A reply to ‘Marcus’

I don’t normally respond to critical reviews of my book on Amazon, which tend to be ill-informed, poorly expressed, and of questionable relevance (for example, two stars because there was no reference to Jesus). Marcus’ review is none of these things. He gives no details of his background, but he is clearly well read and highly knowledgeable on the subject. His review is one of the most detailed I have seen. Please read Marcus’s Amazon review here (as I obviously am not able to reproduce it on this site).

Marcus begins by noting that around a hundred years ago, it was common to publish books that were ‘grandiose’ in their titles and scope, purporting to cover subjects such as world history in their entirety. He suggests, not entirely incorrectly, that I have attempted something similar.

His main criticism is that my book “…has no point of view and no goal, except to be fair and comprehensive…” unlike the works of Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari. But that is hardly a valid criticism because to be fair and comprehensive is exactly what I set out to do. I never set out to put forward an overarching point of view.  I have read many of Jared Diamond’s books, and share many of his views, but I felt that the book that I was attempting would not be a suitable platform for them.

Marcus is the first person to comment on the last chapter of my book, entitled Humans: the future. This is exactly what I intended it to be: a more-or-less standalone essay about humanity’s future as a counterweight to the rest of the book.  As Marcus correctly observes, it is certainly not a summary of the rest of the book; but it was never intended to be. However, to Marcus, it sums up the ‘problems’ of the book.

I think the main ‘problem’ is summed up by Marcus when he says “Personally I prefer a book that wears its heart on its sleeve.” In other words, what he sees as a ‘problem’ is nothing more than his personal preference. He is, of course, fully entitled to his preferences, but he should not confuse a book that does not conform to these preferences with any lacking of quality on the part of the author.

Marcus does make some good points. In the last section of the book, I swallow the early civilisations of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt into a single chapter, but  I devote three chapters to the pre-Columbian civilisations of the New World (though not to the Aztec or Inca, which I mention only in passing). The rationale was that I was writing about places and times before the advent of written records, and writing was far less prominent in the New World. The same criticism has been made by others, and in the upcoming second edition of my book, I have considerably expanded my coverage of the early civilisations of the Old World.

Marcus also notes my support for Colin Renfrew’s Anatolian hypothesis about the spread of Indo-European languages, which he describes as ‘rather unfashionable’. Here I will note that my book was published in 2014, shortly before ancient DNA studies provided clear support for the rival Steppe hypothesis. I was indeed a strong proponent of Renfew’s elegant hypothesis for many years, but I will admit that the Steppe hypothesis now seems very likely to be the correct model. The new edition of my book reflects this new evidence and my changed position.

Marcus does make some claims about my book that I would dispute. He states that “…the bibliography is rather heavy on generalist popular books and rather light on academic works…” This is quite simply not the case – out of around 1,200 references cited, there are no more than one or two dozen populist works. The vast majority of the citations are journal articles. He also claims that I am “...very dismissive of any idea that non-sapiens humans had any culture, which is another example of his lack of even-handedness.” I am not sure how he comes to this conclusion, as this is certainly not the view I take. Nor do I dismiss astronomical alignments, as he suggests. There is a difference between healthy scepticism and outright dismissal.

In conclusion, Marcus questions whether such ‘grandiose’ books as mine have a place in the twenty-first century.  His view (albeit containing a few editing errors) is that you will get more out of reading works that are narrower in scope and less even handed. While such works are evidently more to his personal taste, they are not what I set out to write, and there is surely a place for both.


The fight to save Dulwich Hamlet FC

Dulwich Hamlet FC have recently attracted considerable media attention having become caught in the crossfire between residential property developers Meadow Residential LLP and the London Borough of Southwark Council. Meadow, who bought Dulwich Hamlet’s Champion Hill stadium in 2014, want to build housing on the site, and relocate the football club to an adjacent plot of public land known as Greendale. The proposal was rejected by Southwark as it does not meet their criteria for affordable housing. There are also concerns about building a new football stadium on Greendale, which enjoys strong protection as Metropolitan Open Land. Since the planning application was knocked back, relations between Dulwich Hamlet and their landlords have deteriorated sharply.

Dulwich Hamlet are one of the great names of the amateur era. The club was founded 125 years ago by Lorraine ‘Pa’ Wilson and joined the Isthmian League in 1907. The Isthmian League was then the country’s top amateur league.

During the interwar and early postwar periods, Dulwich Hamlet won the FA Amateur Cup on four occasions and were Isthmian League Champions on four occasions. The club’s Champion Hill stadium, opened in 1931, could hold 30,000 and was by some way the largest non-league ground in the country. Crowds in excess of 20,000 were quite normal.

DH old stadium

The old Champion Hill stadium, seen during a friendly against Fulham in August 1988 (photo credit: ‘Nick from Bristol’, Creative Commons ‘Attribution 2.0 Generic’ ).

Standards within the amateur game were very high at that time, not very far below those of the professional game. Two Dulwich players were capped for the full England side: Bert Coleman in 1921 and Edgar Kail in 1929. The latter, who scored 427 goals for the Hamlet in a seventeen-year career, was the last non-league player to play for England. In the 1990s, the approach road to Champion Hill was renamed Edgar Kail Way in his honour.


Blue Plaque in honour of Edgar Kail. He was the last amateur playing for a non-league club to play for England, but Arsenal’s Bernard Joy played for England as an amateur in 1936.

Later years brought leaner times. The Hamlet were twice relegated from the top flight of the Isthmian League, although they were soon promoted back on both occasions. Following the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster, the by now dilapidated Champion Hill stadium was demolished, and a new but more modest stadium built on the same site. At the same time, the club’s training pitch was sold to make way for a large Sainsbury’s. In 2001, the club suffered a third relegation, and this time there was no quick return to the top flight.

DH main stand

Main stand of the new Champion Hill stadium (photo credit: Katie Chan, Creative Commons ‘Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0’)

In recent years, the club has enjoyed an astonishing revival under the management of former player Gavin Rose. The Hamlet returned to the top flight in 2013 and have since been pushing for promotion to the National League South. At the time of writing, despite their off the pitch worries, they lead the Isthmian League Premier Division by five points. Attendances frequently exceed 2,000 –  better than those of all but a handful of non-league clubs, and indeed some League Two sides. The club is popular not only with locals but with disenchanted fans of Premier League sides, unhappy with astronomical ticket prices and kick-off times that are dictated by the needs of the TV companies and not the fans. The club’s fan base have styled themselves ‘The Rabble’ and the ‘Dultras’. They are known for embracing LBGT rights and other progressive causes.

All of this is now under threat. On 6 March, Dulwich Hamlet were evicted from Champion Hill for alleged ‘repeated breaches’ of their licence. Later that day, a partner of the law firm Blake Morgan LLP wrote to the football club informing them that a subsidiary of Meadow had registered ‘Dulwich Hamlet Football Club’, ‘The Hamlet’, and ‘DHFC’ as trademarks, and that these could no longer be used by the club.

If the attempted trademarking was an egregious attempt to force Dulwich Hamlet FC out of business, it backfired disastrously. For several days, the Twitter account of Blake Morgan was bombarded with hostile tweets from outraged football fans of many clubs. By the next day, the profile of the partner signing the letter to the football club had been removed from Blake Morgan’s website. Shortly afterwards, Meadow backtracked, claiming that the trademarks registrations would be handed over to the Dulwich Hamlet Supporters’ Trust.

Questions must in any case be asked about the absurdity of trying to trademark the name of a 125-year-old football club; ‘The Hamlet’ was the name of a ward within the former Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell and as such cannot be trademarked; and Dulwich Hamlet FC shares its initials with the Manchester club Daisy Hill FC. Why did the government intellectual property office not reject the claim? Why did Blake Morgan LLP not warn their client that the move was ill advised?


Go on, sue!

Dulwich Hamlet has since agreed a groundshare with local rivals Tooting and Mitcham FC, and Southwark Council is taking steps to acquire the Champion Hill site for the football club and a smaller development of affordable housing. A #SaveDHFC rally on 17 March was well attended, and the club have received the backing of London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party.

Meadow, for their part, previously rejected an approach from former Manchester United and England footballer Rio Ferdinand, a friend of Gavin Rose, to purchase the site for his affordable housing company, Legacy Foundation. In an ominous development fencing has been erected around the Champion Hill stadium.


Don’t fence me in – the fencing erected around the Champion Hill stadium also blocks access to the Greendale and to an electricity substation.


A warning that security cameras in operation has been placed on public signage; it has been defaced and a sticker proclaiming Dulwich Hamlet and the Rabble placed alongside it.

Meadow should heed the lessons of history.


Walls do not endure forever (Photo credit: ‘Lear 21 at English Wikipedia’ Creative Commons ‘By-SA 3.0’)

Spanish cave art was produced by Neanderthals

What many will see as conclusive evidence that Neanderthals were not the dimwits of popular imagination has been published in the journal Science.

Researchers investigated three Spanish sites with cave paintings and an archaeological record of human occupation going back to Neanderthal times: La Pasiega in Cantabria, Maltravieso in Extremadura, and Ardales in Andalucía. Although both Neanderthals and modern humans had occupied the caves over the millennia, it has long been accepted that the artwork was solely produced by the latter.

La Pasiega is part of the Monte Castillo cave art complex, a World Heritage Site that also includes the caves of El Castillo, Las Chimeneas, and Las Monedas. These caves have been occupied by humans throughout the past 100,000 years. The La Pasiega artwork comprises mainly red and black paintings, including groups of animals, linear and club-shaped signs, dots, and possible anthropomorphic figures. Maltravieso has been sporadically used by humans over the past 180,000 years; it contains red hand stencils, geometric designs, and painted and engraved figures. Ardales was occupied during the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic. There are over one thousand paintings and engravings, including hand stencils and prints; numerous dots, discs, lines, and other geometric shapes; and figurative representations of animals, including horses, deer, and birds.

Uranium series dating was used to obtain dates for calcite crusts overlaying cave paintings, the idea being that dating the crusts would give the minimum age of the paintings. A red ladder-like abstract painting at La Pasiega was found to be 64,800 years old. Animals and other symbols accompanied the ladder, but these have not been dated and could have been later additions. A red hand stencil at Maltravieso was 66,700 years old; and there were repeated episodes of painting at Ardales going back to 65,500 years ago. In all three cases, the artwork precedes the earliest evidence for modern humans in Europe by almost twenty thousand years.

The authors of the report claim that the long-running debate over Neanderthal symbolic behaviour is at an end. However, questions remain. The ‘ladder’ is not the earliest example of abstract art made by archaic humans: Homo erectus was making abstract patterns 500,000 years ago. It is broadly contemporary with abstract patterns engraved on ochre by modern humans at Blombos Cave in South Africa; but the earliest-known figurative art is only around 35,000 years old. Some have argued that the ability to produce abstract patterns does not necessarily imply behavioural modernity. It should also be noted that Neanderthals are not directly associated with either the Bruniquel Cave complex or any of the Spanish cave paintings. The link is solely based on the assumption that modern humans were not in Europe until 46,000 years ago. The debate could only be conclusively ended by dating an example of figurative cave or portable art to the Neanderthal era and associating it unambiguously with Neanderthal remains.

We can be certain that Neanderthals were not the dimwits of popular imagination, but just how closely their behavioural patterns resembled the modern condition is still far from clear.


Hoffmann, D. et al., 2018. U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art. Science 359, pp. 912-915.

Did the modern brain shape only evolve recently?

Study claims that brain did not reach present-day range of variation until between 100,000 and 35,000 years ago.

A new study (Neubauer, et al., 2018) has suggested that globular form of the human cranial vault did not reach its present-day range of variation until between 100,000 and 35,000 years ago, and that this was linked to continuing evolutionary change affecting the shape and proportions of the brain. Fully modern human behaviour, it is claimed, did not emerge until that time.

Present-day humans are distinguished from archaic humans such as Neanderthals by a globular as opposed to a long, low cranial vault. The earliest representatives of our species (‘archaic Homo sapiens’), who lived around 300,000 years ago, retained the archaic brain shape; but by 200,000 years ago this had given way to the modern, globular form – or had it?

Paleoanthropologists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany used CT scans to generate virtual endocasts of modern human skulls from 315,000 to 195,000 years ago, 120,000 years ago, 35,000 to 8,000 years ago, along with skulls of Neanderthals, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo erectus. They applied statistical methods to these, and they concluded that globularity within the present-day range of variation did not appear until between 100,000 and 35,000 years ago.

The transition from the long, low to globular condition has been long attributed to changes in the proportions of rather than the size of the brain. However, the Max Planck report suggested that this happened in two stages. In the first stage, the cerebellum, parietal, and temporal areas increased in size. This was followed by a second stage in which the cerebellum continued to increase in size, but this was accompanied by size increases in the occipital lobes. This second stage was not completed until between 100,000 and 35,000 years ago. The report suggested that the most important changes were the expansion of the parietal areas and the cerebellum.

The parietal areas are associated with orientation, attention, perception of stimuli, sensorimotor transformations underlying planning, visuospatial integration, imagery, self-awareness, working and long-term memory, numerical processing, and tool use. The cerebellum is associated not only with motor-related functions including coordination of movements and balance but also with spatial processing, working memory, language, social cognition, and affective processing.

The report links these changes with evidence for the emergence of modern human behaviour in the archaeological record. It notes that, firstly, the onset of the Middle Stone Age in Africa 300,000 years ago corresponds closely in time the earliest known fossils of Homo sapiens (the Jebel Irhoud remains from Morocco). Secondly, behavioural modernity gradually developed over time in concert with increasing globularity. Thirdly, the point at which the modern condition was achieved corresponds to the transition from the Middle to the Later Stone Age in Africa and from the Middle to the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe around 50,000 to 40,000 years ago.

The idea that anatomically modern humans were not behaviourally modern in the first instance is an old one, based on the idea changes in the archaeological records of Europe and Africa 50,000 years ago were linked to a cognitive ‘Great Leap Forward’. This, it was argued, was the result of a favourable genetic mutation that somehow ‘rewired’ the human brain, enabling it to function more efficiently. The Max Planck report rejects this conclusion, suggesting that the Great Leap Forward simply represented the end-point of the globularization process.

The problem is that the notion that changes in the archaeological record could be linked to a cognitive advance 50,000 years ago was thoroughly debunked by anthropologists Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks almost two decades ago – ironically in a paper cited by the authors of the Max Planck report. (McBrearty & Brooks, 2000) In Europe, there is no doubt that a dramatic change is seen with the onset of the Upper Palaeolithic. Cave paintings, carved figurines, and other art appears for the first time. Nobody doubts that these artefacts are products of wholly modern human minds – but they simply herald the arrival of modern humans in Europe, not a cognitive advance by people already living there. Similarly, the transition from Middle to Later Stone Age in Africa is more parsimoniously explained by the need of growing populations for better tools and more sophisticated hunting techniques. Many supposed innovations can be found tens of thousands of years earlier at African Middle Stone Age sites. These include:

  • 60,000-year-old ostrich eggshells engraved with graphic patterns from Diepkloof Rock Shelter, South Africa.
  • Evidence for a well-developed catfish harvesting industry at Katanda on the Upper Semliki River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 90,000 years ago.
  • Ochre pieces engraved with abstract patterns from Blombos Cave, South Africa, in some cases over 100,000 years old.
  • Microliths from Pinnacle Point, South Africa, dating to 164,000 years ago. Microliths are used in multi-component tools, and they are associated with the most advanced (mode 5) stone tool technologies.

Furthermore, many traits once considered to be markers of late emerging modern human behaviour have now been identified much further back in the archaeological record, and indeed are not restricted to modern humans. These include fowling and use of seafood, both of which have since also been attributed to Neanderthals.

This evidence suggests that modern human behaviour had certainly emerged by 100,000 years ago, and probably by 164,000 years ago. While a link between globularity and modern human behaviour is likely, the associated cognitive changes probably only occurred during the first phase of globularization between 315,000 to 195,000 years ago. Subsequent increases in globularity might be linked to factors other than changes in brain shape. Early modern humans were far more powerfully built than present-day people, and the more gracile, fully-modern form did not appear until after 35,000 years ago. Brains actually show a slight decrease in average size during this period.


McBrearty, S. & Brooks, A., 2000. The revolution that wasn’t: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behaviour. Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 39, pp. 453-563.

Neubauer, S., Hublin, J. & Gunz, P., 2018. The evolution of modern human brain shape. Science Advances, 24 January, Volume 4, p. eaao5961.

Modern humans left Africa almost 200,000 years ago

But should we be surprised?

With an age range of 120,000 to 90,000 years old, the fossils from the Levantine sites of Skhul and Qafzeh have long been the oldest known anatomically modern human remains from outside Africa. The recent find of an upper jawbone and associated dentition at Misliya Cave in Israel has now been independently dated by uranium series (U-Th), combined uranium and electron spin resonance (U-ESR), and thermoluminescence (TL) methods to yield an age range of 194,000 to 177,000 years old. The jawbone and teeth are associated with the Homo sapiens clade, meaning that they predate the Skhul and Qafzeh remains by more than 50,000 years. (Hershkovitz, et al., 2018)

The Misliya Cave remains were associated with large numbers of Levallois (mode 3) stone tools, characteristic of the Middle Palaeolithic.

While the findings have understandably generated a good deal of excitement, should we be unduly surprised? The Sahara and Sinai deserts can only be crossed during interglacials, when warm, wet climatic conditions cause these normally inhospitable regions to green, and the Levant effectively becomes a northeasterly extension of Africa. The date range of the Skhul and Qafzeh remains suggest that these people left Africa during the Eemian interglacial (Marine Isotope Stage 5e) 126,000 to 110,000 years ago. Similarly, the upper end of the age range of Misliya Cave remains lies within the warm, wet Marine Isotope Stage 7 which lasted from 245,000 to 186,000 years ago.

Until recently, the earliest anatomically modern humans were believed to be those from Omo, Kenya, now thought to be 195,000 years old (though originally thought to be more recent). Accordingly, it was not thought that modern humans could have left Africa prior to the Eemian. Recent discoveries from China and the Arabian Peninsula have overturned the longstanding view that the Levant was the extent of our species’ excursions beyond Africa prior to around 65,000 years ago. However, the Eemian was still thought to represent the upper limit.

The re-dating of the Jebel Irhoud remains from Morocco last year has changed the picture. The remains were found at a cave site 100 km (60 miles) from Marrakech in the early 1960s and were originally thought to be no more than 40,000 years old. The puzzle was that while the facial features are modern, the brain case is still long and low, a characteristic of archaic humans and suggesting that they really belonged to a much earlier lineage of Homo sapiens. This eventually turned out to be the case. In 2007, the remains were found to be much older at 160,000 years old with US-ESR methods – but even this turned out to be a gross underestimate. Excavations carried out between 2004 and 2011 enabled radiation dosages to be estimated more accurately, yielding a TL date of 286,000 ± 32,000 years old – making the Jebel Irhoud the earliest representatives of our species by some considerable way.

With modern humans having existed throughout Marine Isotope Stage 7, it is unsurprising that some of them reached the Levant, and entirely possible that some went further. This raises the possibility that some of these pioneers encountered and interbred with Neanderthals, which would explain a 2017 genetic study which suggested that Neanderthals and modern humans were interbreeding as long ago as the period between 460,000 and 219,000 years ago (Posth, et al., 2017). The upper end is clearly an overestimate, but the lower end could point to interbreeding in the Levant, where Neanderthals are known to have been present. While there is no suggestion at this stage that modern humans reached Europe prior to 46,000 years ago, such a discovery would call into question the attribution of recent discoveries, such as the stone circle Bruniquel Cave in southwest France reported in 2016 to be 176,500 years old, and accordingly assumed to be the work of Neanderthals. (Jaubert, et al., 2016)

Hershkovitz, I. et al., 2018. The earliest modern humans outside Africa. Science, Volume 359, pp. 456-459.
Jaubert, J. et al., 2016. Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France. Nature, 2 June, Volume 534, pp. 111-114.
Posth, C. et al., 2017. Deeply divergent archaic mitochondrial genome provides lower time boundary for African gene flow into Neanderthals. Nature Communications, 4 July, Volume 8, p. 16046.