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

'Cro-Magnon' Versus '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 a rock shelter of that name, located in the famous Dordogne Valley of France.

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

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

A century and a half of research since then has led scholars to change their minds. The new belief is that the physical dimensions of the so-called "Cro-Magnon" are not sufficiently different enough from modern humans to warrant a separate designation. Instead, 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).

Another reason for the change is that the term "Cro-Magnon" doesn't refer to a particular taxonomy or even a particular group located in a particular place. It was 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.

Identifying Early Modern Humans

As recently as 2005, the way scientists differentiated between modern humans and early modern humans was by looking for subtle differences in their physical characteristics: The two are generally very similar physically, but EMH are a bit more robust, particularly in femora (upper leg bones). These slight differences 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. Considerable overlap in physical measurements of various human forms has made it difficult to draw distinctions. More important is the successful recovery of ancient DNA from modern humans, early modern humans, Neanderthals, and the new human species that was first identified with mtDNA: Denisovans. This new method of differentiation—genetics—is far more definitive than using physical characteristics.

The Genetic Makeup of Early Modern Humans

Neanderthals and early modern humans shared our planet for several thousand years. One result of the new genetic studies is that both Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes have been found in non-African modern individuals. That suggests that where they came into contact, Neanderthals, 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 Early Modern Humans Come From?

Recently discovered evidence (Hublin et al. 2017, Richter et al. 2017) suggests that EMH evolved in Africa; their 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; there is possibly another site in Florisbad, South Africa dated 270,000 BP.

The earliest sites outside of Africa with early modern humans are at Skhul and Qafzeh caves in what is now Israel from 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. However, around 50,000 years ago, EMH again migrated out of Africa and 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 that a difference in tools and burial methods, the presence of art and music, and changes in social behaviors had been developed. At the same time, waves of early modern humans left Africa.

Tools and Practices of Early Modern Humans

The tools associated with EMH make up what archaeologists call the Aurignacian industry, which features 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. Additionally, the invention of the hunting tool known as the atlatl happened at least as long as 17,500 years ago, the earliest artifact having been recovered from the site of Combe Sauniere.

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. 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).


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Why Don't We Call Them 'Cro-Magnon' Anymore?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/we-dont-call-them-cro-magnon-170738. Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, February 16). Why Don't We Call Them 'Cro-Magnon' Anymore? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/we-dont-call-them-cro-magnon-170738 Hirst, K. Kris. "Why Don't We Call Them 'Cro-Magnon' Anymore?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/we-dont-call-them-cro-magnon-170738 (accessed June 7, 2023).