The Evolution of Cultural Modernity (ECM)

This research project is based in the Department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen and is funded by the Ministry of Science, Research and Art of the State of Baden-Württemberg. The project examines the causalities and driving forces that affected the evolution of human behavior during the Middle and Late Pleistocene. In order to achieve this goal, we investigate, how people of the past managed their daily lives, organized their societies and adapted to different environmental and climatic conditions. The cultural remains clearly demonstrate not only that humans survived as successful hunter and gatherers, but also that they evolved a highly complex mental awareness of social cohesiveness, empathy and spiritualism.


The earliest fossil evidence for anatomically modern humans (AMHs) dates to about 300,000 years before present (BP) and is found in North Africa. Further early fossils of AMHs dating to around 200,000 years BP come from East Africa. Starting around 100,000 years ago, during the Middle Stone Age (MSA), the African archaeological record documents marked changes within the material cultural repertoire. People developed new technologies, extended their spectrum and range of lithic raw materials and expressed symbolic behavior, for example, in the form of engraved ocher and ostrich eggshell beads. Many of these early innovations occur in southern Africa. Thus, research in this region is significant to gain a better knowledge of this important phase of cultural evolution.

The project members and associated members Gregor D. Bader, Amy Oechsner, Viola C. Schmid, Regine E. Stolarczyk and Manuel Will study the beginnings of cultural modernity in South Africa. Bader, Schmid and Will investigate lithic technology, Oechsner is specialized in archaeobotany and Stolarczyk in cognitive archeology. Schmid’s research focuses on the lithic assemblages dating older than 77,000 years BP from the lowermost layers of Sibudu Cave, KwaZulu-Natal. The appearance of technological innovations in these deposits has a major impact on our current chrono-cultural framework and models concerning the evolution of behavioral modernity. The studies of Bader and Will concern the evaluation of cultural changes that appear in MIS 3, i.e. between circa 60,000 and 40,000 years BP. Oechsner investigates the lowermost layers of Sibudu Cave from an archaeobotanical perspective to reconstruct the paleoenvironmental conditions, define resource availability, and pinpoint which plants were used by humans and potential reasons for their use. Furthermore, the research focus of Stolarczyk lies in the quantitative and qualitative characterization of innovative behavior in the MSA of southern Africa. Her main objective is to identify innovative traits in object behavior and to get insights into the innovativeness of new developments, giving special attention to new cognitive aspects that could have played a crucial role in the context of human evolution and the origins of modern human behavior. The research on this period in Africa, which pre-dates the occurrences of modern humans and many innovative symbolic behaviors in Europe, forms the baseline for defining and identifying cultural modernity.


AMHs arrived in Europe at around 40,000 years BP, which corresponds to the onset of the Upper Paleolithic. Archaeological evidence suggests that they dispersed out of Africa into the Near East, reaching central Europe along spatially and temporally distinct dispersal routes. One of these routes very likely followed the Danube corridor, as a wealth of data recovered from several cave sites in the Swabian Jura strongly supports this hypothesis. Furthermore, the rich archaeological record in this region displays some of the earliest examples of figurative art and musical instruments. Such innovations are unique to the Swabian region and, so far, have no equals in the cultural sequences of earlier periods. Such a drastic break in the local archaeological record could have been triggered by multiple driving forces such as intra-specific competition, climatic stress, and socio-cultural and demographic factors.


The arrival of Homo sapiens in Eurasia coincided with the decline of the indigenous Neanderthal populations that had lived there during the Middle Paleolithic (ca. 300,000 – 40,000 BP). Much debate surrounds the extent of cultural and biological interaction between Neanderthals and early modern humans in the millennia following the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe. In this sense, research on the numerous and well-preserved Middle and Upper Paleolithic sequences of the Swabian Jura is crucial for addressing and disentangling these issues. In this context, Giulia Toniato is studying the faunal remains recovered from several cave sites of the Lauchert Valley in order to reconstruct settlement and subsistence strategies during the period of the late Neanderthals and early AMHs. Part of her research focuses on evaluating whether behavioral patterns are continuous or discontinuous throughout the Middle and Upper Paleolithic and whether potential differences reflect cultural shifts and differential adaptations of Neanderthals and AMHs. In fact, the behavioral modernity of AMH may have played an important role in their success in very different ecological and environmental conditions. The research of Armando Falcucci examines the causes and consequences of the technological innovations and the cultural changes that occurred at the threshold of the Upper Paleolithic, when AMHs spread all over Europe. By studying key lithic assemblages across southern and western Europe, he will identify the technological variability of the different cultural groups that were inhabiting Europe in this focal period of human history.


Finally, the research focus of Gillian L. Wong concerns the understanding of changes in human paleoecology during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition in the Swabian Jura associated with the Magdalenian (approximately 16,300 to 12,700 years BP) and Mesolithic (approximately 9,500 to 5,000 years BP), when human cultures and demographics were changing drastically. Wong uses faunal remains from two rock shelters in the Swabian Jura, Langmahdhalde and Helga Abri, to reconstruct three components of human paleoecology during the Late Glacial and early Holocene: human subsistence behavior, human and non-human site use, and paleoenvironmental and climatic reconstruction.


Overall, the research members are working together in order to analyze the various features of human behavior from different disciplinary perspectives and across a wide temporal and spatial range. This is a crucial step in answering questions regarding what defines cultural modernity and how its emergence ultimately contributed to the success of our species.