What Does It Mean To Be Modern?

MILFORD WOLPOFF and RACHEL CASPARI

"The modern human origins debate rests on an assumption--that there is something called modernity, or an anatomically modern human, and that we can define it. All living people, of course, are modern humans. The question is about their ancestry. If modern humans all descend from a single population whose anatomical features spread because they were advantageous, then "modern human" must have a clear anatomical definition. There should be a unique set of features that all modern humans share, to the exclusion of other humans. This must be true regardless of whether the population spread and completely replaced indigenous aborigines or mixed with them.

Multiregional evolution addresses modernity quite differently ( Thorne and Wolpoff 1992; Wolpoff et al. 1984). Multiregional evolution is a model of how evolution works in a widespread polytypic species. It stems from the basic observation that some of the combinations of features that show geographic variation today can be traced into the past, most often in the same geographic regions. We distinguish here between combinations of features and the distribution of individual features, because so many characteristics can be found in all populations. The model can be developed for our own species because more is known about its prehistory than any other. It is predictive (and thereby has the potential of being disproved) concerning the issue of patterning. For instance, if it could be shown that human evolution proceeded as a series of sweeping population replacements by successively better adapted forms, each with their own separate origin (something like what Teilhard de Chardin ( 19591 proposed), perhaps as the result of competition between parallel adapted human species as Tattersall ( 1994, 1995) and Stringer ( 1994) favor, multiregional evolution would be clearly disproved. But unlike theories such as the "Eve" theory or the "Out of Africa" theory (about modern human origins) or the single species hypothesis (about australopithecine species), it is not a focused theory about or interpretation of particular evolutionary events."