Archaeological Evidence for Early Human Dispersals around the Mediterranean Basin

May 2019

Genetic, fossil, and archaeological evidence strongly support an African origin for modern humans (Homo sapiens) perhaps ~200,000-300,000 years ago (~200-300 ka). Subsequent dispersals to Asia, Australia, and Europe began ~70 ka, a process that led to the serial extinction of other non-African hominin groups such as the Neanderthals. Determining the reasons for the evolutionary success of H. sapiens and tracing the pathways of their dispersal out of Africa remain central themes of paleoanthropological investigation. Research by co-applicants Tryon and Metz suggests that some of the answers to these questions can be found in Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, where >38,000 artifacts from the 1947-1948 excavations at the archaeological site of Ksar Akil (Lebanon) are stored, largely unstudied until now. The Ksar Akil artifacts strongly suggest that the period of modern human dispersal coincides with the advent of the bow and arrow, which fundamentally changed human hunting practices and the nature of inter-group interactions. We recognize technologically identical archaeological assemblages at Ksar Akil and layer E at Grotte Mandrin (Mediterranean France), behavioral similarities that connect the sites and the people who made them, providing strong support for early human dispersals around the Mediterranean basin in Western Europe. The Ksar Akil data suggest the permanent establishment of modern humans in the eastern Mediterranean basin by 45 ka but likely earlier, with Grotte Mandrin indicating an early incursion into Europe via the Rhone Valley around the same time that may have at least initially failed to displace local Neanderthal populations.