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It is proposed here that the archaeological evidence for the emergence of ‘modern behaviour’ (160,000–40,000 bp) can best be explained as the rise of cognitive variation within populations through social mechanisms for integrating ‘different minds’, rather than by the development of a single ‘modern human mind’. Autism and the autistic spectrum within human populations are used as an example of ‘different minds’ which when integrated within society can confer various selective benefits. It is proposed that social mechanisms for incorporating autistic difference are visible in the archaeological record and that these develop sporadically from 160,000 years bp in association with evidence for their consequences in terms of technological innovations, improved efficiency in technological and natural spheres and innovative thinking. Whilst other explanations for the emergence of modern human behaviour may also contribute to observed changes, it is argued that the incorporation of cognitive differences played a significant role in the technological, social and symbolic expression of ‘modern’ behaviour.