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 we learn about early modern humans, the less we feel confident about the early classification systems we 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.

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.

These arguments 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 genomes have been found in non-African modern individuals. That suggests that where they came into contact, Neanderthals 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 relationship 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 live on within us.

Where Did EMH Come From?

In Africa, early modern humans appeared at least as long ago as 160,000 years BP at sites such as Bouri in Ethiopia, and perhaps as long ago as 195,000 years ago, if the dating of Omo Kibish, also in Ethiopia, is correct. 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)