I’ve been trying to figure out why the idea of a flourishing human community in the Middle East some 125,000-80,000 years ago strikes me as such a big deal. And I’ve realized that it has to do with the emerging multiculturalism and creative imagination visions that I’ve been discussing in recent entries.
When I studied archaeology in college in the middle 60’s, Eurocentric attitudes were still taken for granted, and it was assumed almost without question that modern humans had evolved in Europe from Neanderthals some 40,000 years ago and had set out from there to conquer the world.
The only alternative theory — based on the new technique of carbon-14 dating — was that the point of origin might lie in Israel, where skeletons had been found that were too old to date using C14 and which must therefore go back more than 45,000 years. But even that argument was accompanied by a disclaimer that those early Middle Easterners had still been using the same Middle Paleolithic tools as their Neanderthal neighbors and didn’t arrive at the full glory of Upper Paleolithic culture until they reached Europe.
Along with this tendency to put western Europe at the center of the human story went an unfailingly contemptuous attitude towards the rest of the world. Grahame Clarke’s World Prehistory (1961), which was our chief text for the course, states without hesitation that “The Advanced Palaeolithic cultures … were confined to the more northerly parts of the Old World. … Most of Africa, India and southeast Asia were henceforward by-passed by the main currents of creative change throughout the remainder of prehistoric times.”