Major research topics include:
The dispersal of modern humans in Eastern Europe
The spread of modern humans in Europe
The earliest credible evidence of Homo sapiens in Europe is an archaeological proxy in the form of several artifact assemblages (Bohunician) found in South-Central and possibly Eastern Europe, dating to <48,000 calibrated radiocarbon years before present (cal BP). They are similar to assemblages probably made by modern humans in the Levant (Emiran) at an earlier date and apparently represent a population movement into the Balkans during a warm climate interval [Greenland Interstadial 12 (GI 12)]. A second population movement may be represented by a diverse set of artifact assemblages (sometimes termed Proto-Aurignacian) found in the Balkans, parts of Southwest Europe, and probably in Eastern Europe, and dating to several brief interstadials (GI 11–GI 9) that preceded the beginning of cold Heinrich Event 4 (HE4) (≈40,000 cal BP). They are similar to contemporaneous assemblages made by modern humans in the Levant (Ahmarian). The earliest known human skeletal remains in Europe that may be unequivocally assigned to H. sapiens (Peçstera cu Oase, Romania) date to this time period (≈42,000 cal BP) but are not associated with artifacts. After the Campanian Ignimbrite volcanic eruption (40,000 cal BP) and the beginning of HE4, artifact assemblages assigned to the classic Aurignacian, an industry associated with modern human skeletal remains that seems to have developed in Europe, spread throughout the continent.
Download a PDF of John Hoffecker's paper with Vance T. Holliday, "Landscape archaeology and the dispersal of modern humans in Eastern Europe," 2013.
A new framework for the Upper Paleolithic of Eastern Europe
The results of field and laboratory research during the past decade require a new classificatory framework for the Upper Paleolithic in Eastern Europe. It is now apparent that people making artifacts assigned to the Ahmarian industry occupied both the southern and northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains (i.e., Ortvale Klde, Layer 4d; Mezmaiskaya Cave, Layer 1C). Their sites probably indicate a separate movement of anatomically modern humans (AMH) from the Near East directly into Eastern Europe, establishing an independent line of development during the earlier Upper Paleolithic that parallels the Proto-Aurignacian and Aurignacian sequence in Western and Central Europe. This East European industry is most fully represented at the Kostenki-Borshchevo sites on the Don River before 40,000 cal BP (e.g., Kostenki 14, Layer IVb). It is followed by a closely related industry, also characterized by bladelet production, that is dated to the interval between 40,000 and 30,000 cal BP in Crimea and the East European Plain. The proposed new framework reflects recognition of these distinctive East European entities and of two environmental events that had significant impacts on human settlement in Eastern Europe: (1) the Campanian Ignimbrite (CI) volcanic eruption (40,000 cal BP); and (2) the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) (~25,000 cal BP).
Download a PDF of John Hoffecker's presentation, "A new framework for the Upper Paleolithic of Eastern Europe," at the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution meeting, 21-22 September 2012 in Bordeaux.
An archaeological proxy for modern humans in southern Russia?
During 2013, new field research was conducted at Shlyakh, an open-air, stratified Paleolithic site located in the southern plain of Eastern Europe near the city of Volgograd. The research was designed to establish a firmer chronology for the main occupation layers, which contain a Levallois blade and point industry that—while properly classified as Middle Paleolithic—might represent an archaeological proxy for modern humans. New stratigraphic profiles were recorded, and several square meters of occupation area were excavated. Sediment samples were collected for various analyses, including radiocarbon, OSL, cryptotephra, and soil micromorphology. The results indicate that the Levallois blade and point industry at Shylakh probably dates to 35,000–45,000 cal BP and may indeed represent a modern human presence on the southern plain, given both its age and contents. The analyses also contributed to a better understanding of site formation processes at Shylakh. Although unplanned in the original proposal, the research team obtained new dates on two other major Middle Paleolithic sites located on the Desna River (central plain of Eastern Europe).
Read the 2013 project report, "Modern human dispersal on the southern plain of Eastern Europe," by John Hoffecker, Vance Holliday, P. E. Nehoroshev, L. B. Vishnyatsky, and A. K. Ocherednoi. Or see a gallery of photos from the excavation.
Computational complexity and the evolution of modern humans
In recent decades, the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis has been quietly expanded to embrace the evolution of complex systems (living and non-living) and the information on which they are based (e.g., Adami 2011; Mayfield 2013). The expanded theoretical framework is especially appropriate—perhaps essential—for understanding the evolution of modern humans, who represent major changes in the way that information is stored, transmitted, translated, and manipulated (Maynard Smith and Szathmáry 1995). Modern humans may be distinguished from earlier forms of Homo by an enhanced faculty for manipulation of information (i.e., computation) that permits generation of a potentially infinite variety of combinations of hierarchically-organized units of information. This faculty is most commonly manifest in the computations that underlie spoken and unspoken language (Hauser et al. 2002), which may be considered a form of information technology. Spoken or imagined words are “material symbols” (Clark 2008) manipulated in the brain to facilitate complex computation in a manner analogous to the beads of an abacus.
If technology is viewed as a form of computation (i.e., manipulation of objects and materials), this faculty also is evident in the artifacts produced by modern humans, which exhibit an increasingly complex, hierarchical organization with a potentially infinite variety of combinatorial possibilities. Because the acquisition of syntactic language requires a lengthy “critical period” of exposure during childhood, the computational complexity of language appears to be linked to the significantly delayed maturation of the modern human brain (which is only 25% of its adult volume at birth). Greenfield (1991) found that the manipulation of objects exhibits increasing complexity (i.e., more hierarchical levels of organization) during childhood and noted overlap in areas of the brain activated for language and object manipulation. The enhanced faculty for manipulation of information and objects (i.e., increased computational complexity) found in modern humans is thus plausibly tied to the delayed growth of the brain and extended childhood, which begins to evolve after about 0.5 million years ago, but apparently is not comparable to that of living people until after 0.2 million years ago (Smith et al. 2007; Smith et al. 2010). The evolution of enhanced computational complexity in modern humans transformed existing systems of communication and technology, yielding an open-ended syntactic form of language and potentially infinite variety of hierarchically structured artifacts. Modern humans created new forms of information, including visual art (analog) and notation (digital), and colonized most terrestrial habitats on Earth by designing their own adaptive “traits” (e.g., tailored clothing) based on complex technological computations.
View the Powerpoint file "Computational complexity and the evolution of Homo sapiens," presented at the American Anthropological Association in December 2014.
Read John Hoffecker's chapter "The evolutionary ecology of creativity," in Elias, S., Developments in Quaternary Sciences: Origins of Human Innovation and Creativity, p. 89-102 via ScienceDirect.
Out of Beringia: Genetics, paleo-ecology, and archaeology
Many human geneticists argue that most Native Americans are derived from a population isolated from its source in Asia for thousands of years before dispersing in the Americas. Some of them suggest that the isolated population was located in Beringia during the Last Glacial Maximum [LGM] (i.e., “Out of Beringia” or “Beringian Standstill” model) (e.g., Tamm et al. 2007). Although archaeological traces of LGM occupation in NE Asia and Alaska/Yukon (i.e., accessible remnants of Beringia) are lacking, pre-LGM settlement of northwestern Beringia is documented at sites near the mouth of the Yana River (Pitulko et al. 2012).
Several lines of evidence indicate a mesic tundra refugium on the Bering Land Bridge (BLB) that may have provided the only substantive source of wood above latitude 55° North during the LGM (e.g., Brubaker et al. 2005; Elias and Crocker 2008). The presence of mesic tundra habitat in central Beringia presumably reflects its geographic position relative to the North Pacific circulation and sources of moisture during the LGM, and may be contrasted with the aridity of unglaciated areas of northern Eurasia ~28–18 ka. Experimental studies indicate that some wood is necessary to render fresh bone practical for regular use as a fuel (Théry-Parisot 2001), and archaeological sites that contain evidence of heavy bone fuel use consistently yield some traces of wood (e.g., Mezhyrich [Marquer et al. 2012]).
The post-LGM archaeological record of Beringia contains an industry derived from NE Asia (Dyuktai) after 15,000 cal BP, but also contains an industry that has no clear antecedent outside Beringia (e.g., Ushki-Layer VII in Kamchatka). The latter is plausibly derived from the industry that would have been produced by the occupants of the LGM mesic tundra refugium on the BLB, which now is submerged.
Watch John Hoffecker's talk, "The role of Beringia in the global dispersal of modern humans," at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in April 2015. Or download a PDF of John Hoffecker's presentation of "Out of Beringia: Genetics, paleo-ecology, and archaeology," delivered as an INSTAAR Monday Seminar in October 2013.
Brubaker, L. B., Anderson, P. M., Edwards, M. E., and Lozhkin, A. V., 2005: Beringia as a glacial refugium for boreal trees and shrubs: New perspectives from mapped pollen data. Journal of Biogeography, 32: 833–848.
Elias, S. A. and Crocker, B., 2008: The Bering Land Bridge: A moisture barrier to the dispersal of steppe-tundra biota? Quaternary Science Reviews, 27: 2473–2483.
Marquer, L., Lebreton, V., Otto, T., Valladas, H., Haesaerts, P., Messager, E., Nuzhnyi, D., and Péan, S., 2012: Charcoal scarcity in Epigravettian settlements with mammoth bone dwellings: The taphonomic evidence from Mezhyrich (Ukraine). Journal of Archaeological Science, 39: 109–120.
Pitulko, V. V., Pavlova, E. Y., Nikolskiy, P. A., and Ivanova, V. V., 2012: The oldest art of the Eurasian Arctic: Personal ornaments and symbolic objects from Yana RHS, Arctic Siberia. Antiquity, 86: 642–659.
Tamm, E. et al., 2007: Beringian standstill and spread of Native American founders. PLOS One, 9: e829.
Théry-Parisot, I., 2001: Economie des combustibles au Paléolithique. Paris: CNRS Editions.
- Kostenki: Landscape archaeology of the early Upper Paleolithic on the central East European Plain
- Mira: Geoarchaeological and zooarchaeological studies at a stratified early Upper Paleolithic site
- Cape Espenberg: Early Inupiat settlement on the northern Seward Peninsula (Alaska)