Why Don't We Call Them Cro-Magnon Anymore?

What or Who are 'Anatomically Modern Humans'?

Replica Of Chauvet Cave Painting of a Pride of Lions
Replica Of Chauvet Cave Painting of a Pride of Lions. Patrick Aventurier / Getty Images

What Are Cro-Magnons?

Cro-Magnon is the name scientists once used to refer to what are now called Early Modern Humans or Anatomically Modern Humans--people who lived in our world at the end of the last ice age (ca. 40,000-10,000 years ago); they lived alongside Neanderthals for about 10,000 of those years. They were given the name 'Cro-Magnon' because, in 1868, parts of five skeletons were discovered in the rock shelter of that name, located in the famous Dordogne Valley of France.

In the 19th century, scientists compared these skeletons to Neanderthal skeletons which had earlier been found in similarly dated sites such as Paviland, Wales; and a little later at Combe Capelle and Laugerie-Basse in France, and decided they were different enough from the Neanderthals, and from us, to give them a different name.

So Why Don't We Still Call Them Cro-Magnon?

A century and a half of research since then has led scholars to believe that the physical dimensions of so-called 'Cro-Magnon' are not sufficiently different enough from modern humans today to warrant a separate designation. Scientists today use 'Anatomically Modern Human' (AMH) or 'Early Modern Human' (EMH) to designate the Upper Paleolithic human beings who looked a lot like us but did not have the complete suite of modern human behaviors, or rather, who were in the process of developing those behaviors.

The more scholars learned about early modern humans, the less confident they felt about the early classification systems that were developed 150 years ago. The term Cro-Magnon doesn't refer to a particular taxonomy or even a particular group located in a particular place. The word is simply not precise enough, and so most paleontologists prefer to use AMH or EMH to refer to the immediate ancestor hominins we modern humans evolved from.

Physical Characteristics of EMH

As recently as 2005, the way scientists discriminated between modern humans and early modern humans was by looking for subtle differences in their physical characteristics. Physical characteristics of Early Modern Human are quite similar to modern humans, although perhaps a bit more robust, particularly seen in femora--the leg bones. The differences, which are slight, have been attributed to the shift away from long distance hunting strategies to sedentism and agriculture.

However, those types of speciation differentiation have all but disappeared from the scientific literature, the result of the successful recovery of ancient DNA from modern humans, from early modern humans, from Neanderthals, and from the new human species that was first identified with mtDNA, Denisovans. Physical measurements have been found less than definitive in separating our various human forms than genetics, with the recognition of considerable overlap.

Neanderthals and early modern humans shared our planet for several thousand years. One result of the new genetic studies is that Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes have been found in non-African modern individuals. That suggests that where they came into contact, Neanderthals and Denisovans and anatomically modern humans interbred. Levels of Neanderthal ancestry in modern humans vary from region to region, but all that can be firmly concluded today is that the relationships existed. Neanderthals all died out between 41,000-39,000 years ago, probably at least partly a result of competition with early modern humans; but their genes and those of the Denisovans live on within us.

Where Did EMH Come From?

Recently discovered evidence (Hublin et al. 2017, Richter et al. 2017) suggests that EMH evolved in Africa; and its archaic ancestors were widespread throughout the continent as early as 300,000 years ago. The earliest archaic human site in Africa to date is Jebel Irhoud, in Morocco, dated 350,000-280,000 BP. Other early sites are in Ethiopia, including Bouri at 160,000 BP and Omo Kibish, at 195,000 BP, and possibly Florisbad in South Africa 270,000 BP. The earliest sites outside of Africa with early modern humans are at Skhul and Qafzeh caves in what is now Israel about 100,000 years ago. There is a large gap in the record for Asia and Europe, between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, a period in which the Middle East seems to have been occupied only by Neanderthals; but around 50,000 years ago, EMH again migrated out of Africa back into Europe and Asia and into direct competition with Neanderthals.

Before the return of EMH to the Middle East and Europe, the first modern behaviors are in evidence at several South African sites of the Still Bay/Howiesons Poort tradition, about 75,000-65,000 years ago. But it wasn't until about 50,000 years ago or so that a difference in tools, in burial methods, in the presence of art and music, and changes in social behaviors as well, had been developed. At the same time, waves of early modern humans left Africa.

What were the Tools Like?

Archaeologists call the tools associated with EMH the Aurignacian industry, which includes a reliance on the production of blades. In blade technology, the knapper has sufficient skill to purposefully produce a long thin sliver of stone that is triangular in cross-section. Blades were then converted into all kinds of tools, sort of the Swiss army knife of early modern humans.

Other things associated with early modern humans include ritual burials, such as that at Abrigo do Lagar Velho Portugal, where a child's body was covered with red ochre before being interred 24,000 years ago--there is some evidence of ritual behavior among Neanderthals. The invention of the hunting tool known as the atlatl was at least as long as 17,500 years ago, the earliest having been recovered from the site of Combe Sauniere. Venus figurines are attributed to early modern humans of about 30,000 years ago; and of course, let's not forget the amazing cave paintings of Lascaux, Chauvet, and others.

Early Modern Human Sites

Sites with EMH human remains include: Predmostí and Mladec Cave (Czech Republic), Cro-Magnon, Abri Pataud Brassempouy (France), Cioclovina (Romania), Qafzeh Cave, Skuhl Cave, and Amud (Israel), Vindija Cave (Croatia), Kostenki (Russia), Bouri and Omo Kibish (Ethiopia), Florisbad (South Africa) and Jebel Irhoud (Morocco)


Brown KS, Marean CW, Herries AIR, Jacobs Z, Tribolo C, Braun D, Roberts DL, Meyer MC, and Bernatchez J. 2009. Fire As an Engineering Tool of Early Modern Humans. Science 325:859-862.

Collard M, Tarle L, Sandgathe D, and Allan A. 2016. Faunal evidence for a difference in clothing use between Neanderthals and early modern humans in Europe. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology: in press.

Demeter F, Shackelford L, Westaway K, Duringer P, Bacon A-M, Ponche J-L, Wu X, Sayavongkhamdy T, Zhao J-X, Barnes L et al. 2015. Early Modern Humans and Morphological Variation in Southeast Asia: Fossil Evidence from Tam Pa Ling, Laos. PLoS ONE 10(4):e0121193.

Disotell TR. 2012. Archaic human genomics. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 149(S55):24-39.

Eriksson A, Betti L, Friend AD, Lycett SJ, Singarayer JS, von Cramon-Taubadel N, Valdes PJ, Balloux F, and Manica A. 2012. Late Pleistocene climate change and the global expansion of anatomically modern humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(40):16089-16094.

Guan, Ying. "Modern human behaviors during the late stage of the MIS3 and the broad spectrum revolution: Evidence from a Shuidonggou Late Paleolithic site." Chinese Science Bulletin, Xing Gao, Feng Li, et al., Volume 57, Issue 4, SpringerLink, February 2012.

Henry AG, Brooks AS, and Piperno DR. 2014. Plant foods and the dietary ecology of Neanderthals and early modern humans. Journal of Human Evolution 69:44-54.

Higham T, Compton T, Stringer C, Jacobi R, Shapiro B, Trinkaus E, Chandler B, Groning F, Collins C, Hillson S et al. 2011. The earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans in northwestern Europe. Nature 479(7374):521-524.

Hublin J-J, Ben-Ncer A, Bailey SE, Freidline SE, Neubauer S, Skinner MM, Bergmann I, Le Cabec A, Benazzi S, Harvati K et al. 2017. New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens. Nature 546(7657):289-292.

Marean CW. 2015. An Evolutionary Anthropological Perspective on Modern Human Origins. Annual Review of Anthropology 44(1):533-556.

Richter D, Grün R, Joannes-Boyau R, Steele TE, Amani F, Rué M, Fernandes P, Raynal J-P, Geraads D, Ben-Ncer A et al. 2017. The age of the hominin fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and the origins of the Middle Stone Age. Nature 546(7657):293-296.

Shipman P. 2015. The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press for Harvard University Press.

Trinkaus E. 2012. Neandertals, early modern humans, and rodeo riders. Journal of Archaeological Science 39(12):3691-3693.

Vernot B, and Akey Joshua M. 2015. Complex History of Admixture between Modern Humans and Neandertals. The American Journal of Human Genetics 96(3):448-453.