Anthropology’s Obsession with African Origins

There is renewed interest in the “Out of Africa” theory of human origins because of a study showing sub-Saharan Africans interbred with an extinct hominid species. This article, originally posted in January, 2014, provides other reasons for being skeptical of African origins and shows how the “Out of Africa” theory has been promoted partly for reasons of political correctness.

When did humans first become human?  The answer is far from simple, because the question assumes that sometime in the past, humans achieved modernity and were locked within an evolutionary loophole where natural selection no longer applies.  Despite the absurdity of this scenario, and in stark contrast to empirical data, it is widely believed that humans have not changed physically or mentally for the past 50,000 years or so.

After the discipline of anthropology was hijacked by Cultural Marxism and it became crimethink to observe average group differences, a preoccupation with tracing everything back to Africa developed.  Africa does have an outstanding archaeological record revealing many firsts: the first bipedal hominids, the first stone tools, and the first anatomically modern humans that looked roughly like we do today (a vertical forehead, round skull, flat face, and prominent chin).  But largely due to the anti-racist politicization of anthropology, the currently accepted evolutionary paradigm is that Africa was the source of an intellectual watershed event sometime between 100,000 to 50,000 years ago, and that it was only a matter of time before this new breed of clever Africans spread out and replaced all the dim-witted archaic human populations in the rest of the world, such as Neanderthals.  (As used here, the term ‘racist’ refers to views that race and racial differences are a legitimate variable in research on humans, with none of the usual negative connotations found  in the popular and scientific literature.) The concept of behavioral modernity as it has been applied to the Paleolithic seemingly arose out of the Cultural Marxist obsession with proving that Africans are just as good as, and even better than the evil racist nineteenth-century White scientists who dared to rank societies and point out that advanced civilization never developed in certain areas of the world, such as south of the Sahara.

The problem with this paradigm is that, using the same set of criteria proposed by those scholars pushing for an African origin for modern behavior, it seems to have originally appeared in Europe instead, when modern humans first arrived there and replaced Neanderthals.  Furthermore, the so-called modern behavior in the African Stone Age is not qualitatively different from that of Neanderthals, who were supposedly replaced by cognitively-advanced modern humans.

Why all the confusion and intellectual gymnastics to argue for an African origin for modern human behavior?  The reason can be traced back to the early twentieth century, when an anti-racist political agenda was injected into anthropological scholarship, which eventually was influenced and transformed by critical theory of the Frankfurt School, with its overtones of anti-establishment and anti-Western sentiment aimed at the Marxist goal of liberating oppressed groups.  It has been debated elsewhere whether such anti-racist sentiments were sincere, or in contrast were used as a means to advance ethnic Jewish group interests while simultaneously de-ethnicizing non-Jewish elites [1].  Regardless, this Cultural Marxist ideology has served as a hindrance to scientific inquiry and has resulted in unfortunate situations where data are simply ignored when they do not follow the accepted paradigm, which evokes the exclusionary tactics used by the Boasian intellectual movement against dissenters.

The Anti-Racist Crusade in Anthropology

At the turn of the twentieth century, a spark was lit in the academic world of anthropology that would drastically change its course and politicize the discipline to serve as a mouthpiece for the far left.  This spark, lit by Franz Boas, the “Father of American Anthropology,” introduced the concept of cultural relativism and involved the heavy use of an anti-racist political ideology.  The Boasian tradition would later dovetail with critical theory, created by Cultural Marxists of the Frankfurt School, in that dominant (Western) societies and their supporting ideologies were seen as the primary obstacle to human liberation.  Thus, critical theory is inherently anti-Western because the dominant ideologies at that time were Western in origin.

This freedom fighter mentality against traditional Western ideals and society has been a mainstay in anthropology since it was introduced at the turn of the twentieth century, and has arguably metastasized into a political-philosophical juggernaut that crushes all dissent and has resulted in the railroading of the discipline into meaningless postmodern, unscientific pursuits of self-interest, such as the field of feminist archaeology (which is so 1980s and has since been eclipsed by black feminist archaeology).

Many of today’s anthropologists are infused with Cultural Marxist cultural relativism and the desire to be a freedom fighter railing against mainstream thought.  The irony of course is that Cultural Marxism is the mainstream, completely dominating all aspects of Western academia and media.

Despite major scientific advances in various aspects of anthropology such as radiometric dating and genomic studies, Cultural Marxism remains at the helm, firmly keeping the discipline on the straight and narrow path of anti-racism and disingenuous cultural relativism that overemphasizes the virtues of non-Western societies while simultaneously de-emphasizing the positive aspects of Western civilization.

The Legacy of Franz Boas

The person most responsible for saturating anthropology with Cultural Marxism was Franz Boas, a German-Jewish émigré who found his academic home at Columbia University in 1896, where he stayed until his retirement in 1936.  Boas had a profound impact on the field of anthropology, and was unashamedly political in his orientation, placing great emphasis on fighting scientific racism.  Boas’s anti-racist enthusiasm was shared by other Jewish intellectuals of the Frankfurt School, which relocated from Germany to Columbia University in New York City in 1934.

Shortly after establishing the department of anthropology at Columbia, Boas turned his attention to “the race problem,” and part of this effort involved nurturing Africa-centric studies in the social sciences.  Contrary to the common view at that time that sub-Saharan Africa was a cultural backwater, Boas claimed that “the Negro race had contributed its liberal share” of cultural inventions and civilized accomplishments [2, p. 313].  Boas claimed that African cultural inventions in agriculture and iron smelting were crucial to “the advancement of the human race.”  Subsequent research has shown that neither agriculture nor iron smelting was an African invention, despite decades of intensive investigation within Africa that was influenced by this idea originated by Boaz.  Boaz was also the first to advocate for an African Institute and Museum, and the adoption of a Black studies curriculum at universities [3].



Franz Boas. Photo from National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560, U.S.A.

Anthropology becomes a Cog in the Wheel of the Radical Left

I went to the University of Chicago for a while after the Second World War. I was a student in the Department of Anthropology. At that time they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody. They may be teaching that still. (Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, Ch. 1)
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

They sure are.  Little has changed since Vonnegut’s wry observation.

Beginning in the 1950’s, a new crop of scholars attempted to change the course of anthropology to a more rigidly scientific discipline, sometimes viewing Boas’s ideas as old-fashioned. A few scholars, however, exacted more searing criticism of Boas, claiming that his politicization of anthropology was primarily self-serving in that it supported primarily ethnic Jewish group interests. Boas was accused of nepotism by being principally receptive to Jewish students and prejudiced against American gentile scholarship [4].  It was also contended that Boas’s political leanings served two primary purposes: to combat anti-Semitism and to ensure that Boas and other European Jews achieved domination of anthropology in the United States [5, p. 139].  The same scholar concluded that Boas, in all of his talk of emancipating blacks and other minorities from perceived oppression, was essentially using Africans and other dark-skinned people as pawns in a game against non-Jewish scholars to obtain Jewish hegemony in the discipline of anthropology [5, p. 139].

But most criticisms of Boas were primarily methodological.  The core tenants of Cultural Marxism stuck like glue in the field of anthropology: radical egalitarianism, cultural relativism, etc.  Even Boas’s most vocal opponents were dyed-in-the-wool socialists, one of whom was under investigation by the FBI after his gushing praise of the Soviet Union during a 1929 speech at the American Association for the Advancement of Science was published in Pravda.  Boas and his academic brood remain profoundly influential in anthropological research even today.  The urge to debunk evolutionist claims of outmoded (largely non-Jewish) scientists has carried on through the twentieth century, perhaps culminating in Steven Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man (originally published in 1981), a highly influential book that was assigned reading in nearly every college course dealing with human evolution.  Gould’s book is still read as gospel in many college courses, despite the fact that scholars have since debunked some of Gould’s own research.

Completing his graduate work at Columbia University in 1967, Gould became a part of the Jewish intellectual movement at that institution spearheaded by Boas.  Among his litany of attacks against early racialist scientists in Mismeasure of Man, Gould claimed that nineteenth century physical anthropologist Samuel George Morton had manipulated the brain volumes of human skulls to favor a bias that Europeans had larger brains and Africans smaller ones.  In a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, a group of scholars recently re-measured the original sample of Morton’s skulls, revealing that Morton’s data were correct, and that Gould was the one who was guilty of manipulating data and making bogus claims to push his political agenda [6].  In the chapter claiming to debunk Morton, Gould wrote with much condescension and moral triumphalism:

Liars, if discovered, are excommunicated; scientists declare that their profession has properly policed itself, and they return to work, mythology unimpaired, and objectively vindicated. The prevalence of unconscious finagling, on the other hand, suggests a general conclusion about the social context of science. For if scientists can be honestly self-deluded to Morton’s extent, then prior prejudice may be found anywhere, even in the basics of measuring bones and toting (sic) sums. [7, pp. 87–88]

Now that Morton’s research has been exonerated, and after Gould’s own blundering mismeasurements have been exposed, one wonders how Gould would have judged himself: as a liar deserving of scientific excommunication, or simply as a self-deluded ideologue to be pitied and ignored?

The Evolution of Modern Humans

Has anthropology’s love affair with Africa produced anything other than an outlet for fashion-challenged celebrities to show that they care about ending poverty? In fact, African prehistoric archaeology has been very productive.  Archaeologists have made several outstanding discoveries here during the latter half of the twentieth century.  But, poignantly, despite Boas’s goal of revealing Africa’s cultural contributions to civilization and simultaneously minimizing biological-evolutionary inquiry, the best discoveries in sub-Saharan Africa are fossilized hominid remains that have revealed a great deal about human evolution and nothing at all about early civilization.

Current evidence suggests that anatomically modern humans evolved in Africa — that is, humans of our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens.  The oldest candidates are a few fragmentary skulls and postcranial bones found in East Africa and South Africa dating to between ca. 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.  It is important to note that these earlier anatomically modern skulls are quite robust, and it is only after ca. 35,000 years ago that skeletons show fully modern morphology [8].  But this hasn’t stopped the idea, perpetuated by Cultural Marxist creed, that once we evolved into modern humans, somehow our brains have miraculously been unaffected by any subsequent evolution and that all human achievements after were built with the same brain.

It should come as no surprise that finding the first modern humans in Africa was very welcome news to the politically correct community, which has relentlessly glommed onto the idea that “we’re all out of Africa.”   National Geographic even has a lesson plan on its website aimed at teaching high school students how we’re “all Africans under the skin”.  Never mind that forensic scientists regularly identify the race of human skeletal remains, or that with a sample of your saliva, several genetic testing companies can provide a highly-detailed breakdown of your racial composition.

Behavioral Modernity

One thing eluded the pro-Africa, anti-Western crusaders in the realm of human evolution: pinning ‘behavioral modernity’ squarely inside Africa.  The problem is that anatomically modernity (as it is currently loosely defined) does not correlate with behavioral modernity.  Those anatomically modern humans that evolved in Africa, as far as we can tell, acted the same as Neanderthals and other archaic modern human groups for over 100,000 years.  In other words, there is no appreciable behavioral difference between early modern humans and archaic humans for more than half of the time that we have existed as a species.

That didn’t stop scholars from trying really hard to locate the origins of behavioral modernity in Africa.  Decades of research in South Africa resulted in the claim that a series of sites along the coast were the fountainhead of modern human cognition.  Realizing the power of these statements, the media, politicians, and funding agencies have accepted these claims uncritically.

What’s the big deal about these South African sites?  Scholars in the Africa-first camp claim that modern human culture arose here for three reasons: (1) new, more advanced stone tool technology; (2) more advanced subsistence strategies (exploiting more nutritious foods, etc.); and (3) most importantly, symbolic artifacts (artistic depictions).

The evidence they are using for these claims comes primarily from two sites in South Africa: Blombos Cave and Klasies River Mouth.  By about 80,000 years ago, the occupants at these locations were manufacturing perforated shells that were used as decorative beads, and they were making engraved designs on small pieces of ochre, a mineral often used as a red pigment.  It is argued that the incised lines on two pieces of ochre at Blombos Cave and on ostrich egg shells, including a hatched band motif, are symbolic in nature and thus support the emergence of modern human behavior here.

Why so much emphasis on these lumps of incised ochre?  For one, it has been revealed that Neanderthals made shell beads in Europe.  Also, the discovery of anatomically modern humans in the Levant (in modern-day Israel) at 100,000 years ago, together with perforated shell beads and lumps of scratched-up ochre threatened to usurp coveted prize of earliest behavioral modernity.  So the Africa-centric scholars claimed that the scratches on the lump of ochre in the Near East at 100,000 years ago were not as purposeful and intricate as those in Africa at 80,000 years ago.  Even more unsettling to the Africa-first model is the fact that Neanderthals occupied the same region of the Levant after anatomically modern humans lived there, indicating that modern humans here did not replace Neanderthals, as was the case later in Europe.  So if the beaded, ochre-loving modern humans in Israel were so cognitively advanced, why did they give up their prized real estate to the supposedly cognitively inferior Neanderthals for over 50,000 years?  Furthermore, the Near Eastern modern humans had the exact same stone tool technology as contemporaneous Neanderthals, and the same subsistence strategies so far as we can tell.  So the three indications for behavioral modernity proposed by the Africa-first crowd (nice tools, advanced hunting skills, and art) were not really telling us anything.  Were there really any qualitative differences between these groups of early modern humans and Neanderthals?

The obvious answer is no, and that incised hatch designs and perforated shells are not unambiguous evidence for fully modern behavior.  One would expect the blossoming of other types of modern behavior shortly afterwards if indeed this was the genesis of modernity.  But there were no new artistic or symbolic advancements in sub-Saharan Africa for approximately 55,000 years after the beads and ochre pieces.  The first painted art in Africa is found at a cave in Namibia and dates to approximately 25,000 years ago.  These early African paintings are predated by about 10,000 years by cave paintings in Western Europe, which were drawn with much more sophistication and aestheticism than the African paintings (e.g., use of shading and highlighting to emphasize three dimensionality and dynamism; detailing of eyes, hair, musculature, etc.).

The Artistic Explosion in Paleolithic Europe

Investigations in Europe over the past decade have revealed rich archaeological remains attributed to early modern humans as they migrated into an area inhabited by Neanderthals about 40,000 years ago.  Artifacts found at sites in Germany include a spectacular array of personal ornaments, artwork, and musical instruments unparalleled in sophistication and aesthetic quality anywhere else in the world for tens of thousands of years.  These skillful artists manufactured naturalistic and mythical images in three dimensions with exquisite attention to detail and perspective, together with sophisticated personal ornamentation and musical instruments: flutes carved from animal bone capable of producing a remarkably wide range of tones and harmonies.  Not to mention the exquisite cave paintings appearing only 5,000 years later in France and Spain.

Without a doubt, these early Europeans were far ahead of their time and attained an astonishing aptitude for creativity and invention.  The timeline figure below provides a direct comparison of Paleolithic art across the world.  It is immediately apparent that, if there ever was a source of behavioral modernity during the Paleolithic, that it occurred in Europe and nowhere else.

Paleolithic art in Europe is far advanced in several ways:

  1. Figurative art (representing actual things such as humans and animals, rather than abstract designs)
  2. Mastery of three-dimensional sculpting
  3. Paintings displaying a mastery of three dimensional perspective and dynamism (such as providing a sense of movement)
  4. Musical instruments
  5. Depictions of mythical imagery (imaginary beings such as the half-lion, half-man sculpture shown in timeline figure)
  6. Degree of aestheticism and the successful transfer of an appreciation of beauty to the artistic form


A comparison of artwork around the world during the Paleolithic.

A comparison of artwork around the world during the Paleolithic.

The items shown in the timeline are only a small sample of the rich artwork created in Europe during the Paleolithic.  For example, the prehistoric flutes are not isolated occurrences.  A total of eight flutes have been found in Germany alone at sites dating back to 40,000 years ago.  One nearly complete specimen is made from the radius bone of a griffon vulture and measures 21.8 centimeters in length (8.5 inches), has five finger holes and a V-shaped notch at one end serving as the mouthpiece.  Others are made from the bones of swans and mammoth ivory.  Although flutes were used throughout the remainder of the Paleolithic in Europe, there is no definitive evidence for musical instruments of any kind anywhere else in the world for more than 30,000 years after their use in Europe.

In terms of artistic representation, nothing else compares to Europe for tens of thousands of years, and some societies never accomplished this level of sophistication in their material culture.  But you wouldn’t know this from listening to The Narrative, which relentlessly claims that the seeds of advanced human cognition were first sown in Black Africa.  Never mind the obvious creative explosion during the European Upper Paleolithic.  And never mind that European Neanderthals were producing the same types of objects heralded as ‘modern’ in South Africa.

The evidence for significant cultural advancements in Europe earlier than anywhere else in the world is largely ignored by scholars and the public alike, because it does not fit the politically-motivated idea that humanity was an African invention and that the human brain was born there, after which it has remained fixed and resistant to all effects of evolution.  If cultural modernity first arose in Europe, after anatomically modern humans spread out of Africa, then the possibility arises that populations who remained in Africa may have been left behind on the brain train.  Obviously, this won’t do in a discipline steeped in Boasian cultural relativism.

But if you were to objectively consider all sources of empirical data, then such a possibility becomes a very plausible hypothesis.  Not only does the archaeology suggest that something special happened in the brains of Europeans 40,000 years ago, but genetic studies also corroborate this idea.

In 2006, scholars at the University of Chicago published research suggesting that mating between ancient humans and Neanderthals in Europe may have introduced a gene variant into the human population that enhanced human brain function.  Analyzing the DNA sequence structure of the gene microcephalin, which regulates brain size in humans, indicated that all modern copies of the D alleles in this gene arose from a single progenitor copy around 40,000 years ago [9].  This allele must have provided a strong fitness advantage, because it then spread rapidly and is now present in about 70 percent of the world’s population.   Further, the researchers found that the D alleles are much more prevalent today in Eurasia and less common in sub-Saharan Africa, which is consistent with the scenario that it originated in Neanderthals and was passed on to modern humans in Europe.

To review: a genetic mutation for enhanced brain function evolves at the same time when there is an explosion in creative artistic representation in Europe (and advancements of similar magnitude in hunting technologies).  This gene is found more commonly in European and Asian populations and less commonly in African populations.  It doesn’t take many D alleles to connect the dots.  But in the spirit of Cultural Marxist suppression of dissent, the University of Chicago study was relegated to the shadowy sidelines of scientific literature, not because its findings were refuted, but simply because it was called “manifestly racist” [10].  Dropping their initial enthusiasm of the study’s findings like a sack of potatoes, the University of Chicago abandoned its patent application for DNA-based intelligence testing, and the lead researcher moved onto other research because “it’s getting too controversial”.

For all of the lip service paid to Occam’s razor, scholars today would rather construct elaborate and implausible scenarios that either muddy the issue, or directly mislead the public.  If they value their job, they will avoid this controversial topic all together.

Ignorance is Bliss

Africa-first scholars with a Cultural Marxist orientation have argued themselves into a corner.  By supporting a concept such as “behavioral modernity,” they have implicitly approved the hierarchical ranking of humans into groups who were mentally advanced and those who were not, despite the tireless inculcation of the anthropological discipline with Boasian cultural relativism for the past century.

This was no doubt a compromise to allow some ranking of prehistoric groups, just so long as it was clear that all modern humans are exactly the same, all derived from the same source population, and that all of the dummies are extinct populations who became Darwinian zeros after succumbing to African superiority.  Without some sort of ranking of our deep past onto a scale from primitive to advanced, paleoanthropology is rendered meaningless.  To say that there is no difference between humans today and the earliest hominids some four million years ago is to deny human uniqueness.  This is too much for even the most politically correct crowds to accept, so a line had to be drawn between modern humans and everything else.

Much to the chagrin of scholars seeking an African origin to fully modern human behavior, there is simply too much evidence to the contrary.  It was fine to say that the seeds of human greatness arose in Africa and that these chosen people then spread out and replaced all other humans through their cultural and biological superiority.  But by constructing a testable hypothetical scenario, they left the door open for the discovery of contradictory evidence. To the horror of politically correct academics, by their own definition of modernity, contradictory evidence indicates that Europeans were the first to reach this mental milestone, and that by comparison populations in sub-Saharan Africa and Australia did not catch up, even into modern times.

Over the past few years, the concept of behavioral modernity has become rather unfashionable within the inner-circle of prehistorian scholars.  It is probably no coincidence that this concept lost steam after the political implications of behavioral modernity arising in Europe first were realized.  Recently, an academic symposium was held to deconstruct the notion that behavioral modernity arose first in one place, or that it can be recognized archaeologically at all (“Alternative Pathways to Complexity: Evolutionary Trajectories in the Middle Paleolithic and Middle Stone Age,” Current Anthropology, 54, No. S8, Dec. 2013).  A new framework was developed which essentially claims that after we evolved as a species, behavioral changes were circumstantial, and that different groups were simply reacting to diverse environmental, demographic, and cultural influences.

Frankly, the concept of behavioral modernity was always dubious, and arguably only ever gained popularity as a political tool for the “we’re all the same under the hood” crowd.  It was claimed that behavioral modernity was the tipping point when culture took over natural selection and the human brain was locked into its current state.  For example, Neanderthals are thought to have used thrusting spears and necessarily relied more heavily on their brute strength than the more gracile modern humans who had developed a spear throwing technology that required less strength and put them in less danger while hunting.

Advancements in human genomic studies have shown that such a concept is manifestly untrue.  To believe that the modern human brain has somehow been magically spared from the effects of natural selection is no less an act of faith than to believe that the world was created on October 23, 4004 B.C.

Although we are all different culturally and genetically from the first modern humans entering Europe some 40,000 years ago, it is clear that something special did happen there at that time.  This phenomenon is worthy of attention, particularly when combined with advancements in genetic research such as the University of Chicago study revealing mutations that enhanced brain function around the same time as the artistic explosion.  But the suppression of this study indicates that political correctness trumps empiricism and scientific advancement.  To the Cultural Marxists, it’s time to put the nail in the coffin of yet another idea that could potentially provide meaning to the archaeological record with their usual techniques: “by emphasizing the vast diversity and chaotic minutiae of human behavior” [1, p. 24], thus obfuscating the data before it can be exploited within a theoretical framework of any consequence.


[1] K. Macdonald, The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements, Long Beach: California State University, 1998.
[2] G. W. J. Stocking, The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883-1911: A Franz Boas Reader, New York, NY: Basic Books, 1974.
[3] H. S. Lewis, “The Passion of Franz Boas,” American Anthropologist, vol. 103, no. 2, pp. 447-467, 2001.
[4] L. A. White, “The Social Organization of Ethnological Theory,” Rice University Studies, vol. 52, no. 4, pp. 1-66, 1966.
[5] W. S. J. Willis, “Skeletons in the Anthropological Closet,” in Reinventing Anthropology, New York, NY: Random House, 1969, pp. 121-152.
[6] J. E. Lewis, D. DeGusta, M. R. Meyer, J. M. Monge, A. E. Mann and R. L. Holloway, “The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias,” vol. 9, no. 6, 2011.
[7] S. J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.
[8] G. P. Rightmire, “Middle and Later Pleistocene Hominins in Africa and Southwest Asia,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 106, no. 38, pp. 16046-16050, 2009.
[9] P. D. Evans, N. Meke-Bobrov, E. J. Vallender, R. R. Hudson and B. T. Lahn, “Evidence that the adaptive allele of the brain size gene microcephalin introgressed into Homo sapiens from an archaic Homo lineage,” PNAS, vol. 103, no. 48, pp. 18178-18183, 2006.
[10] J. Marks, “The Origins of Anthropological Genetics,” vol. 53, no. S5, pp. S161-S172, April 2012.



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