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At the crossroad

François Bon
Cet article est une traduction de :
À la croisée des chemins (crossroad traffic) [fr]


This paper contributes to the discussion of one of the central questions raised by the Aurignacian: can we really identify the mechanisms of a biological and behavioral coevolution in this key transitional culture between the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, associating anatomically modern humans with a range of accomplishments also readily described as "modern"? And if so, how did these different parameters influence each other? The analysis proposed here suggests that, above all, the reconfiguration of social relations was a decisive driving force behind evolution, directly influencing biological diversity through increased contact and intermingling between groups and populations.

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Texte intégral

Many thanks to Lars Anderson and Randall White for their great help for translation and comments, as well as an anonymous reviewer and Raphaëlle Bourrillon.

1The Aurignacian sits at the crossroads of two main pathways that map Paleolithic humankind’s evolution. The first of these corresponds to a significant reduction in human biological diversity, whereas the second involves a marked increase in cultural expression. The first of these pathways, the reduction in biological diversity, is directly linked to the success of Homo sapiens relative to other human anatomical forms including the Eurasian Neanderthals. As for the diversification of cultural expression, it is clear that important processes of behavioral innovation occurred in Paleolithic societies during a vast period extending roughly from OIS 5 to OIS2. While this period sees a universal rise in novel behaviors, all assimilated into the concept of "behavioral modernity" (namely symbolic expression), a second important facet is the multiplication of cultural traditions. Besides the aforementioned rise in symbolic expression (graphic representations, personal ornaments, etc.), these changes are also reflected by the rhythms and ways in which technical equipment transforms, which seem be influenced by two complementary axes. On one hand, we observe the existence of, at times, very far-reaching (both chronologically and geographically) technological trends; on the other hand, we observe an effervescence of more localized technical traits characteristic of more tightly delimited cultural entities in time and in space. The first axis emphasizes connections between human groups, favoring the rapid diffusion of ideas, while the second reflects markers related to personal and group identity as well as the choices influenced by properties of the natural environments in which these groups lived.

2It is clear that the divergence of these two pathways (biological reduction/cultural differentiation) did not occur at the same time everywhere. More specifically, each pathway followed different rhythms on different continents, with varied chronological sequences and non-synchronous intersection points. In Europe, this process unfolded during the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition, centered around 45 to 40000 cal BP. This is where the Aurignacian plays its role, laying out in large part our expectations for defining the modalities of this process and interpreting its meaning. Strictly speaking, are both of these pathways co-evolutionary and if so, how do they mutually influence each other? Depending on how we reply to these questions, radically different visions of human evolution emerge.

1 - Aurignacian societies: the state of the debate

3In order to develop this reasoning and to navigate through the different aspects of the Aurignacian phenomenon, it is first essential to establish a rapid overview of the current state of affairs, beginning with material culture. The objective of this first section is mainly to highlight topical questions, but also to underscore some obstacles in the literature, and to refer the reader to the abundant recent publications devoted to the Aurignacian (see in particular the bibliographic pointers in the following overviews: Bon, 2010; Otte, 2010).

4Since early on in the development of the prehistoric discipline, the Aurignacian has received much attention, and the wide range of Aurignacian lithic and osseous industries has been patiently described. For a long time typological analysis was center stage, showcasing the diverse antler spear points (including the emblematic split-based form), the rich corpus of bone tools (lissoirs, awls, retouchers, etc.), the minute yet important Aurignacian bladelets (with diverse Dufour types and sub-types, in particular), and more significantly the robust retouched blades (namely, end scrapers and retouched blades). These descriptive analyses were refined throughout the 20th century, and continue to evolve presently, forming an ample and complex chronological and geographic series. The Aurignacian covers a period of nearly 10000 years (or roughly speaking between 43 and 33000 cal BP) and crosses many different environments, from the Mediterranean coast to the large North European Plain, from the Atlantic shores to the Levant and Zagros, even venturing beyond Central Asia, where scattered "Aurignacian-type" industries have been discovered. Although some of these markers cover vast geographical and chronological expanses, others remain more narrowly confined in time and space, and delimit diverse provinces (Delporte, 1998).

5Over the past twenty years, the development of technological studies (Tixier, 1991; Le Brun-
Ricalens, 1993; Liolios, 1999; Bon, 2002; Bordes, 2006; Teyssandier, 2007; Pesesse, 2008; Tartar, 2009; Michel, 2010) and more recently, of functional studies (O’Farrell, 2005; Normand
et al., 2009; Pasquini, 2013), has enabled us to assess some of the economic choices behind these industries. It is these economic choices – in terms of resource acquisition strategies and the equilibrium between the technical investment involved and the relative longevity of the concerned instruments – that provide the best interpretation of the relative success of particular technical solutions. In the lithic domain, bladelet production provides a good example of this as the development of this industry is flexible and displays environmental contrasts, without losing any techno-functional identity (Bon, 2005). For this reason, it is a precious marker of savoir-faire and specific intentions (Le Brun-Ricalens, 2005). This highlights the long-recognized – but not previously interpreted – value of this range of emblematic Aurignacian objects composed of carinated cores and all their variations. These techno-economic orientations tend to outline a certain number of rules, such as the differential management of hunting equipment and domestic equipment. This reasoning applies as much to lithic industries as to osseous industries (Tartar et al., 2006). In this way, the Aurignacian plays a part in a decisive evolutionary pathway, with the progressive individualization of a range of activities, and possibly of individuals themselves, thus opening the way to paleosociological reasoning (Bon, 2009). In sum, little by little, we gain a better understanding of the nature and meaning of the Aurignacian economy as well as the possible social implications for the way in which the Aurignacians managed their equipment.

6However, when we try to go any further with our interpretations we are faced with several problems. First of all, we have yet to develop a real palethnological approach that will enable us to assess the site types and functions and how they fit into the territorial exploitation of Aurignacian groups. In this way, we have not yet updated the mobility models governing seasonal routes (Bachellerie et al., 2011), as this approach requires the development of detailed archeozoological studies, which are still too few and far between for the period under study (Letourneux, 2007; Soulier, 2013). The chronological framework is still vague and, in spite of many efforts over these past years to multiply the dating of Aurignacian sites (cf. in particular the programs led by Carolyn Szmidt and Tom Higham), the radiochronological framework is still rather rough. The use of new methods for processing this information (i.e. Bayesian modelling) and the application of calibration curves to these early periods, where the slightest sample pollution results in significant deviations, have not, as of yet, brought major advances in this domain.

7This chronological imprecision and relative deficit in palethnological approaches limits our capacity to construct accurate paleohistorical scenarios (sensu Valentin, 2008). We are thus limited to a mere "macrohistorical" perspective, or in other words, we must make do with several large divisions within the Aurignacian sequence without being able to assess the fluidity of spatio-temporal changes. While one can easily be defeatist under such circumstances, techno-economical approaches have nevertheless contributed significantly to an Aurignacian "macrohistory". Most notably, the "classic" Aurignacian (or princeps), traditionally defined by an association between an important bone and antler based technology coupled with specific lithic technological markers can be mainly divided into two chronological phases: the Early Aurignacian (D. Peyrony’s Aurignacian I), characterized by split based antler points, carinated bladelet cores, and robust style blade production, which is followed by the Recent Aurignacian (D. Peyrony’s Aurignacian II), itself characterized by solid-based antler points, busked burin type bladelet cores, and again, robust style blade production. These two classic phases of the Aurignacian represent, however, the latter part of the Aurignacian story, both dating after 40000 cal BP, whereas the first Aurignacian lineage, the Proto- or Archaic Aurignacian, appears in Europe by around 43000 cal BP.

8This means that the phases representative of the "classic" Aurignacian are a European invention and are not the result of the arrival of foreign populations, bringing with them a preexisting cultural baggage (Teyssandier et al., 2010). Therefore, besides the invention of a bone industry – partially linked to resources specific to the European territory as mammoth ivory or reindeer antler (Tartar, this volume) –, figurative art was truly invented in Europe during the course of the Aurignacian (Bourrillon and White, this volume). Figurative art explodes during the Early Aurignacian and even more so during the Recent Aurignacian, whereas it is absent (or practically absent) in clear association with the earliest forms of these industries, the Protoaurignacian.

9The last point to be raised here is the rarity of human remains discovered in Aurignacian contexts and, when these remains are sparse, as is generally the case, the problems raised by their species-specific attributions (Henry-Gambier et al., 2004; Bailey, Hublin, 2005). However, there is little doubt that the Early Aurignacian, and even less so for the Recent Aurignacian, are both associated with individuals with Sapiens characteristics (Henry-Gambier and Sacchi, 2008; Ramirez Rozzi et al., 2009). The problem thus mainly concerns the first millennia of the Protoaurignacian, even if new results tend to prove its association to Sapiens (Benazzi et al., 2015).

2 - Behavioral modernity and the Aurignacian phenomenon

10The development of the Aurignacian results from a complex process, involving the adoption of attractive technical solutions over vast territories (transcending environmental contrasts), with a whole mosaic of more firmly anchored practices in particular regions and specific resources (example: panoply of objects in ivory or in cervid antler). Although it may be the product of multiple interactions, and not the result of a wave of steady migration, it nonetheless remains the founding culture of the Upper Paleolithic civilization of Europe and part of Asia. And it ultimately encompasses all the attributes of "behavioral modernity"; a concept long used as a benchmark.

11This concept has been widely used but also widely criticized, as hiding behind it is the enlightenment notion of progress, which social scientists have rightly grown to mistrust. Ultimately however, there is perhaps little need for mistrust when this notion is used to trace a limit between objectively fossil forms of societies (that is, societies that do not have any living present-day representatives) and others, equally historically rooted in prehistory, yet still having present-day correlations in the contemporary world. In other words, everyone agrees that there are no comparable human societies to the Acheulean; the latter is by definition a fossil society. On the other hand, who can affirm that Mesolithic-type societies are not the early expression of societies with contemporary hunter-fisher-gatherer counterparts? This does not mean that these societies are relics of prehistory, but simply underlines the fact that our modern world is made up of multiple traditions inherited from diverse pathways and contrasting historical layers. Moreover, if we refuse to acknowledge the "modernity" of Mesolithic-type societies, we run the risk of relegating their present-day homologs to the living museum category, as was the case for a long time. Dear colleagues and friends, we should thus be weary of the oft too easy liberal criticism of the concept of modernity; the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Obviously, the question becomes more complex as we draw nearer to the transition between the Middle Paleolithic and the Upper Paleolithic. I can already hear Mousterian specialists (quite understandably, I might add) sharpening their arguments, cordiform bifaces, and naturally backed knives, ready to attack the creation of any form of hierarchy between the Middle Paleolithic actors and their chronologically posterior counterparts. Nonetheless, while specific elements of the Neanderthal genome may remain extant within you or I, I truly think we can consider Middle Paleolithic forms of society as definitively extinct and only visible to us through fossil form; Upper Paleolithic societies, in contrast, contain many characteristics still representative of modern societies, in the sense of the term explained above.

12There is, however, a catch (as there always should be). This Aurignacian, the founder, after a (not to be forgotten) long and complex process, is not the first culture to possess such characteristics. We now know that the African Middle Stone Age contains several precursory cultural expressions of the Aurignacian, including the famous Howiesons Poort in the southern part of the continent. Moreover, the current dominant model was established on the basis of these data, postulating that "behavioral modernity" takes root in Africa during OIS 5 and then emerges in Eurasia and in Oceania during OIS 3 (for an excellent overview on the history of interpretations on this subject see Stringer, 2014). However, is the evidence supporting this story so readily traceable? Currently, there are many lacunae between the quite different archeological contexts of the African MSA and the Upper Paleolithic in Europe and the Near East. We may choose to think that advances in research will fill in these gaps little by little and that the predicted pathway will progressively become less a hypothesis and more a confirmed archeological reality. The appearance of the first graphic expressions (cf. for example, the spectacular engraved ostrich eggshells from Diepkloof; Texier et al., 2010) or personal ornaments (cf. for example, perforated shells from Blombos; D’Errico, 2005) must clearly be extended to the MSA, but does continuity necessarily follow a first appearance? Must this be construed as the starting point of an irreversible phenomenon, in keeping with the postulate that there are necessarily milestones between the early African and later expressions in Europe? Is evolution truly both unilinear and unidirectional? Have we not moved beyond such a limited perspective?

13We can confidently state that the elements that constitute our definition of behavioral modernity seem to have reached an irreversible threshold during the Aurignacian. Over the past 40000 years, there is, as of yet, no culture that is not founded on some of the already perceptible orientations of the Aurignacian context. All cultures use symbolic expression to codify social relations and express the foundations of a society in relation to the surrounding universe. But what was the case beforehand? Can we concede that such orientations, first of all present in certain MSA African contexts, could have remained reversible for a long time and that the appearance of corporal ornaments as graphic manifestations could have been abandoned only to reappear at a later stage? This clearly raises a major theoretical problem. Personally, I simply wish to recall the hypothesis, however uncomfortable it may be, stating that the Aurignacian is fundamentally different from earlier experiences in that behavioral orientations are marked by the seal of irreversibility, which was not the case beforehand. Irreversibility gives the Aurignacian its full meaning.

3 - In what direction do the cogs of biological and behavioral coevolution turn?

  • 1 Recall that the concept of the Middle Paleolithic was only defined at a later stage during the cour (...)

14Since the invention of the term Aurignacian by Henri Breuil, the vast majority of prehistorians accept that the success of Sapiens is partly linked to the network of behavioral transformations evoked above. We can even conclude that, as a direct result of the intellectual "battle" confirming the existence of the Aurignacian (Dubois, Bon, 2006), the invention of the Upper Paleolithic at the very beginning of the 20th century marks this paradigm in golden letters. From that time onwards, biological human transformation was fully accepted by the community of prehistorians, and only the ultimate stage of this transformation was considered as modern, thereby confirming the division between the Early Paleolithic1 and the Upper Paleolithic (Breuil, 1913; Boule, 1921). In this way, Breuil and his generation set the terms for the debates that the 19th century had left open (Bon, 2009), when partisans and detractors of the theory of evolution confronted each other and when some of the most virulent critics of Paleolithic spirituality were engaged by its first supporters.

15While we may choose to accept the "impossible coincidence" between these two processes (Mellars, 2005), the mechanisms of their reciprocal link still deeply divide prehistorians. Nonetheless, one model overtook all the others during the course of the 20th century, and remains dominant to this today. This is the model of biological, as opposed to behavioral primacy: Sapiens lit the world from the depths of caverns and created art as a result of new cognitive capacities. Of course, this biological supremacy of Sapiens over his Neanderthal counterparts also met with detractors, who postulate that the latter were also capable of "inventing" hence modern humans from a behavioral viewpoint (D’Errico et al., 1998; D’Errico, 2003; Zilhao, 2007). But, if Neanderthals and Sapiens display similar aptitudes, how can we explain the success of one group and the decline of the other? The most straightforward answer is to consider that they are simply from the same species and that Neanderthals did not actually disappear but that their attributes were gradually diluted among Sapiens traits (Trinkaus, 2005). Why this way around and not the other? If we accept that the Neanderthal settlement zone was more limited or less densely occupied than that of Sapiens then demographic factors of the respective populations undoubtedly played a role some 50000 years ago. This vision was met with severe criticism several years ago, and partisans of such theories were readily seen as naive multi-regionalists (compare, for example: Stringer, 1994; Wolpoff et al., 1994). But it has since been reinforced by paleogenetic approaches (Green et al., 2010), which now suggest that some Neanderthal blood flows through our veins, showing the contacts developed by this plural humanity.

16Therefore, the conditions are now in place for countering this trend and proposing a radical alternative model: the primacy of social behavior and its direct influence over biological otherness. If Sapiens and Neanderthal are part of the same species, if, in other words, humankind only possessed strong intra-specific variability, the reduction of this could have been the result of an increase in genetic exchanges between human groups rather than the disappearance of some of them. What conditions could have favored such exchanges? We can, for example, envisage that societies founded on strong endogamy during the Middle Paleolithic gave way to more exogamous societies, accounting for a stronger diffusion of genic flux at the dawn of the Upper Paleolithic. This hypothesis is naturally very difficult to prove. However, the development of corporal ornaments, considered to be one of the clearest markers of mutations in these human societies, could be interpreted as the result of an identity in need of assertion, as a corollary to increased contacts between human groups, according to classic anthropological models (White, 2007). The circulation of shell ornaments has moreover been proposed as evidence of matrimonial exchanges, in the fine pages written by Yvette Taborin on this subject (Taborin, 1993). These reflections, and the rest of this contribution, are in keeping with the abundant literature devoted to this question by Anglo-Saxon researchers, such as Clive Gamble (Gamble, 2007) or Chris Stringer (Stringer, 2014).

17For my part, the principle of coevolution between biological and behavioral transformations appears to be unquestionable and I in turn suggest a reconsideration of the chain of causality leading to the invention of our humanity. For this, we need to question the available evidence in order to determine the paleosociological scope and the consequences of this on the biological structure of human groups. This concerns first of all marriage organization, and in particular the long and mid-distance circulation of corporal ornaments and other objects, if we accept that they are related to exogamy. In other words, if we accept that the development of the social codes symbolized by corporal ornaments, the invention of symbolic expression aiming to codify Man’s role in his universe, the transformation of technical equipment in favor of an increased individuation of the players of these same groups, are symptoms of more profound social changes, then we are entitled to question the consequences that they may have had on the biological identity of populations. This is the question that must be raised today by all those focusing on Aurignacian culture, as well as by anthropologists seeking to explain this reduction in the biological diversity of humanity. It is clear that this hypothesis stems from a philosophical model proposing that human evolution arises more from reciprocal meetings and influences, however antagonistic they may be, than from a separation of the body and mind of its protagonists.

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1 Recall that the concept of the Middle Paleolithic was only defined at a later stage during the course of the 20th century.

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François Bon, « At the crossroad »Palethnologie [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 12 décembre 2015, consulté le 08 avril 2020. URL :; DOI:

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François Bon

Professor of Prehistory
UMR 5608 - TRACES, Maison de la recherche
Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, Campus Mirail
Honorary Research Fellow
School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, SOUTH AFRICA

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