Ten Positions On Symbolicity In Archeology
1. The issue of symbolism in Archeology suffers from an original sin: that of having been formulated in the framework of models of human evolution where present-day people are derived from a small group of late Middle Pleistocene "modern" ancestors whose expansion out of Africa ultimately entailed the complete replacement of contemporary "archaics".
2. In the framework of such models, "moderns" are defined as a separate species and, following the standard biological definition of species, conceived as both behaviorally and anatomically distinct. Since symbolism is thought to underlie the specificity of present-day humans, and because "archaics" must have been different, it is postulated that the latter did not have "symbolically-organized" behavior.
3. "Symbolism" thus becomes an immanent property of modern biology arising out of some fundamental hardware change, for instance a mutation originating the appearance of a gene coding for language, or the internal reorganization of the circuitry of the brain. "Archaics" did not have symbolically-organized behavior simply because they could not; they lacked the appropriate biological capabilities.
4. Because this position derives from a strong paradigm (that past human behavior was species-specific and, hence, "Neandertal behavior" must have been different from "modern human behavior"), it tends to function more as a belief, or an ideological stance, than as a scientific thesis.
5. As a result, the "symbolism-as-a-modern-human-exclusive" model tends to be unshakable by the empirical evidence. More often than not, whenever application of the model's criteria turns up "symbolism" among archaics, the routine procedure among model supporters is to change the criteria rather than to abandon the model.
6. Over the last twenty years, blade production, style in stone tools, manufacture of bone artifacts, use of personal ornaments, body painting and even tool decoration (not to mention intentional burial) were demonstrated in Neandertal cultural contexts. As a result, the model now survives on the basis of the argument "Ah! But they did not have figurative art".
7. This leads to the paradox that a large number of modern human cultures, documented by both archeology and ethnography, should then be characterized as devoid of the capability for symbolism. Such characterization, however, is in contradiction with the basic foundation of the model, i.e., that behavior is species-specific and, therefore, that all biological modern humans are behaviorally symbolic beings. That the tower are faulty, however, as implied no shortage of hotel guests.
8. At this juncture, progress in an understanding of the issue under the rules of Science becomes impossible because of the lack of shared testing mechanisms. Even if figurative art would one day be found in Neandertal times (for instance, fallen decorated blocks incorporated in Châtelperronian strata, or parietal art covered by such strata) the issue would not necessarily become settled.
9. As happened before, such findings could be disregarded as unrepresentative oddities, or the symbolicity frontier could then be moved onward to the invention of farming or writing. Teilhard de Chardin argued that the bodily evolution of humans was ruled by Darwinian natural selection but that the acquisition of conscience was proof of God's hand in the process. By the same token, it can be (and has been) argued that the switch of symbolicity appeared with, and is an exclusive feature of modern anatomy, but that its "turning on" only occurred at a (convenient) later time.
10. In this context, it becomes unproductive for opponents of the
"symbolism-as-a-modern-human-exclusive" model to pursue the
issue from within the terms set by that model. The learning of complex
technological traditions such as those involved in the producing of
thrusting weapons responding to the laws of ballistics (the 400,000
year old wood spears from Schöningen), to name but one example,
requires language, i.e., symbolism. If symbolism was already present
in archaic humans since ancient times, then the investigation of ornaments,
decoration, style, etc., can and should be decoupled from immanence
issues and can and should more profitably be concentrated on the cultural/social
properties of those phenomena. Otherwise, Paleoanthropology will remain
entrapped in "search-for-the-right-mutation/switch/event"
intellectual environments that preclude an effective understanding of
Middle and Upper Pleistocene human evolution as History, not Progress.
Information: Paul Bouissac
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