“If there has been no spiritual change of kind / Within our species since Cro-Magnon Man . . .” The poet Louis MacNeice was voicing a commonplace that was accepted by most experts on human evolution until very recently – in fact still is by some. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould put it like this: “There's been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilisation we've built with the same body and brain.” The Cro-Magnons were the creators of the cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira – the ice age hunter gatherers whose art astounds us (“We have learned nothing,” said Picasso, after seeing Lascaux). They were modern humans who entered Europe only about 40,000 years ago, and there, despite the hostile ice age environment, created the first artistically sophisticated culture. But that wasn't the end of human evolution. Modern genomics has now shown us that biological evolution actually accelerated from this point on, especially since the beginning of farming 10,000 years ago.
Stringer is most concerned with the period from the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa, around 195,000 years ago, to their arrival in Europe and the subsequent demise of the Neanderthals (who had left Africa hundreds of thousands of years before). The archaeological record shows Homo sapiens in Africa several times on the verge of a cultural breakthrough, but this is not consolidated until their arrival in Europe. Stringer writes: “It is as though the candle glow of modernity was intermittent, repeatedly flickering on and off again.” The introduction of farming, first in Iraq and Turkey, was the single greatest event in the evolution of Homo sapiens since its emergence. From farming flowed, in an incredibly short time, population growth, craft, art, religion and technology.