Herodotus Returns

NPR on Symbolic Thinking
August 12, 2010, 9:06 pm
Filed under: Cognitive evolution | Tags: , , ,

Ascent of Man Illustration

Here’s a great piece from NPR on symbolic thinking. Primer to cognitive archaeology, beginnings of complex human behavior. Tip of hat to Christopher Henshilwood in there, too.

Ever since Darwin came up with the whole idea of evolution, there’s been one dominant picture of the moment we truly became human. It’s that cartoon sequence: You see a hairy ape man with a heavy brow hunched in profile. Then, bit by bit, his back uncurls and straightens until all of a sudden there is he, upright, truly a man.

Recently I’ve been thinking about this image, because I’ve decided that we somehow ended up with the wrong one — that there’s something much more fundamental to being human than our ability to stand upright.

More on ‘when we became human.’ Really great stuff.


Ostrich Eggs in South Africa point to early signs of human language
March 5, 2010, 8:58 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

Archaeologists in South Africa have recently unearthed some of the earliest evidence of human behavior – a cache of ostrich eggs dating back 60,000 years, etched with intricate geometric designs.

The abstract carvings are signs of what archaeologists call ‘symbolic thinking,’ a capacity particular to Homo sapiens. Unlike earlier hominids, our brains allow us to affix meaning to objects, to draw associations, to recognize and create symbols.

Symbolic thinking is the roots of writing, language and art; it is, to risk grandiosity, what makes us human.

So when the team at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, led by prehistorian Pierre-Jean Texier, dug up the 60,000-year-old decorated ostrich eggs, they knew they’d found something special. The eggs suggest that we ‘became human’ – i.e. started creating art, decorating objects and thinking symbolically – 20,000 earlier than scholars had originally thought.

Read the rest of the piece at Heritage Key

Neanderthal shells suggest symbolic thinking
January 9, 2010, 10:14 am
Filed under: Pre-history | Tags: , ,

Recent studies of 50,000-year-old shells suggest that Neanderthals, contrary to previous belief, were capable of symbolic thinking. If the evidence presented in this study holds, it will completely change the way we think of cognitive evolution. The ability to associate, to affix meaning to an object, to recognize and create symbols – these were apparently what made us different from Neanderthals. They were, in essence, what made us human. This study may force us to redefine our humanity.

Neanderthals were different from you and me, the thinking goes, because they were cognitively inferior. For one thing, they appeared to be incapable of symbolic thinking, of using something to represent something else.

Some humans in Africa, for example, adorned their bodies with stained seashells more than 100,000 years ago. To them, a shell wasn’t just a shell, but a way to signify individuality. But evidence of similar behavior by Neanderthals has been discounted.

Now, though, archeologists working in the Murcia region of southeastern Spain report in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they have found solid signs that Neanderthals were using seashells in a decorative and symbolic way.

João Zilhão of the University of Bristol in England and colleagues studied shells found in two caves far from the shoreline and dating from about 50,000 years ago, 10,000 years before modern humans showed up in Europe.

More on the Neanderthal symbolic thinking study from the New York Times.