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Some of the so-called hallmarks of modernity, they say, showed up tens of thousands of years earlier.Noting that the brain reached its full size at least 130,000 years ago, these anthropologists think humans had all the intellect they needed from then on and that modern advances arose one by one over a vast period of time.“Richard Klein is exceptionally well informed about all aspects of archaeology and immensely concerned about the health of the discipline as a whole,” says Frank Brown, dean of the College of Mines at the University of Utah, who studies the geologic antiquity and environment of very early people in Africa.In particular, Klein’s colleagues regard him as a master of “faunal analysis”—reading details of human behavior, population size and social organization from animal bones found at ancient campsites, caves and other locales, says anthropologist John Yellen, director of archaeological programs for the National Science Foundation.(“You might think I’ve followed totalitarian regimes around the world,” he jokes.) He still digs in South Africa every summer, reconstructing ancient human ecology at a 300,000-year-old site.He has authored what is considered the definitive text on human evolution, (Wiley, 2002), a livelier account summarizing 150 years’ worth of archaeological finds and explaining the mutation proposal.
Humanity’s big bang, he speculates, was sparked not by an increase in brain size but by a sudden increase in brain Klein thinks a fortuitous genetic mutation may have somehow reorganized the brain around 45,000 years ago, boosting the capacity to innovate.
Because brain size provides no guide to intelligence, Klein says, researchers must divine cognitive ability from tools, campsites, fragments of ancient garbage, and other remains.
“The question is: when does ‘modern behavior’ appear in the archaeological record and what is the cause? By modern behavior, scientists mean a long list of capabilities, including clever new tools made of stone and bone, and a wealth of ritual, symbolism and art (see chart).
People who work with him say he is witty, thoughtful and gentle.
“One characteristic that sets him apart is his unpretentiousness,” says graduate student Tim Weaver, MA ’98.