The Origins Of Symbolling
Robert G. Bednarik
During the course of the late 19th and the entire 20th
century, palaeoanthropology has made great efforts in illuminating the
history of the physical evolution of hominids. By comparison, almost
no effort has been directed towards learning about their cognitive and
cultural evolution, and yet it would seem to be self-evident that it
is not skeletal architecture that so much separates us from other primates,
but the proliferation of cultural and cognitive capacities. It is therefore
quite right to say that the reasons for humanization and the processes
involved have so far barely been considered, and most certainly they
have not been clarified. Indeed, the preoccupations of the disciplines
of archaeology (which in the particular area of cognitive archaeology
is focused on trivial issues, e.g. shamanism) and palaeoanthropology
have led to research orientations that are so skewed that it would be
unrealistic to expect these disciplines to be able to address the topic
of hominid evolution in anything resembling a balanced fashion.
Any intelligent person will, upon reflection, arrive
at the opinion that humans became human not through natural processes
that modified their skeletal structures, but by processes that enabled
them to develop culture, cognition and technology on a scale removing
humans far from all other primates in those areas. Archaeologists, on
the other hand, have apparently failed to appreciate this truism and
have instead developed models that define stone tools or their assemblages
as "culture". In traditional archaeology, a sediment layer
containing some charcoal is described as a "cultural layer"
(sometimes even when the charcoal in question has no demonstrated anthropic
origin), and several horizons containing utilitarian finds are called
a "cultural sequence". Some archaeologists seem unaware that
"culture", defined scientifically, is the passing on of practice
by non-genetic means (Handwerker 1989) and that, therefore, many animal
species possess culture. Thus the ideas of archaeologists of what culture
is are in need of significant revision, and the way they apply concepts
of culture even more so. For instance, all the "cultures"
of the so-called Palaeolithic period have been defined almost exclusively
on the basis of subjective and untestable determinations of stone implement
categories. Apart from the obvious fact that this taxonomy is the result
of an unscientific procedure as it cannot be falsified, any intelligent
person will agree that tools do not define cultures: we have no screwdriver,
knife or spear cultures. Tools and artefact types can be and often are
used across many cultures; hence they are not a primary variable defining
cultures. In short, the entire "cultural sequence" archaeology
has given us of the Pleistocene is a figment of the imagination of Pleistocene
archaeologists; it has no real existence outside their minds and their
writings. It cannot possibly be expected to be a sequence of real cultures
or a taxonomy of peoples, tribes or ethnic entities.
It may not be relevant to the present discussion, but
it warrants brief mention that much the same kind of argument can be
levelled against most other aspects of Pleistocene archaeology as we
have inherited it. Taphonomic logic is an axiomatic law that determines
the merits of archaeological theories on the basis of their compliance
with the canons of exponential data loss as a function of time (Bednarik
1994a). Accordingly, the quantitative as well as qualitative and distributional
record of Pleistocene archaeology must be assumed to be largely invalid
as a basis of interpretation. This is a major encumbrance of the discipline,
and one with which it has not yet tried to come to terms. In these circumstances
it seems judicious to regard archaeological narratives of the earliest
human past as probably being largely false.
In all fields, not only in archaeology, the dominant
and the hegemonic can be both sustained and subverted by narratives
(Ewick and Silbey 1995: 200). Narratives frame the world in a struggle
for authority, they create ontologies. In the case of the Lower and
Middle Palaeolithic periods of human history, the dominant narratives
of archaeology are more tenuous, more far-fetched and more invalid than
for any other period of our existence as a species. Over the past few
decades, the dogma developed for these periods has become a caricature
of archaeological interpretation. In its essence, this dogma perceives
no cultural change or evolution throughout the Lower Palaeolithic, roughly
from 2.5 million years ago to 180,000 years ago. It defines this time
as static, and sees little change even in the subsequent Middle Palaeolithic,
which ends 40,000 BP in much of Eurasia, 20,000 BP in Africa and only
a few thousand years ago in Australia. Then, with the advent of the
Upper Palaeolithic, less than 40,000 years ago, the dogma perceives
a cataclysmic 'bottleneck', a 'quantum jump', an 'explosion': all the
typically human characteristics that distinguish us from other animals
appeared suddenly and at once and, of course, in western Europe: art,
language, complex social systems, self-awareness, forward planning and
symbolling. This paradigm draws its inspiration from the 'African Eve'
model, according to which all living humans are the descendants of one
single female. Her progeny lived somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, and
for reasons unknown became genetically so different that they could
no longer breed with other humans. Once they had asserted their intellectual
and other superiorities over the neighbouring peoples they began to
expand, rapidly taking over the world as they eradicated or displaced
all resident populations in Africa, Europe and Asia. Upon reaching Southeast
Asia around 60,000 years ago they promptly started building seaworthy
watercraft to continue on to Australia. By 35,000 years ago they colonized
western Europe, where they wiped out the resident Neanderthals completely
and began painting in caves.
This is not, I emphasise, the absurd origins myth of
some Californian religious cult. This is what most Anglo-American Pleistocene
archaeologists believe actually happened, together with a good number
of their colleagues elsewhere who agree with them. And this caricature
is what is being taught in the universities of Britain, USA and Australia,
among other countries. Never mind that the model has not one iota of
archaeological evidence in its favour, that it is based simply on the
speculations of some geneticists, opposed by other geneticists. Bearing
in mind that the genetic divergence times based on unknown mutation
rates and population sizes are dubious (Barinaga 1992; Templeton 1993,
1996; Ayala 1996; Brookfield 1997; Pennisi 1999; Strauss 1999), to say
the least, it would appear that the formulation of the African Eve model
was a simple misunderstanding. The geneticists tailored their supposed
mutation rates and other unknown variables to suit such emergence times
for modern people they had been given to understand were reasonable,
while the archaeologists assumed that the geneticists themselves had
the correct numbers. Neither side effectively realized that the other
was only guessing. In reality, population sizes as well as mutation
rates and other crucial variables are entirely unknown, and the divergence
times given have no credible independent basis at all. In short, the
African Eve model is a sham.
In asking questions about the capacities of early hominids,
such as those concerning the origins of symbolling, one therefore has
to contend with a most unsatisfactory archaeological record. A great
schism has in recent decades developed in our concepts of hominid evolution.
It concerns the antithetical positions of the "long range"
and the "short range" theories of the cognitive development
of humans. Sometimes called the "gradualist" and the "discontinuist"
models (d'Errico and Nowell 2000), these two diametrically opposed conceptions
perceive two entirely different paths of non-physical human evolution.
The short-range model rejects all evidence of symbol use prior to 40,000
years BP, insisting that it commenced as part of the claimed cognitive
revolution at the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic. In the last few
years the resolve of its protagonists has begun to wane somewhat as
they have made first concessions and are tinkering with some aspects
of their theory, but it still remains the dominant model.
The long-range model perceives a gradual evolution
of language, art-like productions, advanced hunting methods, shelter
building, garment making, social complexity, and of course the symbol
use which drove most of these developments. This gradual evolution occurred
over vast time spans well before 35,000 years ago, and some of it was
already underway around a million years ago. The evidence for the long-range
model consists of a panoply of material finds which, sadly, the short-range
protagonists are uniformly unfamiliar with (Bednarik 1992, 2003). When
confronted by individual finds that challenge their model they try to
explain them away, or regard them as a "running ahead of time"
(Vishnyatsky 1994), or pronounce them as untypical, or challenge their
dating or the scholarly competence of their promoters. This is a familiar
pattern in Pleistocene archaeology, dating back to the times of de Perthes
and Pengelly, the "incompetent amateurs" who discovered the
Palaeolithic in the early 1800s, as well as to the later, similarly
"incompetent" discoverers of fossil man, Pleistocene art and
Homo erectus, and many more scholars since, all of whom were persistently
rubbished, ridiculed and persecuted by orthodox archaeology. This alone
should be sufficient reason to distrust establishment archaeology, the
system of a discipline whose practitioners are trained, licensed and
employed entirely by the state. There is thus nothing new in the present
confrontation, it is an ancient issue of an inadequately informed discipline
that tries to rely on its lack of falsifiability to resist change. When
it perceives itself to be under attack, as it does rather often (from
renegade archaeologists, amateurs, indigenous people, science commentators),
it closes ranks and reverts to dogma. It behaves like a belief system,
like a church (Freeman 1994).
In examining the very beginnings of symbolling we therefore
have to make an initial choice: to follow either the long-range or the
short-range model. With the latter, the answer is relatively simple:
there is no use of symbolism before the advent of the Upper Palaeolithic,
where its origin is fairly transparent. According to Davidson and Noble
(1989), the answer lies in the introduction of figurative or iconographic
imagery. The transference of the meaning of a word was only possible
after a picture of the object had been drawn. So in a nutshell, the
process was like this: one drew a bison, pointed to it and said "bison",
and that is how language began. Clearly, then, depiction had to come
before language, and symbolling began with it.
As incredible as it may sound, such a puerile explanation
was not only proposed and published in a prominent journal, it was even
taken serious by a discipline steeped in short-range explanations, and
was widely accepted. In fact Davidson was so encouraged by its reception
that he soon announced that all humans prior to fully modern man should
be placed with the apes rather than hominids (Davidson and Noble 1990).
These follies may be entertaining to peruse, but the question to be
asked here is this: in investigating the origins of symbolling, should
we waste any time in considering the possibility that the short-range
theory could have gotten it right, or should we simply move on?
I have written enough about this trivial program and its many mistakes to be most reluctant to pursue the matter yet again, and I take the liberty of suggesting that the long-range theory is the only one to be considered here.
In iconic symbolism, the connection between referent and referrer
is via iconicity. This is a relatively simple form of symbolling, in
the sense that an organism capable of cognitively perceiving visual
ambiguity detects at least some meaning without any cultural faculties
coming into play. The cognition involved is deeply rooted in mental
processes found in numerous animal species, such as flight reactions
to the silhouette of a bird of prey or to eyes on the wings of a butterfly.
It is even related to the effect of camouflage, which is just as widespread
in natural systems. Some animal species master iconic recognition, in
the sense that they recognise a likeness in a photograph or film. Thus
symbolism based on iconicity is cognitively much more rudimentary than
a symbolism requiring the link between referent and referrer to be negotiated
culturally. For instance, a bead is an object that can have exceedingly
complex symbolic roles, but its meaning is only accessible to an organism
possessing the software of the cultural conventions concerned.
The acoustic or phonetic equivalent of iconicity is onomatopoeia,
which refers to the formation of words by imitating a sound associated
with the referent. Typical onomatopoeic words are 'cuckoo' or 'buzz'.
With them the meaning is either obvious, or detecting it requires only
minimal cultural (learnt) faculties.
In much the same way there are forms of modified iconicity: natural forms whose iconic qualities have been emphasized by anthropic modification. This observation leads to a fundamental differentiation between three forms of symbolism in palaeoart: iconic, modified iconic, and non-iconic. The most direct is by iconicity of purely natural, i.e. unmodified forms. It occurs when an object of the natural world offers sufficient visual clues to prompt the mental bridge to be made between referent and referrer. In palaeoart we have two typical representatives: manuports such as the Makapansgat  cobble (Bednarik 1998) or the Erfoud  Site A-84-2 cuttlefish fossil cast (Bednarik 2002), which are of such powerful iconic properties that they were noticed by hominids up to three million years ago. Such objects attracted sufficient curiosity to be collected and taken back to occupation sites. The ability to detect such strong levels of iconicity is certainly not very far beyond the capability of the higher pongids, such as chimps or bonobos, so it is reasonable to expect them in australopithecines and subsequent hominids, such as Kenyanthropus platyops (3.5 Mya). The second early representative of possible direct iconographic symbolism is via fossil casts, of both floral (e.g. ferns) and faunal specimens (Feliks 1998). Fossils are a prime example of a class of natural forms offering many, if not most, of the visual characteristics of the referent (the live organism, in this case). It seems very possible that hominids benefited cognitively from making the connection between referrer and referent in such obvious cases. This could have prompted the establishment of neural pathways permitting the understanding that one thing can stand for another, as well as the appreciation that the objects of the object world can be grouped into classes on the basis of taxonomic criteria. These two abilities were among the most important cognitive milestones in human evolution, therefore they need to be investigated most thoroughly. In my considered view, both appeared at about the same time, and it is hardly a coincidence that their appearance was accompanied by an apparent quantum jump in technological capacities.
Symbolling of the Lower Palaeolithic
Still other abilities seem to be evident from these developments.
For instance, the need for forward planning (it is strongly assumed
that seafaring was initially based on the use of bamboo, which needs
to cure for several months after it is harvested) implies that concepts
of time were a shared social reality, probably reified in some communicable
form. Other technologically suggested variables refer to the need for
cordage, and thus for knotting, without which no form of simple watercraft
(almost certainly types of rafts were involved) can effectively be constructed.
Cordage is of course also necessary for other, more complex indicators
of symbolism, beads and pendants. But before we move on to such non-iconic
symbols, we need to consider an intermediate mode. Subsequent to the
recognition that some natural forms can resemble other objects so closely
that they can be symbolic for them, a hominid with tactile skills and
a good deal of experience in tool use would eventually be tempted to
modify such iconic objects to emphasize their iconicity. The oldest
finds we have currently of such evidence are the proto-figurines of
(Bednarik 2003b) and Berekhat Ram (Goren-Inbar 1986), thought to be
roughly 400,000 and 300,000 years old respectively. The practice of
modifying natural objects to emphasize some iconic quality has persisted
ever since, it can be found through the succeeding periods of the Palaeolithic
and it can still be found today. In a scientific sense it is a subtle
management of visual ambiguity: the characteristics of an iconographically
already ambiguous object are intentionally accentuated.
This is not to say that symbolling and intentionally modulated communication were the result purely of the factors so far visited. Others are likely to have contributed, and here I would especially like to emphasize the possible involvement of re-enactment, or what is called theatre. To appreciate the role of its symbolism we can easily imagine the return of a successful hunter who revisits his triumph by re-enacting how he stalked the prey, how he slew it. His narrative behaviour in camp would have elicited only bewilderment among his band if they had not shared with him the appropriate neurobiological structures enabling the comprehension of the symbolism he relied upon. In other words, his audience had to possess the facility of discriminating between referrer (his performance) and referent (the hunt he attempted to recreate), while at the same time understanding the symbolic bridge between the two. One could further speculate that symbolling by re-enactment is likely to have originated from neuronal pathways facilitating deceptive behaviour, which of course has been observed in chimps. Once again we see that symbol use is based on neuronal circuits that may well have their antecedents in those of other primates. It is therefore inappropriate to expect finding a specific development or event that would mark the beginning of symbolling. Rather, this must be assumed to be an incremental process, with its origins deep in unconnected neuronal structures that existed even before humans appeared (Fiedler 2003). It was apparently during the Lower Palaeolithic that, in a sequence of developmental events that still need to be identified, various strands or fragments of behavioural traits came together in such a way that what we call "consciousness" became possible. The extremely fragmentary evidence of some of these developments has been hinted at above, but some important components of the archaeological evidence have yet to be described.
About beads and engravings
This evidence is absolutely crucial to understanding not only the
cognitive capacities of Acheulian people, but also to considering the
beginnings of symbolling. Beads and pendants 
are among the most obviously symbolic objects we can ever expect to
find from the Pleistocene. They tell us a great deal about both the
technology and the culture of their makers and users. Technologically
they illustrate not only the ability to drill through brittle or very
hard materials, such as teeth, but also they imply the use of cordage.
The very essence of a bead or pendant is to be threaded onto a string;
it would simply be pointless to perforate a small object for another
purpose but to pass a string though it. However, the use of cordage
also suggests the use of knots, because a string needs to be closed
to form a loop to be effective. Although the ends of a string may be
joined by means other than a knot, e.g. by the use of adhesive or by
plaiting, these alternative means are either impracticable or they are
technologically even more complex than the use of knotting (Warner and
Bednarik 1996). The diachronic availability of Pleistocene remains of
cordage (Leroi-Gourhan 1982; Nadel et al. 1994; Pringle 1997) is of
no relevance to the question, because that class of material evidence
obviously possesses an exceptionally high taphonomic lag time (Bednarik
1994a). In short, what beads tell us about the technology of the people
who used them is well in excess of deductions concerning their manufacture.
More important, however, are the cultural and cognitive deductions
they make possible. Beads can be used in a number of ways or for several
purposes: they may be emblemic, for instance, and provide various forms
of information about the wearer and his or her status in society. Availability
for marriage, political status and state of mourning might be such possible
symbolic meanings. At one level one might believe that beads indicate
simply body adornment, but this is almost certainly an oversimplification.
Even if vanity were the motivation for wearing such items, stating this
explains not why such items are perceived as 'decorative'. The concept
itself is anthropocentric; we do not assume that other animals perceive
the information imparted by the beads as meaningful. In human culture,
however, various forms or levels of meaning may be encoded in such objects,
as well as in other kinds of body adornment (tattoos, body painting,
cicatrices, infibulation, anklets, armbands etc.). In ethnography, beads
sewn onto apparel or worn on necklaces may signify complex social, economic,
ethnic, ideological, religious or emblemic meanings, all of which are
only accessible to a participant of the culture in question. To illustrate
with just one example: beads or pendants may function as charms; they
may be a means of protection against evil spells or spirits.
Such explanations are of course not archaeologically recoverable,
but the specimens themselves proving symbolling ability are. Beads of
the Lower Palaeolithic are available not only from the French and English
Acheulian, but also from sites in Austria, Libya and Israel (Bednarik
2001). It is therefore inexcusable that they have been consistently
ignored by archaeology for more than one and a half centuries. This
alone provides enough reason to ignore the models of orthodox archaeology
in considering the origins of symbolling. Yet there are still three
more types of evidence to be considered here. They are graphic iconic
depiction, non-iconic surface markings and the use of colouring material.
Oddly enough, the last-mentioned, which is the weakest of the three,
is the one that has attracted the most sustained effort (for recent
review, see Hovers et al. 2003). Evidence of pigment use, especially
of iron oxides and hydroxides, has been tendered for several decades
in the support of symbol use, but it needs to be cautioned that it is
not necessarily conclusive proof. Mineral pigments such as haematite,
goethite and ochreous materials could conceivably be used for utilitarian
purposes, although this not common ethnographically and unlikely for
the Lower Palaeolithic. The likelihood that these pigments were used
for symbolling activities (body painting, colouring of artefacts, colouring
of rock surfaces) is vastly greater. Nevertheless, in proposing symbolling
we are on safer ground with intentional engravings, be they on portable
objects such as those of bone, ivory or stone, or in the form of petroglyphs
Concerning the latter, the most outstanding candidates are cupules 
hemispherical depressions hammered into sometimes very hard rock surfaces,
usually in groups, sometimes occurring in huge numbers. This archaic
form of rock art is found in all continents except Antarctica, accounting
in each of them for the oldest known kind of rock art but also occurring
in numerous more recent cultural traditions. The oldest examples currently
known date from the Acheulian (Bednarik 1993) or are thought to do so
(Kumar 1996; Kumar et al. 2003). They occur in a few Indian quartzite
caves or rockshelters, notably Auditorium Cave and Daraki-Chattan. However,
there is a good possibility that similar material in South Africa might
be of a similar Lower Palaeolithic antiquity (Bednarik 2003a). The domination
of very early rock art by these cupules is very probably a taphonomic
phenomenon, therefore it tells us not very much about these palaeoart
traditions or their range of expressions. Nevertheless, they are important
to the origins of symbolling because there can be no question about
either their intentionality or their semiotic roles. Their manufacture
was highly labour intensive and they have no utilitarian function whatsoever.
Not so free of controversy is the issue of the portable non-iconic engravings found in many pre-Upper Palaeolithic contexts. The "short-range" protagonists have consistently sought to reject individual finds by questioning the intentionality of engraved grooves, or by repudiating that they had been made with stone tools. In a number of cases their scepticism was indeed justified, but the tendency of extrapolating from them stifled the study of symbol origins greatly. The two main objections were that among the many examples of pre-Upper Palaeolithic engravings, there were no recognizable motif templates, and that there were no repeated patterns. Both of these objections have now been refuted, in fact at a single site. Oldisleben  1, a site of the Eem geological period north of Weimar, Germany, belongs to the eastern Micoquian. Together with a distinctive stone tool tradition dating broadly from between 135,000 and 80,000 years ago, three engraved bone fragments were recovered (Bednarik 2004). Two of them bear series of sub-parallel grooves made with such precision and under such conditions that their intentionality cannot realistically be questioned. The third, on the fragment of a shoulder blade, bears the engraving of an iconographic image. This is the oldest picture found so far, and it destroys a cornerstone of the archaeological dogma, according to which iconic graphic art older than 40,000 years would never be found. It has been found now, and more of it will be found in the future. The traditional model of art origins is therefore refuted and Pleistocene archaeology is ready for a paradigm shift such as it has never experienced before.
This is the kind of scenario we need to consider if we seek to find
the origins of symbolling. On the basis of current evidence, the most
crucial period, the time when hominids commenced a trajectory delivering
them to where they are today, was the late part of the Early Pleistocene.
By the time of its end, 780,000 years ago, the course had been set for
our species, at least in terms of its fundamentals. More cannot be said
at this stage, because the conditions for making more confident pronouncements
simply do not exist. They are lacking because archaeology, in looking
for these developments, has completely failed to come to terms with
its errors, having looked essentially in the wrong places, and in the
wrong era of human history.
The ability of creating arbitrary relationships between referrer and referent is perhaps the most defining characteristic of humans. Archaeology has consistently ignored this, has focussed largely on its invented tool categories, and has therefore failed to provide a cultural history of humans. Symbols are the most powerful driving force that made humans human. They are abstract, society-specific constructs of reality aspects. Especially those detectable visually are physical fragments of human interpretation of the physical world. Their full meanings are only interpretable within the social contexts that created them, even in the case of iconographic symbols, but most especially in those that lack iconographic anchor points. The proper study of this vast body of evidence, called palaeoart, has not yet begun. Perhaps it will begin in this century. And perhaps it will, some time, lead to an understanding of how humans created their reality out of chaos.
Ayala, F. J. 1996. Response to Templeton. Science 272: 1363-4.
Information: Paul Bouissac
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