Research into the development of symbolic behavior of early humans

@Jay313 @mitchellmckain I thought you might think this was interesting.

Some cognitive scientists and archaeologist worked together on some ancient engravings to try to shed light on the evolution of human cognitive processes and the development of symbolic behavior.

This question is very challenging to address; human cognitive processes do not fossilize, making it very difficult to study the mental life of our Stone Age ancestors.

“Previous investigations have relied exclusively on studies of archaeological artifacts, the size and shape of cranial casts, or the mapping of genes. These are very indirect measures of human cognitive processes. While our experimental approach is also indirect in the sense that we cannot travel back in time and directly record the cognitive processes of our Stone Age ancestors, it is, on the other hand, dealing directly with those basic cognitive processes critically involved in human symbolic behavior.”


Interesting stuff. Look sort of like my doodling when listening to a boring lecture, but you can certainly see the progression in complexity.

Thanks for thinking of me! This actually was one of several papers with implications for my thesis that came out early this year. I started a thread on this article when it appeared, but not much came of it:

From the abstract:

Our observations provide support for an account of the Blombos and Diepkloof engravings as decorations and as socially transmitted cultural traditions. By contrast, there was no clear indication that they served as denotational symbolic signs. Our findings have broad implications for our understanding of early symbolic communication and cognition in H. sapiens.

The interesting thing about Blombos is that it coincides with the expansion of trade networks and the likely appearance of fully-modern grammar (language in the modern sense). Diepkloof shows how the engravings evolved over time, but the truly remarkable thing is how little they changed from 100 kya to 65 kya. I put some of this into the wider context of the co-evolution of brain, language, and morality in this blog post/podcast:


You made me think of one of my articles. I hate the font the ASA has these articles in, but in my article planning ahead, I discuss the mental ability of early man in making the hand ax out of obsidian and carrying them for days to where they were used. This ability to plan ahead and to plan out the idea of a hand ax requires some form of symbolic behavior in my opinion. edited to add: one must have the symbol of the hand ax in mind in order to do this

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