STONE TOOL "STYLE" AND THE EVOLUTIONARY ORIGINS OF SYMBOLISM
Philip G. Chase (University of Pennsylvania, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology)
I would like here to revisit a topic I addressed over
a decade ago (Chase 1991), the question of whether or not the presence
of "style" in flaked stone artifacts permits us to recognize the first
use of symbols by our ancestors. The topic is of real importance to
those who are trying to use the Paleolithic archaeological record to
understand human cognitive, linguistic, and cultural evolution. In this
context, the archaeologist is dealing with peoples whose basic, fundamental
nature, or the basic, fundamental nature of whose way of thinking and
interacting is not known. I will argue that the use of "style" in stone
tools is not a good indicator of the presence or absence of symbolism
for two reasons. On the one hand, some hominin populations may have
used symbols on a regular basis without any trace of this showing up
in stone tool morphology. On the other hand, some hominin populations
who did not use symbols may have left behind a patterning of stone tools
that the archaeologist would have to interpret as style.
It should be noted, however, that the arguments I make
are not relevant to Upper Paleolithic or Holocene populations who had
fully developed human culture, whose mentality and way of life were
essentially modern in nature, and whose use of symbolism is not in doubt
(pace Christensen and Warburton, this symposium).
By "symbol" I mean a something whose meaning is determined
by arbitrary convention. This definition takes as its starting point
Peirce's (Peirce 1932/1960) definition of a symbol as a referential
sign. However, as Byers (1994) points out, in culture symbolism goes
beyond reference to fulfill other functions. I will have more to say
about that below, but the key characteristic of all symbolism is that
its meaning is assigned by arbitrary, socially constructed convention.
There has been a lively debate about the nature of
style in the archaeological literature (Sackett 1973; Jelinek 1976;
Wobst 1977; Conkey 1978; Dunnell 1978; Stiles 1979; Close 1980; Conkey
1980; Sackett 1982; Wiessner 1983; 1984; Sackett 1985; 1986; Clark 1989;
Close 1989; Conkey 1990; Wiessner 1990; Byers 1994; 1999; 2001). Two
themes seem to be common to most of the definitions of style in the
literature on Paleolithic archaeology.
1. Style is thought of as something that is associated
(for whatever reason) with a given group of people within a given geographical
range over a given span of time. As Conkey (1990:6) puts it, "…if there
is any one thing we have had in the backs of our minds for the use of
stylistic analysis, it has been to find or reveal social units or specific
historical entities." How a social or historical group is to be defined
is often left unstated, but from an archaeological perspective, style
is usually considered to be an index of a historically and ethnically
or culturally bounded social unit (Conkey 1980; 1990; Dunnell 1978;
Jelinek 1976; Sackett 1973; 1982; 1985; Wiessner 1983; 1984; 1990; Stiles
2. Style is generally considered to be, in Byers' (1994:379)
words, "an overdetermination of form with respect to end-goal requirements."
Such end-goal requirements include the practical function to which a
tool will be put and the technological requirements of its manufacture.
The notion of overdetermination is included even in what Sackett (1982)
calls "isochrestic" style, that is, choices made in the process of manufacture
among procedures that, from a functional or technological perspective,
are equally valid. In this case, it is isochrestic choices rather than
"adjunct" decoration that overdetermine the form of the artifact, but
the overdetermination still exists. It is also true of the school of
thought that holds style to be something left over after the requirements
placed on artifact form by function, technology, and the like (Close
1980; 1989; Dunnell 1978; Jelinek 1976). In this case, the presence
of style means that artifact morphology does not vary as freely as function
and technology would permit.
I will use therefore use the word "style" to mean a
pattern or a set of patterns consisting of overdetermination of form
that are, in one way or another, associated with a given group of people
bounded both ethnically and temporally.
Style and Symbolism in Holocene Archaeology
Generally speaking, two mechanisms are cited by which
a style or styles is associated with a given group of people.
These mechanisms are not mutually exclusive. In fact,
I will argue below that they both point to an underlying phenomenon,
an elaboration of simple referential symbolism into all-pervasive cultural
It follows that if this is how style comes into being, then the archaeological record will be characterized by a pattern of variation in stone artifact morphology that is discontinuous through space and time (see Stiles 1979:5). Any one geographic area will, at any one given time, be stylistically homogenous (unless occupied by more than one ethnic group). That is, the appearance of each category of artifacts will be overdetermined in the same manner (in the same style). At the same time, because this overdetermination relies on culture, which is mutable, there should be disjunctions in style both across space and through time; adjacent regions or time periods should be marked by different styles. Such is the pattern commonly described for the Upper Paleolithic of Europe ( e.g., Mellars 1973; Laville, et al. 1980; White 1982; Wynn 1996).
This is entirely logical, and in general I concur with this view. There are, it is true, practical considerations that make the link between style and ethnic groups less clear than the above summary would imply (Jelinek 1976). Style may be used to convey information about something other than group identity (Wiessner 1983; 1984; 1990; Wobst 1977); not all ethnic boundaries are correlated with stylistic boundaries (Wiessner 1983); style may be associated with ideas that cross-cut stylistic boundaries. Moreover, the archaeological record may contain artifacts whose morphology represents not a desired end product but the processes of breaking, resharpening, etc. to the point where the tool becomes useless (Frison 1968; Jelinek 1976; Dibble 1987; 1989; 1995). Such problems are relevant, but lie outside the scope of this paper.
Style and Symbolism in Human Evolution
My purpose here is to investigate whether or not such a patterning of the archaeological record can serve to identify the point at which the use of symbolism became a significant part of the adaptation of our hominin ancestors. On this point, I am skeptical, for two reasons. First, I believe that it is altogether possible that symbolism could have been adaptively important without affecting lithic morphology. Second, I believe that a patterning of the archaeological record rather similar to that described above could, at least in theory, have been produced without symbolism.
In order to do this, however, I must first explain what I mean by
three key concepts: memetic traditions, referential symbolism, and fully
elaborated culture. These distinctions are usually not made in archaeological
discussions of style.
Most scholars who attribute culture to species other than humans
define culture in terms of social learning, social transmission of information,
and the traditions that arise from social transmission (Boesch, et al.
1994; Boesch and Tomasello 1998; McGrew 1998; Whiten, et al. 1999) .
This definition is also used by a major branch of sociobiology that
analyzes human culture under rubrics such as "dual inheritance"
The term "meme" was coined (Dawkins 1976:192) to refer to particles of information or behavior analogous to genes. When one individual learns a meme from another individual, that meme is reproduced and transmitted. Some memes will be adopted more frequently than others, a process that is directly analogous to natural selection of alleles. Defining culture in terms of memes permits an essentially Darwinian analysis of cultural evolution through natural selection - at the level of memes rather than genes (hence the term "dual inheritance"). This is why the concept appeals to sociobiologists who wish to apply scientific, evolutionary analysis to culture without equating cultural evolution to genetic evolution.
This model is grounded in observations of both human and non-human behavior and learning. There is no doubt that bits of behavior or knowledge that fit the definition of a meme are invented and passed from one individual to another in non-human species. Two of the most famous examples are sweet potato washing among Japanese macaques and the opening of milk bottles by tits in Europe (Kawamura 1959; Kawai 1965; Itani and Nishimura 1973; Fisher and Hinde 1949). Moreover, there is also no doubt that among non-human primates, the adoption of different memes in different populations produce systematic differences in behavior or memetic traditions. Different groups do the same things in different ways because they have learned different memes. (Nishida 1986; Whiten, et al. 1999; Perry and Manson 2003; Van Schaik, et al. 2003). For example, different groups of chimpanzees have different methods of making termite fishing wands, of breaking open nuts, different postures when being groomed, etc. (Whiten et al. 1999).
There is also no doubt that many behaviors or ideas that humans learn in a social context resemble memes in that they are created or invented by one individual or group of individuals and then transmitted socially to others - gunpowder, the diatonic scale, and double-entry bookkeeping, for example. Such memes often compete against one another, as for example, did VHS and Beta standards for video tapes.
However, in spite of this resemblance to memes, what happens among present-day culture bearing humans is also quite different from what is found in other species. This can best be understood if we analyze how memes and symbols are created and transmitted. Consider, for example, sweet potato washing among macaques . One individual discovered that washing a potato in sea water had some desirable effect (either adding a salty flavor or removing grit). Other individuals learned the same thing, not by invention, but by observing her and then trying it for themselves. There are three things to note about this process. First, the invention of sweet potato washing was an entirely individual process. Second, an individual benefits by washing sweet potatoes whether or not any other individual does so. Third, each individual is free to adopt or not to adopt the practice; the choice is a private, not a public, one.
Compare this to a simple symbol, to a word, for example. The creation of such a symbol is a social, not a private act. Even if one individual creates a new word, it cannot be used until others have agreed to the meaning of that particular sequence of sounds. By the same token, the benefits of a symbol (in this case communication) depend on its acceptance by everyone involved. It will do me no good to speak English to someone who does not know the symbolic conventions of English. Finally, this social nature of symbols means that an individual who fails to adopt important symbols will be excluded from the social system. Adopting or refusing to adopt a symbol is a social, not a private, act.
At its simplest, language consists of a set of conventions for communicating meaning. These conventions are both phonological and syntactical. Certain sound combinations (words or morphemes) refer to certain concepts by arbitrary convention. At the same time, conventions concerning inflection, word order, etc., permit speakers to express different relationships among concepts. Thus, "The dog bites the man," "The dog bit the man," "The man bit the dog," and "The cat bit the dog" all convey different ideas. Underlying all of these sentences, however, is the basic fact that symbolic conventions permit speakers to refer to different things, and the referential nature of these conventions make it possible to communicate about these things.
Today, in a cultural context, language goes beyond reference. For example, speech acts such as oaths or incantations are more than referential communication. But reference is the heart, the sine qua non of language, and symbolic reference makes human language a much more powerful and flexible tool for communication than any system found in other species.
My concept of human culture is very different from a definition based on memetic traditions. It seems to me that human culture, like the symbolism that makes it possible and that represents its most primitive form, is created by social convention rather than by individuals. These conventions function at the social level, and accepting or rejecting them is a social rather than an individual act.
In human culture as it exists today, symbolism goes beyond reference (Byers 1994). Oaths and incantations, for example, are cultural acts that depend on a set of symbol-based cultural conventions (rules, values, concepts and definitions, etc.). The referential symbols of language need only refer to things that exist even without culture (objects, perceived classes of objects, sensations, beliefs about causation, etc.). However, culture creates things that have no existence outside a symbolic context and that depend on symbolism for their very existence - supernatural beings, myths, social statuses (policeman, wife), symbolic objects (scepters, rosaries), beliefs (astrology, theologies), values (piety, chastity), and so forth. Modern culture creates all-encompassing systems that assign symbolic meaning to almost anything we humans perceive, think, or do.
As Byers (1994) has made quite clear, almost nothing we do can be separated from its place in the symbol system, because that system now provides rules for defining what is or is not appropriate. Almost any action, large or small, is judged not only in terms of its practical consequences, but also in terms of its symbolic meaning or value within the cultural system.
In the present context, what this means is that the making of artifacts is constrained not only by their practical function and by the raw materials and technical knowledge available, but also by cultural norms and standards, norms and standards that rely upon symbolism for their existence, even if they themselves have no referential meaning.
I would argue (as would Sackett, I believe), that this is what creates style. It does not matter whether or not people are deliberately trying to express their identity in either the form or decoration of stone tools. As long as cultural standards govern their manufacture, then stone tools will be constrained in their morphology. As a result, the morphology of a population of stone tools will serve as an index of the population of people who shared those cultural standards. (Even if in practice the archaeologist may face serious problems reading the archaeological record correctly, the principle still stands.) For example, metal paper clips sold in the United States differ markedly in form from paper clips sold in France. I know of no evidence that would indicate that Americans and Frenchmen are using paper clips to mark their national identities. Rather, the stylistic differences result from the different standards followed in the manufacture of these paper clips. These cultural standards do not express social identity, yet they nevertheless constrain their form.
With these three concepts in mind - memetics, referential symbolism, and fully elaborated, symbol-based culture - we can now turn to the question of whether the appearance of style in the stone tools left behind by our hominin ancestors coincides with the appearance of symbolism as a part of their adaptation. (Among other primates, a capacity for symbolism apparently exists, but it is not expressed in the wild.) As I stated above, I believe that there are two reasons why style is not a good index of symbolism. I suspect that symbolism can exist without style and that style can exist without symbolism.
Can Symbolism Exist without Style?
Cooperation is common in many species other than humans. Cultural values and cultural norms do not motivate this cooperation. Rather, individuals cooperate because it is in their interest to do so. For example, a single wolf will find it dangerous if not impossible to kill an animal as big as a moose (Alces), but a pack of wolves can do so, and, because a moose carcass is large, there will be meat for everyone. Although the motivation may not be social in nature, the process of hunting cooperatively would nevertheless be improved by enhanced communication. In other words, by serving to coordinate cooperative activities, even those motivated by entirely individual concerns, a purely referential language would have a real adaptive benefit.
We can imagine, then, a hypothetical population of hominins who used referential symbolism for linguistic communication, but who had not extended symbolism and symbolic ideas into the all-encompassing cultural systems that exist today. These people would be cooperating and they would be using language to do so, but their cooperation, like that of wolves, would be motivated by their individual calculations (conscious or not) of cost and benefit. Their social lives, like those of wolves or chimpanzees, would be conducted in the absence of a symbol-based culture: there would be no symbol-based cultural standards for behavior.
This is a hypothetical population. However, until it is shown that no such population ever existed, or that no such population could have existed, we should consider what the archaeological record left behind by such a population would have looked like.
In the absence of cultural standards, the making of stone tools would, like the making of a chimpanzee's termite wand, be carried out with only practical considerations in mind. In other words, the morphology of a stone tool would reflect the purpose for which it was intended, the nature and availability of raw material, and the technological knowledge of the makers, but would reflect no cultural standards beyond this.
In addition, there would be no question of what Sackett (1986) calls active style, the deliberate use of style to convey cultural information, for the simple reason that no such cultural information would exists. These hominins would distinguish among friends, enemies, and strangers in the same way that chimpanzees do, by personal acquaintance. They would have no reason to express ethnic affiliation.
There would be no culturally defined roles (such as shaman or husband) to be marked stylistically. There would be no culturally defined activities (such as marriage or initiation) to be marked stylistically. Roles and activities, social and practical, would exist as they do among chimpanzees, but they would be neither defined nor constrained by culture. Thus the use of style to indicate intention, as described by Byers for Upper Paleolithic and later populations, would no more apply to this population than it would apply to chimpanzees. As a result, style as I have described it above would simply not exist.
The stone tools and debitage left behind by such a population would look exactly like that left behind by a population of similar intelligence that used neither symbols nor language.
Can Style Exist without Symbolism?
I defined style as an index of a culturally and historically bounded group of people. It can serve as an index because it consists of overdetermination of form. Judging from the literature, most archaeologists seem to assume that this overdetermination is the result of cultural (and therefore symbol-based) standards and meanings. If this were true, then style could not exist without symbolism.
Yet style is observable, albeit not in lithic technology, among primates who do not make use of symbols and whose behavior is not constrained or guided by symbolic culture. Rather, the source of variation lies in memetic traditions. From the perspective of technology, perhaps the most striking example comes from the work of McGrew, Tutin and Baldwin (1979), who found that some chimpanzee groups peeled the bark off twigs used for termite fishing while others did not. This would clearly be a stylistic difference, yet it is also clearly memetic rather than symbolic in nature.
Just how applicable these examples are to the hominin archaeological record is problematic. Certainly, in some cases there is little doubt that cultural standards underlie patterns of systematic variation in artifact form through time and space. Few would argue, for example, that this was not the case in the Upper Paleolithic of Europe - certainly not of the later Upper Paleolithic. Remember, however, that our purpose here is not to understand the Upper Paleolithic but to try to find the earliest use of symbols as an adaptation. If we look at earlier patterns of variation, their origin is less clear.
A number of scholars have recognized that the Mousterian industries of the Levant seem to fall into several categories, based on the kinds of flakes removed from cores (Copeland 1975; Jelinek 1981; Meignen and Bar-Yosef 1992). For our purposes here, the kind of variation from one category to another was well expressed by Meignan and Bar-Yosef (1992:143):
These different kinds of assemblage are found at several sites in a limited region and replace one another through time. In these respects they fit the criterion of style. Note that the differences among them do not concern tools that have been shaped by retouch. Rather, the differences lie in the methods by which flakes were removed from the cores. It is not clear if the methods of core reduction were intended to produce flakes of a given shape, or if flake shape was a byproduct of the chosen method of core reduction.
Let us assume for the moment that the differences among the assemblages were not the product of different functions associated with different adaptive strategies. In this case, the variability in the Levantine Mousterian assemblages would certainly seem to fit the definition of style given above. The question remains, however, whether these differences reflect different symbolic cultural standards, or whether different methods of core reduction were simply different memes. That is, youngsters learning to work stone would learn the methods used by their elders not because of any cultural conventions, but simply because flintknapping at this level of sophistication is not simple, and learning from available models would be more efficient than trying out a random variety of strategies.
It is my opinion that we simply cannot answer this question. On the one hand, geographically limited memetic traditions can be observed among non-human primates today. However, we cannot observe the spread or persistence of these traditions on a geological time scale. The fact is, quite simply, that no population of technologically sophisticated, acultural stone tool makers exists today. We cannot observe their behavior even over the space of days or years, much less over millennia. What this means is that our ideas about what such a population would be like, or even whether such a population ever existed, cannot be tested. No matter how well thought out or how thoroughly grounded theoretically, our ideas on the subject will always, I fear, be untestable and therefore subjective.
Some Potential Sources of Confusion
What I have written so far is the essence of what I have to say. However, there are certain issues that, while perhaps not wholly relevant to my thesis, should be mentioned because if left unaddressed, they may lead the reader to misunderstand my meaning.
A matter of definition
I have defined style as patterns of overdetermination of form that serve as indexes of historical and ethnically bounded populations. This definition does not include an underlying symbolic, cultural component as a necessary part of the definition of style. I used this definition because it seems to me that it is a sort of lowest common denominator of what archaeologists mean by the term.
However, the reader may be misled into thinking that by using this definition, I have stacked the deck in favor of my thesis. Moreover, for those who consider style to be a means of conveying information, the symbolic, cultural component is an essential part of the definition of style.
These objections are more apparent than real. What is at issue is only a matter of terminology, one that does not change the essence of what I am trying to say. I could have accepted symbolism as an integral part of the definition of style and still said exactly what I did in the preceding pages simply by changing a few words. (In fact, I did exactly that in an earlier draft.)
Some common pitfalls
To my mind, some scholars have fallen into a trap by failing to distinguish adherence to memetic traditions - doing things in the way one learns from others - with adherence to cultural norms. The problem, as is so often the case, is verbal in nature. The term "standards" can be used for both memetic traditions and cultural norms, yet only one of these requires or implies a symbolic context. Following memetic "standards" is not the same thing as adhering to symbolic cultural standards. I personally would limit the word "standards" to cases where others expect and demand that one does things in a certain way. This is true of cultural standards, but not of memetic traditions.
There also seems to be a sentiment that shaping stone tools to fit deliberate mental templates reflects a symbolic way of thinking (e.g., Gowlett 1984; see also Holloway 1969). The use of mental templates would be reflected in the archaeological record by standardization of artifact form, and perhaps by increased working and shaping of artifacts:
There is insufficient space to do this topic justice here (see Chase 1991), but a few words are in order.
First, unless one assumes that prehistoric flintknappers were essentially banging away randomly, or else that they were going through rote movements with no idea of what they were doing, then clearly they must have had some kind of end product in mind, even if it was only a useable edge. In other words, the mere presence of a mental template does not imply language or symbolism.
Second, it is true that cultural standards will, by limiting what is acceptable, decrease variability in artifacts. However, there are other factors that will have the same effect, and it will often be difficult to distinguish between them. Moreover, cultural standards and cultural meanings are emic phenomena, and what is culturally important to the maker of a stone tool may be not be what the archaeologist, from an etic perspective, takes to be important. In other words, the archaeologist may try to measure standardization using his or her own etic concepts of what should be standardized, yet at the same time miss the emic standards used by the flintknappers, or vice versa.
Finally, it is true that if one wishes to use artifact form to convey information, then the more effort one expends shaping an artifact the greater the potential for making subtle distinctions. However, there are other reasons for shaping an artifact. For example, Bisson (2001) found that in most Mousterian levels at Skhul, scrapers were made according to a few simple (practical, not necessarily symbolic cultural) rules, but that in level B1, scrapers were more heavily shaped. This shaping, however, appears to be related to hafting, rather than to any attempt to convey cultural information.
It has not been my purpose here to join in the archaeological debate about style. For the most part, that debate has concerned why modern, culture-bearing peoples invest their artifacts with style, and the implications of this for drawing inferences about prehistoric ethnic boundaries on the basis of archaeological patterning. My purpose, by contrast, has been to investigate whether a particular kind of patterning in the archaeological record can be used to identify the point at which symbolism became a significant part of hominin adaptation. To this end, I have tried to use "style" in a way that is compatible with, or at least the lowest common denominator of what most lithic specialists take it to mean. I have then asked two questions.
The first question was whether symbol using peoples could have produced an archaeological record devoid of style. I believe that this is possible because it is not symbolism per se, but rather the elaboration of symbolism into all-encompassing cultural systems that produces style. Since referential symbolism in the form of language can, on its own and in the absence of overarching cultural systems, be explained as adaptive, then it follows that referential culture could have existed without style.
The second question was whether style could be produced by anything other than symbolic culture - whether simple memetic traditions could be responsible for geographical and temporal variation in the patterns of overdetermined form. This seems to me to be an unanswerable question, because it cannot be tested. Whatever answer we give must be subjective, and this means that any inferences about symbolism and symbolic culture on the basis of apparent stylistic variations in the archaeological record must likewise be subjective. Since there are less ambiguous grounds for inferring the presence of culture (artistic or other evidence of mythology, ritual, etc.), it seems to me that the archaeological correlates of style alone are probably not a very useful tool.
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