The Flowering of Symbolic Communication:
Sharing Knowledge, Defining Ethnicities,
Conceptualizing Time, and Fueling the Rise of Civilization
Presented at the international conference entitled
“Brave New World: How Future Technology will Impact Human Life”
Leiden, The Netherlands, November 2, 2017.
The Prehistoric Origins of Symbolic Communication
The use of language, art, and writing to communicate ideas and information is surely one of the most unique of all human capabilities. While many other animal species regularly communicate by using inherited body postures and vocalizations, only humans are endowed with the ability to invent tens of thousands of visual and vocal symbols and transmit them to their offspring and future generations through the process of teaching and learning.
In fact, our species is capable of two very distinct—and very different—modes of communication. The first mode consists of the inherited forms of emotional communication, including facial expressions such as smiling, frowning, puzzlement, and disgust as well as vocalizations such as laughing, chuckling, crying, screaming, snarling, and groaning. These forms of communication are encoded in the human DNA, are found in all human populations, and are instinctively understood by people of all ages. The second mode—the communication of information through linguistic and visual symbolism—is unique to our species, is entirely learned and culturally patterned, and can be shared and understood only by members of the same cultural and linguistic group.
The great flowering of symbolic communication in our species doubtless began with the development of human language. Yet, unlike tools, fire, habitations, or diet, language leaves behind no physical evidence and cannot be dated by any of the normal tools of the paleontologist. Although the true antiquity of symbolic communication remains one of the great mysteries of prehistory, there are some intriguing scraps of evidence from the paleontological record that suggest that both spoken language and the use of signs or symbols may have developed well before the appearance of the anatomically modern human, Homo sapiens sapiens.
Possibly the oldest evidence of human symbolism is a fossilized elephant bone, once used as a percussion tool for finishing Acheulian hand-axes, from a site in Bilzingsleben, Germany inhabited by the emerging human Homo heidelbergensis. This tool, found in a stratum nearly 400,000 years old, had been engraved by its maker with seven cut marks in one area, fourteen cut marks in another area, and had a third area which had broken off and been lost. It has been suggested that this third area had also contained seven cut marks and that the total of 28 cut marks on the elephant bone was actually a primitive lunar calendar.* Numerous other artifacts from Bilzingsleben were also engraved with suggestive and unexplained markings, although most prehistorians have yet to be convinced that Homo heidelbergensis—most likely an ancient precursor to the Neanderthals—was actually using symbolism at such an early time period.
The oldest evidence of the possible emergence of spoken language survives as the fossil remains of the hyoid bone of the Neanderthals. This small U-shaped bone, slightly more than three centimeters in diameter, is located just above the larynx in the human throat and plays an important role in the production of human speech. And while the hyoid bones of other animals—including our closest relative the chimpanzee—are of a distinctively different shape from the human hyoid bone, the hyoid bones of Neanderthals and modern humans are nearly identical. This suggests that the Neanderthals may have been speaking an early form of human language as early as 100,000 years ago.
The use of vocal symbols to represent places, objects, animals, people, and actions made it possible for prehistoric humans to share the personal knowledge of their own experiences with others, and this ability to share knowledge in an abstract or symbolic form led to an immense expansion of the information available to each member of the group. Examples of the transmission of “cultural knowledge” have been recorded for chimpanzees, elephants, prairie dogs, and many species of birds. But only humans can transmit knowledge in symbolic form, and only humans can use language to impart the personal experience of one individual to other members of the group in a matter of hours or days.
The Neanderthals also left behind the first examples of artifacts that were created for a “symbolic” rather than a “practical” purpose. They created prehistoric “jewelry” in the form of seashells with holes drilled through them that were probably worn as amulets or as bodily adornment. Neanderthal cave sites also contain evidence that large primary feathers were plucked from the wing bones of eagles, vultures, and crows. Since these species were not used for food, these feathers may have been used for earrings or headdresses. And numerous Neanderthal grave sites show evidence of deliberate burying of the dead, often decorated with red or yellow pigments. In fact, pollen analysis of a Neanderthal grave site in Southwestern Asia showed that flowers were placed in the burial site, an act which some have interpreted as a belief in the afterlife.
Defining Ethnic Identities
With the appearance of the Cro-Magnons and other anatomically modern humans in Europe and Asia roughly 50,000 years ago, however, graphic symbolism in the form of prehistoric art became both abundant and undeniable. Small humanoid figures carved from stone or bone appear in Palaeolithic sites throughout Europe and Western Asia. These include numerous examples of so-called “Venus figurines”—female statuettes with oversized breasts and sex organs—which have been found as far west as Southern France and as far east as Siberia, and which date from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. And the presence of these Venus figurines over this incredible span of time and space provides the earliest evidence that, unlike the Neanderthals, the Cro-Magnons had begun to differentiate themselves into distinct cultures and leave behind unmistakable evidence of humanity’s first true ethnic identities.
While the Venus figurines all share common anatomical characteristics, the artistic styles with which these figurines were rendered differs from region to region and from one time period to another, and this has enabled prehistorians to identify distinct human cultures for the first time. As time passed, stylistic differences were expressed in the decorations that prehistoric people left behind on their tools, weapons, cave art, and pottery, and it is these characteristic decorative styles that make it possible for us to identify and name the distinct cultures that existed among the most ancient populations of anatomically modern humans.
Of all the evidence of symbolism that has survived from prehistoric times, the proliferation of Paleolithic cave art is doubtless the most striking. Pictorial representations of game animals and hunting scenes have been found in abundance in cave sites throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Drawings and paintings of deer, horses, bison, mammoths and wooly rhinoceroses are clear evidence that these animals were hunted—and possibly worshipped—as highly valued game. And representations of people—often drawn as simple stick figures—depict unmistakable scenes of hunting and warfare.
But prehistoric people were also using pure symbolism to record and communicate information, and we know this from the tens of thousands of “petroglyphs” that were carved and painted on rock faces and the walls of caves throughout the entire inhabited world. They survive in myriad forms: shapes that resemble dots, bars, rods, feathers, combs, triangles, pentagons, and hexagons, sometimes combined with hand prints or pictures of animals. Many consist of odd shapes filled with engraved lines suggesting basketry or woven cloth. Significantly, unlike the realistic paintings of animals or people, we cannot interpret the meaning of the petroglyphs because they are purely symbolic representations of information. In short, they are a form of cultural knowledge which was utterly lost when the cultures that produced them became extinct.
Narrative Stories and the Conceptualization of Time
Symbolic communication had another profound impact on human life when prehistoric people began to string together groups of words to describe events that occurred in a particular sequence over a period of time. This use of language to express the narrative story expanded the power of language beyond the mere sharing of information into an entirely new capability, unknown by any other animal species: the conceptualization of time.
When the hunter returned from the hunt, he could describe the entire sequence of events that encompassed the hunt: finding the spoor of a game animal, tracking down the game, selecting the weapons for the attack, stalking until the prey was within range, attacking, killing, butchering, and bringing the game home to the encampment. When the gatherer returned from the field, she could describe the story of her day: travelling to the location of the fruits, roots, vegetables, or bird’s eggs, recognizing the tell-tale signs of the foods, gathering them, and preparing them for transport back to camp. In this way, other members of the group, simply by listening to these narratives, could go forth on similar expeditions armed with the knowledge and experience of others who had gone before them.
The narrative story thus became not only a way to communicate a personal experience to other members of the group, but also to conceptualize the passage of time. Thus, the telling of stories enabled human groups to think about the passage of time and to recognize and describe chains of causality.
This unique capability may have been the critical catalyst that made it possible for Neolithic societies to conceive of, and describe, the months-long sequences of events that would have to be understood and remembered for the successful practice of agriculture: preparing the soil, planting the seeds or cuttings, watering, weeding, and harvesting the crops, and processing and storing the fruits of their labor.
It is therefore not surprising that no evidence of food-production has been found from the hominins’ three-million-year history until after the end of the most recent glacial maximum 18,000 years ago. Yet from that point forward, agriculture was invented independently in at least eleven different locations throughout the world as the global climate grew warmer. Before this, an interglacial period had occurred between roughly 130,000 and 120,000 years ago, but there is no evidence of agriculture from this previous warm period. This was long before the appearance of anatomically modern humans in Europe and Asia, and was probably well before the development of human language sophisticated enough to conceptualize the passage of time.
During the last ice age, the habitats favorable to agriculture were either too cold or too dry to support the kinds of crops that would have allowed the nomadic people of that age to replace their ancient hunting and foraging adaptation with the revolutionary new subsistence method of food-production. But with the tool of the narrative story, humans succeeded for the first time in planting, growing, and harvesting crops. This made possible not only the settlement of large populations in sedentary villages but in fact set the stage for the rise of urban civilizations.
Fueling the Rise of Civilization
When ancient people began to devise systems for translating the auditory symbolism of language into the visual symbolism of writing, humans gained the ability to communicate information over time and space, and this—combined with the invention of technologies of transportation over land and sea—made possible the rise of civilization. Writing made it possible to record the inventories of the storehouses of ancient kings, for rulers to issue orders to their armies in distant lands, for merchants to trade over vast distances, and for dynasties to record the histories of their achievements for posterity.
It is therefore not surprising that complex and sophisticated systems of writing evolved in all of the places where the earliest civilizations arose, notably in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, and Mesoamerica. Each of these systems of writing were invented independently of each other and, as time passed, were adopted by neighboring cultures and societies.
In the final analysis, the invention of language, art, music, and writing—perhaps more than any other human innovation—gave our species its singular place in the animal kingdom. The flowering of symbolic communication enabled humanity to accumulate knowledge, to rise above other species, to create vast civilizations encompassing millions of individuals, and eventually to dominate—for good or for ill—all other forms of life on earth.
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*See: Mania, Dietrich, and Ursula Mania. “Deliberate Engravings on Bone Artefacts of Homo Erectus.” Rock Art Research 5 (1988): 91–107. See also: Mania, Dietrich, and Ursula Mania. “The Natural and Socio-Cultural Environment of Homo Erectus at Bilzingsleben, Germany,” in The Hominid Individual in Context, Archaeological Investigations of Lower and Middle Palaeolithic Landscapes, Locales and Artefacts, Clive Gamble and Martin Porr, eds. New York: Routledge, 98–114.