000 years since their ancestors crossed the Gate of Grief, had occupied much of the world. Their populations, though still sparse, stretched across Eurasia, Sunda, Sahul and Africa.

But this was no imperium on which the sun never set, just a patchwork of tribes with no long range communication and no central authority. Archaeologists have found no towns or villages from this period; people still lived in a state of nature, wholly dependent on hunting and gathering for their existence.

For much of the period during which the exodus from Africa unfolded, from 50,000 to 30,000 years ago, people everywhere may have looked pretty much the same. Everyone outside Africa was descended from the 150 emigrants, who in turn were drawn from the host population in Africa. The first modern humans were an African species that had suddenly expanded its range. For many millennia people would presumably all have had dark skin, just as do the relict populations of Australia, New Guinea and the Andaman Islands. It seems likely that the first modern humans who reached Europe 45,000 years ago would also have retained black skin and other African features. The Neanderthals, on the other hand, may have lived in northern climates long enough for the melanocortin receptor gene, which controls skin color, to have reverted back to its default state of producing pale skin. Though there exists no direct evidence as to skin color, and the point is only a curiosity, the Neanderthals may have had light skin and their conquerors black. Early Europeans, including the great artists of the Chauvet cave in France, may have retained the dark skin and other badges of their African origin for many thousands of years.

But despite the initial unity of the far-flung human family, regional differences inevitably arose. For archaeologists, the most striking are artistic. There is nothing to match the great painted caves of Europe, even though rock art of the same era is also known from Australia. "We must wonder," writes the archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef in discussing the art of this period, "why western Europe and, in particular, the Franco-Cantabrian region is so different from the rest of the Upper Paleolithic World. It is not the lack of limestone caves or suitable rock surfaces that prevented other social groups or their shamans from leaving behind similar paintings and engravings. Possibly this local flourish had to do with the vagaries and pressures faced by foragers in two major refugia regions at the ends of the inhabited world— western Europe and Australia—where there are claims for rock art of the same general age."119

There was a significant difference, or the seeds of a difference, between the European and Australian antipodes of the modern human advance from Africa. The Australian and New Guinean branch soon settled into a time warp of perpetual stagnation. They were still living with Paleolithic technology when their European cousins came visiting 45,000 years later. They never broke free from the triple bonds of patrilocal society, nomadic mobility and tribal aggression. For some reason the modern people who reached Europe and the Far East were able to escape this trap and to enter on a phase of steady and continued innovation.

Why these different modes of development occurred is one of the more puzzling questions of prehistory. Historians and social scientists, from the nature of their disciplines, tend to offer purely cultural or environmental explanations for all human differences. From a biologist's point of view, however, it seems likely that genetic influences would also have been at work, not least because it is hard to prevent an organism from responding genetically to a persistent environmental challenge. When people inhabit polar regions, they adapt genetically to the cold by developing the physique of Eskimos. When people go to live in tropical forests, they may develop pygmy stature, a change that has occurred independently at least three times since the diaspora from the ancestral homeland. Dispersed in small populations from Africa to Australia, from East Asia to Europe, the people of the Upper Paleolithic would have been subject to different evolutionary pressures and to the random effects of genetic drift. Striking proof of the human tendency to develop local genetic variations has recently emerged from Iceland, whose population has been thoroughly studied by geneticists looking for the roots of disease. Iceland has been settled for just 1,000 years, by settlers from Norway, Britain and Ireland. Yet distinctive genetic variations have already arisen in each of eleven localities in Iceland, according to a test developed by DeCode Genetics, a gene-finding company based in Reykjavik. The reason is that Icelanders, like people throughout the world, have tended to live, marry and die in the same place, and distinctive genetic variations have had time to develop in each locality, even in just 1,000 years. By scanning a person's genome, DeCode's researchers can specify where in Iceland that individual's parents and grandparents came from. The test is based on analyzing the sequence of DNA

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