Last Update: 13 April 2004
• • •

Position Papers

The papers collected here are working documents which have not been edited for publication. They should not be quoted without the permission of the authors.

To communicate with the authors via email click on their names.

Ten Positions On Symbolicity In Archeology
Joao Zilhao (Department of Archaeology, University of Koeln)

The origins of symbolling
Robert G. Bednarik (International Federation of Rock Art Organisations)
Picture Gallery

Criteria of symbolicity. Intrinsic and extrinsic formal properties of artifacts
Paul Bouissac (University of Toronto, Victoria College)

The Status of Ethics in Contemporary Epistemology and Ontology, and the Problem of Meanings and Values (the Symbolic) in Archaeology
Stephanie Koerner (School of Art History and Archaeology, University of Manchester)

Stone tool "style" and the evolutionary origins of symbolism
Philip G. Chase (University of Pennsylvania, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology)

Archaeological data on symbolic thinking in the European neolithic
Eszter Bánffy (Archaeological Institute of the HAS, Budapest)

Stone Age symbolic behaviours: questions and prospects
Andrea Vianello (Graduate School of Archaeology, University of Sheffield)

The Everyday Life and the Symbolism in the Prehistoric Balkans
Lolita Nikolova (University of Utah and International Institute of Archaeology)

Clever Etchings:
Prehistoric language, religious language, and prehistoric religions

Peter Jackson (University of Chicago)

V. Gordon Childe among the “vulgar cognitivists”.
Michael Chazan(University of Toronto, Department of Anthropology)

Symbol for them / symbol for us?
Lisbeth Bredholt Christensen & David A. Warburton (Aarhus Universitet, Denmark)

Printable version of the position papers which were presented and discussed in St. Petersburg at the EAA round table of September 13, 2003

Position Papers (PDF: 390K)



V. Gordon Childe among the “vulgar cognitivists”.

Michael Chazan (University of Toronto, Department of Anthropology)

In the 1980's a number of archaeologists began to advance a bold hypothesis linking the origin of human symbolic behavior with an event in cognitive evolution (Mellars 1989, Klein , Noble and Davidson 1996, Mithen 1996). In this discussion I would like to set aside the empirical evidence which either supports or contradicts this hypothesis and focus instead on the structure of the hypothesis and its implications from a historical perspective.

The first question is whether the hypothesis developed in the 1980's is novel. The idea that the capacity for language was an evolutionary event occurring late in the hominid lineage is found beginning in the mid-Nineteenth century (Chazan 1995). In the writing of authors including Gabriel de Mortillet and Marcelin Boule the capacity for language was associated with specific cranial features (de Mortillet 1869, Boule 1923). These discussions often took place within a racist context in which races were ranked in terms of degree of advancement on the basis of an anatomical feature such as the prominence of the chin. Human evolution for de Mortillet and Boule was a process of progress towards fully modern human cognitive capacity and in this they share some similarity to recent discussions of the origin of symbolic behavior. However, the similarities end here. The nineteenth century discussions are beholden to racist theory and phrenology in a manner that is absent from contemporary debate. Rather than beginning with anatomical traits, the recent debate looks at evidence for symbolic behavior. The only sense of continuity is found in ongoing attention to anatomical features related to speech (Lieberman 1984).

There is an additional distinction between Nineteenth century and contemporary debates which is, I believe, very significant. De Mortillet and Boule considered human cognitive evolution as a gradual process with many gradations along a scale. Contemporary theories are very different in that they identify the origin of symbolic behavior as a radical event in human evolution. For contemporary archaeologists humans crossed a symbolic rubicon as members of a single lineage. Clearly this is the antithesis of the racist theories of the 19th and early 20th century.

The emphasis of contemporary theories of the origins of symbolic behavior on a radical transformative event is critical in assessing the position of these theories in the history of archaeological thought. The emphasis on radical transformative events is characteristic of cultural evolution from Lewis Henry Morgan to V. Gordon Childe (Trigger 1998). These events are what Childe referred to as 'revolutions'. For cultural evolutionists, it is these revolutions that make up the structure of the history of humanity.

The novelty and power of the recent theories on symbolic origins is that they integrate biological evolution into a cultural evolutionary framework. Before the Urban Revolution and the Neolithic Revolution there was a Symbolic Revolution. The Symbolic Revolution was unique in that it is explained by the evolution of a novel cognitive capacity rather than a combination of social and technological forces.

It is fascinating that this synthesis of biological and cultural evolution took place at this particular point in time. The 1980's saw the blurring of the lines between biology and technology with rapid developments in applied genetics. Clearly in this context the idea of biology as an engine of change is relevant. It is also not surprising that archaeologists who experienced the explosion in the power of personal computers recognized the transformative potential of coginitive change.

There is little evidence that an integration of cognitive evolution and cultural evolution had any attraction for cultural evolutionists. Notably Childe explained the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition on the basis of "their methods and equipment [having] undergone an almost revolutionary improvement (Childe 1942: 37)." For Childe, technology meant engines not genomes.

The novelty of the contemporary theories of symbolic origins is undeniable but there is strong reason to see these theories as an extension of theories of cultural evolution. As such the contemporary theories share some of the weaknesses characteristic of cultural evolutionary theory. The first of these is that both sets of theories place a strong emphasis on progressive trends in a manner which is inconsistent with biological evolutionary theory (Trigger 1998). Discussions of progress raise difficult issues including the relation of progress to teleology and ranking which I prefer to set aside here.

Rather than focusing on progress, I would like to emphasize the way both sets of theory conceive of causality. When a radical transformative event is identified there is a strong inclination to find a single underlying cause. In cultural evolution this has led to what is known as vulgar materialism. Trigger characterizes vulgar materialism as theories which "view human behaviour as shaped more or less exclusively by non-human constraints" (Trigger 1989: 292). Such constraints have included technology, ecology, and economy.
The insistence that the transformation of material culture and human adaptation was the result of a change in neuroanatomy fits within such a framework. To the extent that what we have today is a theory based on 'vulgar mentalism' it might be productive to look at works which question vulgar materialism to see whether they have relevance.

The riches source of thought on the causes of revolutionary change in human societies remains the work of Childe. In his writing Childe developed Marxist ideas on the dialectic between technology and society. In 1956, the year before his death by suicide, Childe wrote a remarkable book which bears directly on symbolic behavior. Society and Knowledge was written for the series "World Perspectives" which included books by Walter Gropius and Konrad Adenauer and whose editorial board included Niels Bohr and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Not a usual place to find archaeology! The goal of the series was "to help quicken the 'unshaken heart of well-rounded truth' and interpret the significant elements of the World Age now taking shape out of the core of that undimmed continuity of the creative process which restores man to mankind while deepening and enhancing his communion with the universe" (Anshen 1956: 17).

Childe's ultimate aim in this book was to develop a theory of epistemology based on a knowledge of human evolution and prehistory. While very much within a Marxist framework some of his ideas anticipate the pragmatism of Richard Rorty and more recently the moral philosophy of Daniel Dennett (Denett 2003). Childe does not directly address the origin of symbolic behavior but rather the nature of symbolic behavior. It is this discussion which I find of relevance to the theories I have labeled "vulgar mentalist".

Childe begins his discussion with a simple story. He contrasts the experience of two people attempting to find their way to a friend's house in the London suburbs for dinner. Both 'know' the way to their friend's house but the way they know this is very different. The first visitor has been there before and is able to use a series of visual cues to remind himself of the correct route. The second visitor has not been there before and therefore uses a map to guide his path. For Childe only the second visitor can be said to have based his actions on knowledge. The first visitor worked entirely on the basis of remembered private experience. The second visitor was guided by other people's experience and can was thus social. For Childe 'knowledge' is first and foremost social or public.

This story raises three questions for Childe (1956: 17):
1. How did London ever get "into the head" of the map maker?
2. How did the map maker get this knowledge from "his head into yours"?
3. What does it mean to say that a two dimensional map corresponds to a three-dimensional city?

Childe first tackles the third question He emphasizes that correspondence refers to the recognition of patterns rather than formal qualities. Thus triangles of differing size can still be recognized as corresponding. The pattern "consists in the relations between …parts or elements" (Childe 1956: 25). An important feature of correspondence is abstraction which involves omitting information deemed to be superfluous. Here again the nature of what is abstracted is due to social factors of what is thought of as functional rather than something inherent in the material world or the human mind. Childe does recognize that in addition to a pattern of roads his map also includes symbols. In his discussion of symbols it is notable that he does not emphasize the arbitrary nature of symbols but rather that they are based on convention and thus also social. He writes that "Map makers have agreed among themselves to use these marks to stand for stations, churches, bus routes. In buying the map you tacitly became a party to the agreement and assented to the convention" (Childe 1956: 31). He also emphasizes that symbols only have meaning in a context and that as such they are not independent of patterns.

This discussion leads easily into an answer to the second question: How did the information in the map "get in your head". It is a member of a society that you understand the referents of symbols. For Childe symbols serve to objectify elements of the world, however the agent of this act is not the individual but society. He writes that "Naming objectifies the named in the sense that society believes in its existence and acts as if it existed. In this lies the crative power of names: in the beginning was the word. Words to create what they mean, but only for the society that uses them" (Childe 1956: 39). The word emanates not from god or the mind but from society. However, even members of a society are able to understand symbols, words, and characters only in context as elements in a pattern.

Taking this idea further Childe argues that there are "no ideas apart from the symbols expressing or embodying them" (Childe 1956: 39). Thus, because symbols acquire their meaning by social convention the same must be true for meaning and ideas. To give a sense of the complexity of this idea Childe considers the Indus Valley script from the Harrapan civilization. He asserts that "the characters of the Indus script…have no meanings, because no one can decipher them. We believe they had meanings once-to the nameless Indus people who invested them with conventional meanings and used them for communicating ideas. But that society has perished, and the tradition which maintained their conventions has been broken. The idea, expressed by a symbol, exists only in the heads of those privy to the convention that made the symbol a symbol" (Childe 1956: 46-47). Although he does not address consciousness directly the implication of Childe's argument is that consciousness is a characteristic of people living in society.

Finally, Childe turns to his first question of how London got into the head of the map maker. His answer to this question is to begin with the social aspect of the construction of knowledge. In this regard the map serves as a useful metaphor in that it was produced not by one person working in isolation but through cooperation between different specialists and on the basis of pre-existing maps. Thus again the social nature of the construction of knowledge is emphasized. However, the social aspect of knowledge for Childe is mediated by the reality of the material world. For Childe knowledge is a socially constructed tool for adapting to the world. By pooling their perceptions of the patterns of the external world, societies form ideas. The danger for Childe is that because not all of the patterns that make up the reality of the external world are accessible to human perception societies use imagination to fill in gaps in the pattern. He writes that "to act successfully on the external world men have to anticipate the pattern in imagination. In so far as mankind has survived and multiplied, men must be able to do precisely this. Their many failures show that they do not always anticipate correctly" (Childe 1956: 68). Trigger has connected this aspect of Childe's thought with the Marxist concept of false consciousness (Trigger 1989: 262).

Childe views the symbol as a tool at the nexus between the individual, society, and the external world. Humans have this tool because "man is the only animal that can communicate knowledge acquired by experience to other members of the species" (Childe 1956:7). Society and Knowledge is a creative and original work which unfortunately had little impact because of Childe's death. It is ironic and tragic that Childe justified his suicide by claiming he had nothing left to offer the archaeological community. Applying Childe's conception of the symbol raises three significant issues relevant to contemporary discussions of the origin of symbolic behavior.

1. Childe's conception of symbols as social tools calls into question the stark distinction between 'symbolic behavior' and tool manufacture. Early in his book Childe writes that "any tool, however, simple, even the stone knife of mammoth-hunters in the Ice Age, is an expression of knowledge-knowledge of the most suitable stone, of the properties of that stone, of how to strike it to produce a usable flake and of how to use the flake produced. But once more of public knowledge, for the knife is a type. Unless it were the first of its kind ever made, the maker did not have to find out for himself the proper shape, still less how and from what to make it. The society into which he was born through the words and example of his elders taught him what stone to select, how to make a knife from it and ho to use it when made. All the requisite information was stored up in a social tradition of public knowledge" (Childe 1956: 4). Recent research on stone tool technology strongly supports this characterization (Chazan 1997).
2. Contemporary discussions of the origins of symbolic behavior stress symbols as the expression of the human mind. Childe's ideas offer an important balance in stressing the social and material aspects of symbols. The idea of abstraction seems particularly well suited to discussions of Upper Paleolithic material culture.
3. Lacking from Childe's discussion is any discussion of human cognition. The question left is whether it is possible to integrate a social conception of symbolic behavior with the insights archaeologists have begun to bring from cognitive science. As I have discussed elsewhere (Chazan nd) I believe that such a link can be found in the writing of cognitive scientists including Clark, Deacon, and Hutchins. The value of creating such an integration is that it allows cognitive archaeology beyond a focus on a single point of origin for 'modern human behavior' to a broader attempt to include cognition along with social organization and technology as a major factor in the long term diversification and development of human societies.

While preparing this paper I came across a magazine article which once again announced that when we arrive at the Upper Paleolithic "they are us". While this is a laudable sentiment in that it promotes an appreciation of the unity of humanity it also has the effect of crushing any appreciation of human diversity. 'They' were not 'us' any more than Neanderthals were us. Both Neanderthals and Aurginacians lived in social worlds, in a world of meanings that are lost and which as prehistorians we work to recover. They are only us to the extent that humans are defined by their biology and we deny any reality to the social construction of knowledge. I am certain that if Childe were able to read the work of the 'vulgar cognitivists' he would provide an important critique of the emphasis on cognition as the engine of change. I think he would also realize the importance of integrating cognitive science with prehistory.


Anshen, R.
1956 World perspective. Introduction to Society and Knowledge by V.G. Childe. New York: Harper.

Boule, M.
1923 Les Hommes Fossiles. Paris: Masson.

Childe, V.G.
1942 What Happened In History. Hammondsworth: Penguin

1956 Society and Knowledge. New York: Harper.

Chazan, M.
1995 The meaning of Homo sapiens. In Ape, Man, Apeman: Changing Views Since 1600, edited by R. Corbey and B. Theunissen. Leiden: Department of Prehistory, pp. 229-240.

1997 Redefining Levallois. Journal of Human Evolution 33: 719-735.

nd Paleolithic technology and the role of culture in human evolution. In press in Culture and Meanings Among Apes, Ancient Humans and Modern Humans, edited by F. Joulien.

Dennett, D.
2003 Freedom Evolves. New York: Viking.

Klein, R. G.
1995 Anatomy, behaviour, and modern human origins. Journal of World Prehistory 9: 167-198.

Lieberman, P.
1984 The Biology and Evolution of Language. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Mellars, P.
1989 Major issues in the emergence of modern humans. Current Anthropology 30: 349- 385.

Mithen, S.
1996 The Prehistory of the Mind : a search for the origins of art, religion and science. Thames and Hudson, London.

De Mortillet, G.
1869 Notice sur l'origine du langage. Congrès International d'Anthropologie et de Archéologie 4: 285-286.

Noble, W. and I. Davidson
1996 Human Evolution, Language, and Mind: A Psychological and Archaeological Inquiry. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Trigger, B.
1989 A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

1998 Sociocultural Evolution. Oxford: Blackwell.


Information: Paul Bouissac   
Design by: H. Harris
Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved