the origins of symbolism
An archaeological issue that has been hotly debated in
recent years, and that is of considerable relevance to semiotics, is the
question of the origins of symbolism. There is no consensus in contemporary
archaeology of how, where and, especially, when symbolism began. Broadly
speaking, two schools of thought have emerged, which are best described as a
short-range and a long-range model. Few if any researchers occupy the middle
ground between them. According to the currently dominant short-range model,
the earliest evidence we possess of human symbolism is in the forms of art and
indications of language ability. No art-like productions are recognized of an
age exceeding 32,000 or 35,000 years, and the earliest available language
evidence is seen to be the first successful colonization of Australia, thought
to have occurred perhaps 60,000 years ago. This school of thought is probably
most coherently articulated in the work of two Australians, Davidson and Noble
(1989, 1990, 1992; Noble and Davidson 1996; Davidson 1997). It categorically
denies the possibility of human symboling abilities beyond, say, 100 ka
(100,000 years) ago.
The long-range model, while favoured by most linguists
who have considered this topic (Bickerton 1990, 1996; Aitchison 1996; Dunbar
1996), enjoys little support from archaeologists. It postulates a very
significantly longer use of symbolism by hominids, at the very minimum in the
order of several hundred millennia, but more probably one million years or
more. Thus there is a significant difference between these two entirely
incompatible paradigms. The short-range model attributes symbolism, and all it
entails, solely to what has often been described as ‘anatomically modern
humans’, or Homo sapiens sapiens,
or simply ‘Moderns’ (Gamble 1994). It declares categorically that earlier
hominids possessed neither language, art-like products, social systems,
self-awareness, or even proper culture. These certainties are not based on
what is often called the ‘archaeological record’, but on the very strong
postulates of the ‘African Eve’ model (also called ‘Garden of Eden’ or
‘punctuated equilibrium’ model) that the Moderns evolved in genetic
isolation in sub-Saharan Africa, some time between 200 and 100 ka ago. They
then began a migration across Africa and out of Africa, reaching the Levant by
100 ka ago, and colonizing Asia and Australia by 60 ka BP (before the present
time), and Europe some 20 ka later. In the process, they either out-competed
or exterminated all resident human populations, wherever they went, and always
without interbreeding with them. By about 28 ka BP, all other human
populations had become extinct, by one means or another, and the genetically
pure, victorious Moderns had taken over the world.
This is what the majority of archaeologists believe
today, particularly in the English-speaking world, and this is a main
foundation of the idea that symbolism was the exclusive preserve of the
Moderns. In fact the faculties derived from symboling abilities are thought to
have been a principal factor in the evolutionary success of Moderns. According
to this school of thought, all earlier hominids lacked these abilities, and
consequently effective communication and social structures that were so useful
in the effective colonization of the world through the progeny of Africa’s
It is therefore essential to consider the African Eve
model before one can realistically examine the advent of human symboling
abilities. It is, however, not the only relevant issue. The second topic to be
considered in my paper is the question of the type of evidence one needs to
review to arrive at a realistic perspective. Here, the two opposing schools
agree on some points, while disagreeing on others. For instance, it seems to
be widely agreed that marine navigation, the ability to cross the ocean by
means of a vessel, is adequate evidence to demonstrate the existence of an
effective communication system — particularly when the ocean crossing is
followed by the successful establishment of a new population. On the other
hand, there is much disagreement about the function or purpose of many
archaeological finds that have been suggested to indicate the use of art or
symbolism. I shall therefore select a particular class of finds which
realistically leaves no valid doubts concerning its function, which provides
us with a great deal of information about technology, and which, most of all,
is capable of telling us even more about the semiotic capabilities of the
population concerned. In the present paper I will endeavour to concentrate on
lines of enquiry and transparent arguments that can withstand critical
Eve: a major archaeological fallacy
The most obvious deductions to be made from the Eve
model are that our victorious ancestors first conquered the world during the
Late Pleistocene, that they were genetically superior to their contemporaries
of that period, and that all extant human populations originate from a small,
isolated population from some small part of Africa. Indeed, ultimately they
all descend from one single female, dubbed Eve. They were the only humans who
ever succeeded in crossing that Rubicon between the subhuman and the human,
between instinct and intelligence, between absence and presence of culture.
At first sight, this model has the appearance of a
rather harmless origins myth or religious doctrine. It certainly does not
resemble a realistic model of phylogenetic evolution or demographic population
dynamics. Perhaps more pertinently, especially in the setting of the ideology
of the 1990s, it also illustrates what happens to a non-competitive
population, it extols the virtues of competition, it explains and justifies
colonization as a historical phenomenon and as an inevitable process. So it is
not just a simplistic and naive, but harmless mythology, it can be used to
underpin and legitimize quite insidious ideologies, by appealing to ‘common
sense’ and prejudice. Moreover, since this pernicious model practically
dominates archaeological thought nowadays, it determines current dogma in that
discipline, and thus dictates research directions and priorities. This would
be perfectly acceptable if it were based on an unrefuted proposition of
scientific status, but this is not the case at all. The Eve model is based on
a controversial proposition of some
geneticists (and opposed by others), and there is no archaeological evidence
in its favour, none whatsoever. In fact all relevant archaeological data seem
to indicate that this model must be false. And yet, incredibly, the discipline
of archaeology has succumbed to an implausible model imported from another
discipline, without even considering how this model stands up to
well-established archaeological knowledge.
Even the genetic justification is far from impeccable.
Different research teams have produced different genetic distances in nuclear
DNA, i.e. the distances created by allele frequencies that differ between
populations (e.g. Vigilant et al. 1991; Barinaga 1992; Ayala 1996; Brookfield
1997). Some geneticists concede that the model rests on untested assumptions,
others even oppose it (cf. Barinaga 1992; Templeton 1996; Brookfield 1997).
The various genetic hypotheses about the origins of Moderns that have appeared
like mushrooms over the past decade place the hypothetical split between
Moderns and other humans at times ranging from 17 to 889 ka BP. They all
depend upon preferred models of human demography, for which no sound data at
all are available. This applies to the claims concerning mitochondrial DNA
(‘African Eve’) as much as to those citing Y chromosomes (‘African
Adam’). The divergence times projected from the diversity found in nuclear
DNA, mtDNA, and DNA on the non-recombining part of the Y chromosome differ so
much that a time regression of any type is now extremely problematic.
Contamination of mtDNA with paternal DNA has been demonstrated (Gyllensten et
al. 1991) and Kidd et al. (1996) have shown that, outside Africa, the elements
of which the haplotypes are composed largely remain linked in a limited set of
them. The genetic picture in Africa as well as outside of Africa has recently
been found to be far more complicated than the Eve proponents ever envisaged.
Assumptions about a neutral mutation rate and a constant effective population
size are completely unwarranted, and yet these variables determine the
outcomes of all the calculations. For instance, if the same divergence rate as
one such model assumes (2%-4% base substitutions per million years) is applied
to the human-chimpanzee genetic distance, it yields a divergence point of 2.1
to 2.7 million years, which we consider to be unambiguously wrong. Nei (1987)
suggests a much slower rate, 0.71% per million years, according to which the
human-chimpanzee separation would have occurred 6.6 million years ago, which
is close to the estimate from nuclear DNA hybridization data, of 6.3 million
years. But this would produce a divergence of Moderns at 850 ka BP, over four
times as long ago as the favoured models, and eight times as long ago as the
earliest fossils of Moderns ever found. Interestingly, when the same
‘genetic clock’ is applied to dogs, and suggests that the split between
wolves and dogs occurred 135 ka ago, archaeologists reject it on the basis
that there is no palaeontological evidence for dogs prior to about 14 ka BP.
In other words, the weak theory that provides the only basis for the African
Eve scenario is rejected when applied to other species. Clearly we are not
dealing with archaeology here, but with archaeo-lore.
Instead of unambiguously showing that Moderns originate
conclusively in one region, Africa, all the available genetic data suggest
that gene flow occurred in the Old World hominids throughout recent human
evolution (Templeton 1996). Homo sapiens
sapiens has evolved as a single unit across much or most of the region
then occupied by hominids, from southern Africa to eastern Asia. The most
recent studies have resulted in radically different views than those of the
African Eve protagonists, e.g. that modern humans evolved from two discrete
populations, one resulting in modern African, the other in non-Africans
(Pennisi 1999). In the absence of any reliability of the proposed rates of
nucleotide changes and the many variables still to be accounted for
effectively, the claims by the replacement advocates are clearly premature,
and nucleotide recombination renders their views fundamentally redundant
The archaeological evidence is even more unambiguous.
If there had been a mass migration out of Africa, by a technologically,
cognitively and intellectually superior human species, one would expect to
find their arrival marked by a new technology, new tools, new types of
subsistence extraction methods and so forth. There is not one iota of
evidence, anywhere in the world, that would suggest the arrival of any
innovation coinciding with the arrival of Eve’s supposed prodigy. On the
contrary, there is ample evidence that, wherever the Moderns appeared and
co-existed, often for long time spans, with archaic Homo
sapiens (such as neanderthaloids), they invariably adopted the life style
and technology of the resident archaic populations. This applies at least in
the Levant and southwestern Europe, but probably also in central Europe,
eastern Europe and eastern Asia, as well as in most regions of Africa.
Moreover, there is no indication that the superior Upper Palaeolithic
technology first appeared in Africa. On the contrary, the Middle Stone Age of
sub-Saharan Africa, where Eve’s ‘tribe’ is supposed to have evolved in
total genetic isolation, continues right up to 20 ka, and there is certainly
no trace of a superior technology moving northwards. Upper Palaeolithic
traditions first appear between 50 and 40 ka ago in southern Siberia, at sites
such as Makarovo 4/6 and Kara Bom, and seem to be a technological response to
relatively cold environments. Their advent in Spain about 40 ka ago predates
the demise of the Neanderthals there by at least 10 ka. The Châtelperronian
of France, clearly an Upper Palaeolithic culture, was a cultural tradition of
Neanderthals, and it included the production of complex symbolic artefacts,
such as beads and pendants (Figure 1). The Neanderthals used dwellings similar
to those of later Upper Palaeolithic peoples in Russia and the Ukraine (such
as the mammoth bone huts), and there is ample evidence, in eastern as well as
central Europe, for a continuous technological as well as phylogenetic
evolution of humans from Middle to Upper Palaeolithic times (Bednarik 1995a).
There are numerous finds of intermediate hominids, displaying both archaic
sapienoid and anatomically modern characteristics, including those from the
following sites: Mladec Cave, Krapina, Vindija Cave, Hahnöfersand, Largo
Velho, Crete, Starosel’e, Rozhok, Akhshtyr’, Romankovo, Samara, Sungir’,
Podkumok, Khvalynsk, Skhodnya, Narmada, Jinniushan, and several more Chinese
sites. These show either that there is no genetic separation of Neanderthals
and other humans at the time, or that neanderthaloid forms have contributed to
the subsequent human populations (Roginsky et al. 1954; Yakimov 1980). The
sapienization process in human evolution occurred not in one region, or in one
closed population, but probably widely across the Old World. Precisely the
same can be observed with the development of technology, wherever populations
were not isolated by barriers such as high sea levels, deserts, mountains or
glaciers. For instance, in central Europe, technological traditions such as
the Bohunician (intermediate between a levalloid Mousterian and an
Aurignacian; Svoboda 1993), the Szeletian (an early Upper Palaeolithic
industry with features of the Micoquian; Allsworth-Jones 1986) and Olschewian
(an archaic Aurignacian found in cave bear lairs; Bayer 1929) show through
their intermediate characteristics that the Upper Palaeolithic was not
imported, it developed locally and gradually. In eastern Europe, the
chronologically corresponding Strelets and Spitsyn cultures exhibit similar
technological patterns, with the former especially showing a long persistence
of Mousterian points, even beyond 30 ka (in general, these intermediate
industries are between 40 and 32 ka old), while at the same time producing
vast numbers of beads. A similar pattern still persists in eastern Asia, for
instance in the two substantial occupation layers of Shiyu in China (Bednarik
and You 1991). Thus the picture of a sudden change from Middle to Upper
Palaeolithic occupations is limited to a few western European sites, whereas
in most of Eurasia, there is a gradual technological evolution (Bednarik
1995a), and nothing to indicate the sudden appearance of a new race of people.
The discovery of what has been claimed to be a common
ancestor of both Neanderthals and Moderns at Atapuerca in Spain (Arsuaga et
al. 1993) only confirms the close relationship between the two hypothetical
groups. I say ‘hypothetical’ because we lack any real proof that
Neanderthals differed from Moderns in any way other than some skeletal
features, and they were certainly a form of Homo
sapiens. The most probable explanation for their archaic features is that
at certain times, determined by the periodic times of cold climate, European
populations became rather isolated from the main body of Old World hominids.
The type fossils of the Neanderthals, the late ‘classical Neanderthals’,
are far from being typical specimens. They probably represent regressive
marginal populations, and to use their very fragmentary DNA data, as has been
attempted recently, to explore the evolutionary history of the human
mainstream population of Africa and Asia is futile. The DNA of the original
specimen from the Kleine Feldhofer Grotte of the Neander valley probably tells
us nothing about the origins of extant humans.
The greatest shortcomings of the African Eve model of
human evolution, however, have not been mentioned so far. To survive, this
model has to deny any knowledge of evidence suggestive of complex technologies
and, most particularly, of symboling abilities prior to 100 ka ago. It has
done this by several strategies so far, all of which are now becoming undone.
First, most reports of advanced hominid abilities predating the advent of
Moderns have been rejected out of hand, either as being unreliable or as being
susceptible to alternative explanations. Those finds that could not be swept
under the carpet were grudgingly accepted as flukes, as the work of unusually
gifted individuals, even as evidence of ‘running ahead of time’ in human
development (Vishnyatsky 1994). Their claimed small number was often cited as
being enough reason to ignore them (Chase and Dibble 1987; Davidson and Noble
1989). When in response it was pointed out that their number was actually very
much greater than assumed (Bednarik 1992a), the response was that this still
made no difference to interpretation. As always in anthropocentric and
humanistic disciplines, the definition of what indicates characteristics such
as culture or language are always revised in response to the threat that such
characteristics might be attributed to non-human interloper species. This is
one of the classical symptoms of a non-scientific pursuit, because in reality
there can be no doubt that humans do not possess one single definable,
measurable or observable characteristic that is not shared by another species.
Thus the desire to maintain a clear qualitative separation between humans and
non-human animals is attributable to the religio-cultural reality scholars
This is particularly obvious in the case of the eager
acceptance of the African Eve hypothesis, a model that is entirely devoid of
archaeological evidence, is in fact contradicted by all available
archaeological evidence, and is supported only by questionable, highly
controversial numbers-crunching computer games of some geneticists. It is no coincidence that this hypothesis is
framed within Biblical metaphors. There is not only Eve, the mitochondrial
founding mother, there is also a Y-chromosome Adam, from whom all modern
humans are supposed to descend, there is a ‘sub-Saharan Eden’, and the
experimental, incredibly complex evolutionary tree scenarios are termed
‘Deluge runs’. These facetious terminologies are not intended to refer to
serious models, and they are often coined by the media rather than the
researchers, but they are eagerly absorbed by fundamentalists of all shades,
and this is not particularly helpful. The researchers may not be responsible
for the misinformation of the public by these means, but they are, in my view,
responsible for not speaking out adequately when their hypotheses are
reinterpreted by religious commentators.
A balanced model of human cultural evolution can only
be gained from an unbiased study of the technology and symbolic evidence of
hominids. As soon as we consider the technological evidence of the Lower and
Middle Palaeolithic periods, we encounter a significant bias of preservation
— but not of preservation alone. Practically all publications about very
early technology deal primarily with stone implements, which is a result of
taphonomically imposed limitations. This limits our knowledge of technology
very significantly, because in reality, stone tools were always a numerically
minor component of early material cultures. Considerations of technology
should include not only the use of non-lithic materials, but also the
questions of procuring all materials used, their transport, curation,
storage, processing, preparation, manufacture and maintenance.
The very significant under-representation of artefacts
from relatively perishable materials has prompted distorted technological
characterisations of Lower Palaeolithic traditions. For instance, bone,
ivory, fibre, leather or wood are poorly represented, if at all — although
there are in fact far more wooden finds from the Lower Palaeolithic than from
the Upper Palaeolithic (in most of Eurasia, c. 35 ka to 10.5 ka ago). The
technology of Lower Palaeolithic wood working has never been examined in a
consistent and comprehensive fashion, even though we know that the period’s
stone tools were primarily used to work wood (Keeley 1977). The same applies
to the Middle Palaeolithic (in most of Eurasia, c. 150 ka to 35 ka ago)
(Beyries 1988). For instance, microwear studies by Anderson-Gerfaud (1980,
1990) of lithics from Pech de l’Azé, Corbiac and other sites showed that
only about 10% were used for working hides, while the majority served to
fashion wooden objects. There can be no doubt that astronomical numbers of
wooden tools and weapons were made before the Upper Palaeolithic, but almost
none survived from the Middle Palaeolithic. From the Lower Palaeolithic, we
have a minute sample, but even this has not been considered in a collective
technological perspective. An example of sophisticated woodworking from the
Lower Palaeolithic is the Acheulian plank of willow wood, shaped and bearing
anthropic polish, from Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel (Belitzky et al. 1991;
Bednarik 1991). It is of the Middle Pleistocene and at least 240 ka old. The
probably older yew spear point from Clacton-on-Sea, England (36.7 cm long,
found in 1911), and the complete spear found among the ribs of an elephant
skeleton at Lehringen, Germany (Jacob-Friesen 1956), have long been known. The
hunting spears from Schöningen were carefully fashioned from spruce wood.
They are 1.82 to 2.30 m long and as carefully balanced as modern javelins.
These are aerodynamically designed, sophisticated hunting weapons, and they
are about 400 ka old. Schöningen has also produced other wooden artefacts
(Thieme 1995), among them two notched staffs which are thought to have been
hafts for stone flakes. At 400 ka age, they would be the earliest evidence of
hafting in the world. There was also a flat wooden artefact found embedded
among the remains of a butchered animal which is thought to be from a lance.
Another apparent wooden lance (2.5 m length) comes from the travertine deposit
of Bad Cannstatt (Wagner 1990). A fragment of a Lower Palaeolithic wooden
lance or spear was found at yet one more German site, Bilzingsleben, a site
that yielded also other wooden fragments. Possible wooden lances (Howell 1966:
139) were found among the many elephant remains of Torralba, Spain, mostly
early this century, but details are fairly sketchy. A number of wooden tools
and weapons were excavated at the Kalambo Falls site in Zambia, which is of
the late Acheulian, one of the principal Lower Palaeolithic tool traditions.
Wooden remains are less common from the subsequent Middle Palaeolithic, but
we have a thin, worked and stone tool-shaped plank of mulberry wood from
Nishiyagi, Japan (Bahn 1987); a curved wooden implement with parallel markings
on the end from Florisbad, South Africa (Volman 1984); and several shallow
wooden dishes from the Mousterian in Abri Romani in Catalonia, Spain.
In addition to having provided the earliest known
apparent evidence of tool hafting, German archaeologists have also found the
earliest solid evidence of resin use for stone tool hafting. The Mousterian of
Königsaue and Kerlich has provided not only resin fragments, but also resin
with imprints of both wooden haft and stone tool, as well as the complete
hafted tool (Mania and Toepfer 1973). Middle Palaeolithic hafting resin was
also found in the Bocksteinschmiede, Germany (Bosinski 1985), and at Umm el
Tlel, Syria (bitumen on two tools; Boëda et al. 1996). Moreover, Hayden
(1993) describes the indirect evidence of hafting on Levallois and Mousterian
points as ‘copious’, and the tanged Aterian tools of northern Africa were
apparently designed specifically for hafting.
There is a further misapprehension among some archaeologists
that bone points, and the skilled use of bone, ivory and antler generally, do
not appear before the Aurignacian. This is also incorrect. Salzgitter-Lebenstedt,
a German Micoquian site, alone provides ten bone points, mostly on mammoth
ribs, besides the delicate and complex ‘winged point’ and an antler
implement (Tode 1953). The polished Bilzingsleben ivory point is not just
Lower Palaeolithic, it even seems to bear an engraving (Bednarik 1995b). Ivory
points occur also in the Acheulian, for instance at Ambrona, where Howell and
Freeman (1982) suggested that they may have been hafted. Even bifaces
(‘handaxes’) have been made from bone, e.g. the specimen from Rhede,
Germany (Tromnau 1983). During the Mousterian, bone was used widely, including
for the building of dwellings (at Starosel’e), a use some archaeologists
think was restricted to the Upper Palaeolithic.
Despite the dramatically distorted record from the
Lower Palaeolithic, there can be no doubt that these hominids as well those of
the subsequent Middle Palaeolithic had a technology that cannot be defined
from stone tools alone, the only type commonly found. We also know that
underground mining was conducted in the Middle Palaeolithic/Middle Stone Age
(Bednarik 1995c), but perhaps the most dramatic evidence we have of very early
technology is that Homo erectus, the
species before H. sapiens appeared,
had seafaring capability (Bednarik 1997, 1997). We know that hominids reached
the island of Flores, in the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia. These islands
were never connected to the Asian mainland, at any past sea level, and the
only way the hominids could have reached and settled them is by means of
seagoing vessels, presumably bamboo rafts. Although we have no skeletal
remains of the descendants of these first seafarers, we do have large numbers
of stone tools from a series of sites on Flores, and also on Timor, further
east (Bednarik 1999), excavated together with extinct fauna, and dated to 850
or 750 ka at Flores. This is well before the first archaic Homo sapiens forms appeared. Even the most determined opponents of
the long-range model of symbolic development and language, Davidson and Noble,
have always accepted that seafaring ability proves language use, but
unfortunately they were unaware that such an ability was available to hominids
over three quarters of a million years ago. The evidence for this is by no
means new, it has been available for the past 40 years, but until very
recently only in German (Verhoeven 1958; Maringer and Verhoeven 1970; Sondaar
et al. 1994).
While the navigational prowess of Homo erectus, the greatest colonizer in the 2.4 million years of
human history (Bednarik 1997c, 1999), is by itself sufficient evidence to show
that the capacity of reflective communication, presumably by verbal means
(i.e. language), was available at least 850 ka ago, there are still a few
other technological points to consider. The construction of rafts is
contingent upon the use of cordage of some type, in the form of vines, sinews,
fibres or whatever similar material. This demands further complexities in the
available technology. Most importantly, cordage of any type can only be
employed usefully by means of knotting. Strings, ropes and thongs were no
doubt used for much of the Palaeolithic, but we have no physical evidence of
knots and almost none of cordage, except from the Upper Palaeolithic
(Leroi-Gourhan 1982; Nadel et al. 1994). The use of hunting nets has been
suggested for the Gravettian of Pavlov, Czech Republic, after the impressions
of weaved plant fibres were observed on burnt clay surfaces of 26-25 ka age
Warner and Bednarik (1996), in reviewing the issue,
traced the assumed use of cordage back through its depiction in Upper
Palaeolithic art and the much earlier occurrence of drilled objects such as
beads and pendants, and via other indirect evidence. This indicates that some
form of strings must have been in use during Lower Palaeolithic times already.
Artificial perforation of small objects suitable as beads or pendants appears
about 300 ka to 200 ka ago, according to current knowledge. The kind of
technology used in their production seems to provide a realistic means of
gouging the true technological capability of the earliest period in the
history of humans, the Lower Palaeolithic. It will be reviewed in a separate
chapter below, but it should be mentioned here that, in summary, the
technology of the hominids before the ‘Eve of Africa’ was complex enough
to refute one of the main premises of the Eve hypothesis: that it was Eve’s
prodigy who introduced language, complex technology, and several other aspects
of human culture. Nothing could be further from the truth.
origins of symbolism
We have already seen that one form of symbolism,
language, probably began its development some time between the appearance of Homo
erectus (about 1.8 million years ago, at which time the species is found
in eastern Africa, in the Caucasus and on Java) and his first known crossing
of the open sea (perhaps 0.9 million years ago, from Bali to Lombok and then
Flores). Verbal language is a form of communication that involves the use of
conventionalized vocal sounds in meaningful patterns. Any form of
communication requires the use of symbolisms, but in order to develop beyond
simple action and response patterns (which apply, in various complexities,
throughout the animal world), culturally determined meanings need to be
attached to the ‘signs’. In other words, such meanings are not genetically
passed on, but are acquired during the life trajectory of each individual;
they are learnt. Culture is of course not limited to humans, it is available
to many other animals, albeit in considerably less complex forms. In humans
culture has reached extraordinary levels of complexity, which are only
possible through the use of an unusually large brain.
The question is therefore not really, when did culture
begin, but rather, it should be asked: when did culture (individually acquired
system of ‘understanding’) begin to become such a dominating determinant
of selection that it began to rival environmental factors in determining the
course of evolution, especially cognitive evolution, for hominids? In other
words, when did our ancestors begin to exercise sufficient control over
environmental variables that a neural feedback system emerged which led to
consciousness, and thus to what we regard as conscious modulation of response
patterns? Such a development made the proliferation of cultural systems almost
inevitable, and the increasing skill in the use of symbolisms became a
necessity. The short-range model of cognitive evolution, epitomized in the
African Eve hypothesis, perceives this development as having occurred during
the Upper Pleistocene (127 ka to 10.5 ka BP), concurrent with the assumed
migration of Moderns out of Africa. All earlier hominids were incapable of
symbolism, including language. In the most extreme form of this hypothesis,
language is only possible as a result of figurative depiction, of which we
have no evidence older than 32 ka (Davidson and Noble 1989), and earlier
hominids belong to the apes rather than the humans (Davidson and Noble 1990).
According to the long-range model, this was a slow and
gradual process that was already in progress at the time of the first humans,
2.5 to 2.3 million years ago. The marked encephalization in the earliest
humans, such as the habilines, which led to massive increase in cranial
capacity among early hominids, is seen as being related to cognitive
development. The oldest archaeological find known in the world that has been
suggested to indicate a hominoid ability to recognize iconic resemblance (the
visual similarity of two otherwise unrelated objects) is the Makapansgat
cobble from South Africa. It appears to have been deposited in a cave by Australopithecus
africanus almost 3 million years ago. The cobble (Figure
2) is of a
conspicuously reddish jasperite and has the natural form of a head, with
distinctive ‘staring eyes’ and a ‘mouth’ (Bednarik 1998). It cannot
occur naturally in the dolomite cave, and at the time in question, no humans
appear to have existed who could have carried it into the cave. This
extraordinary find was made in 1925, but remained largely ignored. ‘Staring
eyes’ motifs can lead to visually determined reactions even in insects and
birds, responses to them appear to be deeply embedded in neural systems, and
apes as well as humans have a clear preference for the colour red (Oakley
1981). It is therefore perfectly possible that australopithecines were so
fascinated that they carried the cobble around, and eventually left it in the
cave which also contained their remains. While this does not necessarily
demand full symboling ability, it does suggest the existence of incipient
neural structures that would make it possible to recognize the relationship
between signifier and the signified in a more systematic pattern, i.e.
symbolism as we perceive it.
But when could we expect such an ability to have
developed sufficiently to have a major impact on the behaviour of hominids? By
1.5 million years ago, Homo erectus
began to produce formalised tools suggestive of mental templates,
‘handaxes’. By that time, that species has successfully occupied vast
areas of the Old World, apparently within a geological instant, adapting no
doubt to many environments and climates in the process. If there were a
hominid predisposition to achieve this, it would have been attempted earlier,
so the evidence suggests the availability to this species of a conceptual tool
not available 2 million years ago. Before speculating what this might have
been, we need to consider the next major development. By about 850 ka ago, H.
erectus has acquired seafaring ability and he also used manuports that
seem to have no utilitarian significance. He collected two types of minerals
and we find them deposited in his occupation sites. Clear quartz crystals
occur first in South Africa, soon after in India and then elsewhere (Bednarik
1994a). Sometimes these are so tiny that they could not possibly have been
used as tool material, and they bear no traces of wear. It seems that they
were collected for their exotic visual properties, and hominids of the period
are also thought to have taken a special interest in fossil casts (Oakley
1981). At about the same time, perhaps 800 ka ago, we have the first evidence
that hominids collected red mineral pigments (haematite or ochre), again in
South Africa (Wonderwork Cave) and India (Hunsgi), followed much later by
several sites in France, Spain and the Czech Republic. We cannot know what the
colouring material was used for, except that one of the Hunsgi specimens bears
traces of having been used as a crayon on a rock surface (Bednarik 1990).
However, it is not very important whether the haematite was used to colour
rock surfaces, artefacts, animal hides or human bodies, in all cases such use
would imply distinctive cultural behaviour. Since the first use of such
materials coincides with the first clear evidence of advanced language use,
through seafaring, it seems reasonable to propose that by 850 ka ago, hominids
had developed numerous distinctive forms of cultural behaviour, various forms
of symbolism, and technologies that would not be significantly improved until
the advent of the Holocene, a mere 10.5 ka ago. At that stage, human society
had come to depend so much on culture that we can assume essentially modern
behaviour patterns to have begun to emerge.
It therefore appears hat the most likely time frame for
the crucial developments in establishing the role of symbolism in human
culture is that these developments commenced with the rapid expansion of Homo
erectus, perhaps 1.8 million years ago, and resulted in structured
societies with complex technology, modes of symbol use and effective language
about a million years later. From there on, the cognitive and intellectual
evolution of hominids merely followed an established trajectory demanding
accelerating refinement. There are home bases with established activity zones,
increasing use of fire, specialized hunting of very large animals (especially
elephants and rhinos), refinement of weapons and artefacts, and increased use
of red and later also other pigments.
The next major step, however, seems to occur around 300
ka ago, still in the Acheulian, the perhaps most widespread technological
tradition of the Lower Palaeolithic. ‘Palaeoart’ is now being produced in
several world regions, and in various forms. Engravings on portable objects of
bone, ivory and stone commence about that time, with the sites Bilzingsleben
(Mania and Mania 1988; Bednarik 1995b), Stránská skála (Valoch 1987) and
Sainte Anne I (Crémades 1996) being early representatives. The earliest
‘protosculpture’ is the Acheulian scoria pebble from Berekhat Ram, Israel,
which like the Makapansgat cobble is a natural form, but one that has been
altered by human hand (Goren-Inbar 1986). It has the natural shape of a female
torso, head and arms, but bears engraved grooves in various places (Marshack
1997). Petroglyphs appear first in the Acheulian of India, in the form of
cupules and one engraved meandering line (Bednarik 1993a). The cupule is
particularly noteworthy, because it represents the earliest form of rock art
in most continents. For instance the oldest known rock art of Europe are the
18 cupules on the underside of a stone slab placed over the grave of a
Neanderthal child in La Ferrassie, France (Peyrony 1934), but these are far
more recent than those of the Acheulian in India.
Between 170 and 130 ka ago, the Lower Palaeolithic
period gradually makes way for the Middle Palaeolithic, bringing further
changes in technology. The Levallois technique and the use of ‘handaxes’
continues, but greater differentiation becomes evident in lithic traditions.
Symbolic evidence, such as palaeoart (Bednarik 1994a), occurs widely in the
Micoquian and Mousterian of Europe, in the Middle Stone Age of sub-Saharan
Africa, and the Middle Palaeolithic industries of Asia and Australia (which in
the latter continent continue to the end of the Pleistocene, and in Tasmania
to European occupation). Seafarers of this period achieve incredible ocean
crossings in the region to the north and northeast of Australia (Bednarik
1997a), and underground mining occurs in Europe, two regions of Africa, and in
Australia (Bednarik 1995c). None of these developments are attributable to the
supposed descendants of Africa’s Eve, in fact there is not a single
technological, cognitive or symbolic innovation that can be traced to their
appearance. If that tribe or race ever did exist as a genetically discrete
entity, for which there is no evidence other than the claims of some
geneticists, then that ‘race’ contributed little to the human ascent. All
fundamental innovations and achievements predate them, and the greatest or
most important are squarely attributable to Homo
of the Middle Pleistocene
In my brief review of the early development of symbolic
capacities I have neglected one form of evidence, saving it for special
consideration. One of the principal arguments levelled against evidence
suggestive of very early symbolism is that there are perfectly valid
alternative explanations. This is indeed often the case. Natural surface
markings of portable objects of various types have been misinterpreted as
meaningful engravings in literally thousands of cases world-wide. I have
examined and rejected hundreds of instances (600 in China alone). By far the
most common examples are objects of bone, limestone, ivory and ostrich
eggshell, which I have shown to bear mycorrhizal grooves that may resemble
engravings (Bednarik 1992b). Bone fragments often bear markings made by animal
canines, by gastric acids (e.g. of hyenas), or by other taphonomic agents of
various types (trampling, sediment movement, solifluction, cryoturbation,
etc.). Another very common example are perforated bone fragments and shells,
which some archaeologists have interpreted as anthropic products —
intentionally made by humans. Bones can be perforated by animal teeth and
corrosive agents, gastropod shells are commonly bored through by parasitic
organisms. Similarly, natural surface markings on rock have often been
archaeologically misinterpreted, and again I have corrected numerous such
instances, in which either natural markings were identified as rock art, or
rock art as natural markings (Bednarik 1994b).
Some commentators on the issue of whether perforations
of Pleistocene objects were natural or artificial apparently make a
fundamental error of logic (d’Errico and Villa 1997). They seem to believe
that, in order to be considered to have been used as a bead, a perforated
object must have been made by
humans. Any consideration of the kinds of objects used as ethnographic beads
will readily show this to be false. The correct logic is that one may be able
to demonstrate the use of a bead in some cases from microscopic evidence
(Bednarik 1997d), but one can never demonstrate that any perforated small
object found in an occupation layer was not
used as a bead. In view of the widespread use of beads today, and the
frequency with which they are lost, and considering further that beads were in
use for some hundreds of millennia (as we shall see below), almost certainly
in large quantities, it is very much more likely than not likely that most
perforated objects found in an occupation layer were used as beads. The fact
that we cannot prove that a naturally perforated, bead-like object was used as
a bead should not prompt us simply to exclude it from consideration.
The outstanding characteristic of made beads and
pendants is that their archaeological identification is usually unambiguous,
which one cannot always say about other classes of symbolism evidence. Small
objects, drilled through with stone tools, could be either beads or pendants,
or they could be small utilitarian objects such as buckles or pulling handles,
or the quangings of the Inuit (Boas 1888: Figs 15, 17, 121d; Nelson 1899: Pl.
17; Kroeber 1900: Fig. 8). Such utilitarian objects are generally of
distinctive shape, use-wear and material; they need to be very robust. Small
objects that were drilled through either in the centre or close to one end
(e.g. teeth perforated near the root), that are too small or too fragile to be
utilitarian objects, and that lack the typical wear patterns of such articles,
can be safely assumed to be beads or pendants. The evidence that they were
drilled with a stone tool is indicated by a distinctive bi-conical and
‘machined’ section and sometimes by rotation striae. The wear of pendants
can often be observed on archaeological specimens, including those made of
stone (Bednarik 1997d), and is also quite typical.
An example of such complete lack of ambiguity are the
disc beads made from ostrich eggshell. These are extremely common in the
ethnography of southern African people (Woodhouse 1997), and in the
archaeological record they are found from there to China and Siberia (Bednarik
1993b). The ostrich (Struthio camelus
ssp.), now extinct in Asia, was widespread in much of Africa and Asia to the
end of the Pleistocene, apparently even into the Holocene. Its eggshell was
used widely, as containers and especially as decorative material, particularly
in the Late Pleistocene and early Holocene. In southern Africa, such use
extends from the present back to the Middle Stone Age. Decorated fragments
have been reported from the Howieson’s Poort phase in Apollo 11 Cave,
Namibia (Wendt 1974), from the Middle Stone Age of Dieplkloof Cave in the
southwestern Cape area (Beaumont 1992) and as beads from Bushman Shelter in
Transvaal (Woodhouse 1997), both in South Africa. Some of these may be up to
80 ka old, and many more recent traditions have used such disc beads. In
Tunisia and Algeria, Capsian occupation deposits have yielded ostrich eggshell
beads frequently, and these date from the very early Holocene. In India, 41
Late Pleistocene sites have produced ostrich eggshell fragments, and
radiocarbon dates derived from such fragments range from 39 to 25 ka (Kumar et
al. 1988). At two sites, Patne and Bhimbetka, a few disc beads have been
found. The two specimens from Bhimbetka come from the neck region of a human
burial, which suggests that they may have formed part of a necklace (Figure
3a-c). Similar beads occur in the Gobi desert of northern China, where they
are found among the occupation remains of an Epipalaeolithic or even
Mesolithic tool tradition usually named after the site of Shabarak-usu
(Bednarik and You 1991). Further finds of ostrich eggshell disc beads, of
roughly similar age (final Pleistocene to early Holocene), have also been
reported from Inner Mongolia (Hutouliang) and southern Siberia (Krasnyi Yar,
Of a substantially greater antiquity are the three
similar ostrich eggshell beads from El Greifa site E, in Wadi el Adjal, Libya
(Bednarik 1997d). They come from a substantial sequence of Acheulian
occupation deposits representing many millennia of continuous occupation of a
littoral site, on the shore of the huge Fezzan Lake of the Pleistocene. This
site has exceptionally good preservation conditions, with insect remains and
seeds found together with bone. The typical Late Acheulian stone tool forms,
including ‘handaxes’, confirm the dating of the occupation strata by Th/U
analysis to about 200 ka. These are the earliest known secure disc beads in
the world, and there can be no reasonable doubt that they are indeed man-made
beads, and not some chance product of nature (Figure
3d-f). In addition to the
three found initially, several more beads have most recently been recovered
from the same site and period (M. Kuckenburg, pers. comm. Jan. 2000).
However, they may well be exceeded in age by two other
finds, the pendants from one of the occupation layers in the Repolusthöhle,
in the Austrian Alps. A wolf incisor is perforated near its root, and a flaked
bone point near its corner (Figure 4). These specimens occurred together with
a large but non-diagnostic stone tool assemblage (Mottl 1951), variously
described as Levalloisian, Tayacian and Clactonian, three rather vaguely
defined Lower Palaeolithic industries. There is no radiometric dating
available, but the accompanying faunal remains imply an age of about 300 ka,
especially through the phylogeny of the bear remains. Previous estimates had
been in the order of only 100 ka. This is not a very precise, but nevertheless
quite plausible, dating, particularly as ursine phylogeny is very well
established in the region.
These finds from Libya and Austria indicate that beads
and pendants were made and used in the Acheulian or other Lower Palaeolithic
cultures. This renders it possible to consider in this context also naturally
perforated, bead-like objects that have been found in occupation deposits, or
together with stone tools of the general period. While one may not be able to
‘prove’ conclusively that they were used as beads, that possibility must
not be excluded now that we know that Lower Palaeolithic hominids did make beads. The first known reports of Palaeolithic stone tools
already made mention of the occurrence of centrally perforated fossils
together with Lower Palaeolithic ‘handaxes’ at the type site of St. Acheul
in France (Prestwich 1859: 52):
Dr. Rigollot also mentions the occurrence in the gravel
of round pieces of hard chalk, pierced through with a hole, which he considers
were used as beads. The author found several, and recognized in them a small
fossil sponge, the Coscinopora
globularis, D’Orb., from the chalk, but does not feel quite satisfied
about their artificial dressing. Some specimens do certainly appear as though
the hole had been enlarged and completed.
Perforated fossils have also been found in the
Acheulian of Israel, from which Goren-Inbar et al. (1991) report the
occurrence of fossil crinoids. This raises the question, how widespread could
the use of beads or pendants have been in the Lower Palaeolithic, and how far
back could it have extended in time. We cannot answer this by archaeological
observation and reasoning alone, but a credible scenario can be provided by
taphonomic logic. If the earliest found representatives of a class of material
evidence are among the most deterioration-resistant types of that class, then
the probability of significantly older, less resistant types is very high
indeed. Ethnographic beads are often made of perishable materials, such as
seeds, and materials like ostrich eggshell can only survive in high-pH soils.
A significant observation we can make from the available finds of Pleistocene
beads and pendants is that they are extremely rare, and that they are widely
separated, both chronologically and spatially. Beads cannot, by definition,
occur in isolation. To possess and convey meaning, they need to occur in large
number in any society that uses them, because symbolic meaning can only be
conferred by repeated and ‘structured’ use. Therefore we need to assume
that we are dealing with a severely truncated record here, a phenomenon whose
taphonomic threshold is much more recent, certainly within the Holocene. When
we bear in mind that one single site in Russia, of an Upper Palaeolithic
tradition with distinctive Middle Palaeolithic roots (the Streletsian), has
yielded more beads from just three graves than the remaining Pleistocene of
the entire world, the extent of taphonomic distortion becomes evident. The
three burials at Sungir’, perhaps in the order of 28 ka old, yielded 13,113
tiny ivory beads and over 250 perforated fox teeth. This should be seen as a
preservational fluke, and as an indication that the few earlier beads we have
from the previous couple of hundred millennia represent all that we have
managed to recover from the astronomical numbers of beads made in the Lower
and Middle Palaeolithic. Taphonomic logic demands this (Bednarik 1994c: Fig.
In exploring the symbolic significance of beads,
archaeologists are likely to mention their occurrence in burials, or wax
lyrically about ‘decoration’. These discussions are too shallow to permit
us any real progress. What does it mean that a particular condition is
perceived as ‘decorative’? Does a non-human animal perceive beads, or
cicatrices, body painting or tattoos on a human body as ‘decorative’?
Probably not. So this is very probably an anthropocentric perception, it is
not likely to be shared by either animals or an intelligent visitor from outer
space. The latter is likely to regard beads as having some unfathomable
utilitarian function, at least initially.
Beads, whether sewn on apparel or worn on strings, have
symbolic meanings that are far removed from the simplistic empiricism of the
Western anthropologist. They, or pendants, may for instance be protective,
warding off evil spirits or spells, or they can be good luck charms. They can
signify status, and convey complex social, economic, emblemic, ethnic or
ideological meanings, or any subtle combinations of them. Their meanings can
be public or private, but they may be difficult to convey to an alien
researcher, and they could never be analyzed archaeologically. How would our
interstellar visitor interpret the carved ivory figurines of an incomplete
chess set? If his anthropology were as simplistic as ours he may well explain
its knights as evidence of an equine cult. It is at this level that most
interpreting of Pleistocene symbolism has occurred, which I find quite
It is clear from the preceding chapters that symbolic
systems must have been available to hominids by 850 ka ago at the latest. The
evidence includes the collection of crystals, fossils and red pigment, besides
language use as implied by maritime navigation. A variety of birds, most
notably the Australian bowerbirds, collect colourful or shiny objects, some
even erect display structures and paint them with plant juices. The question
arises, was the hominid behaviour qualitatively different from that to be
observed in such birds? We can assume, through the evidence that these
hominids navigated the sea, that they had some form of ‘reflective’
language. We further know that they produced a variety of stone and wooden
tools and artefacts, that they showed extraordinary ability to adapt to
different environments and to plan ahead, and that they evolved into
contemporary humans. By 300 or 200 ka ago, at the latest, their symbolic
abilities had evolved to the point at which they produced rock art, portable
art and beads. Of these forms of symbolic products, beads seem to tell us the
First, there are the purely technological aspects. To
make a bead one has to, at the very least, be able to drill through an object,
to thread a string through the hole, and to fasten the ends of the string,
presumably by knots. To persist with such a complex process of manufacture,
one must have a mental construct of the end product, and a desire to acquire
what is clearly a non-utilitarian artefact. To be more precise, the bead is
such an artefact, but the string is not, being utilitarian. The latter is
merely a means of permitting the bead to fulfil its non-utilitarian role. So
we have here a combination not only of diverse artefacts, but also a hierarchy
of diverse concepts of relating to them. The primary imperative, presumably,
is to display the bead to its best advantage, the secondary intent is to find
a means of doing so. Now, a piece of ostrich eggshell can be worn on a string
without first drilling a hole through it, so why bother with this additional
work? This kind of exploration raises a whole swathe of questions, and it is
through it that the beads begin to become alive with meaning and significance.
This logic-based interpretation needs to be underpinned
by an intimate knowledge of the technology involved, and for this purpose I
have conducted extensive replicative experimentation with ostrich eggshell
between 1990 and 1996 (Bednarik 1992b, 1993a, 1993b, 1995d, 1997d). The
results pertaining to disc beads manufactured with Lower Palaeolithic stone
tools have been described in some detail, they are only briefly summarized
here. I found that the most effective way of producing precise replicas of
Acheulian and later Pleistocene ostrich eggshell beads, using such technology,
is first to break the shell into polygonal fragments of 1-2 cm2
area. These are then drilled individually, from one side only. Once the stone
drill breaks through, the hole is reamed out from the other side. The specimen
is then firmly gripped between
two fingers, and the excess area trimmed off, either by pressing the
protruding part on its convex side against a stone surface, or by using
one’s teeth as a vice. Once the excess material is snapped off, the bead
blank is abraded on a coarse siliceous rock such as quartzite or silcrete. The
three beads from the Libyan Acheulian are all of about 6 mm diameter, and I
found that the average time of producing replicas of them is about 17 minutes,
or about 25 minutes if the time of preparing and resharpening stone points is
included (Bednarik 1997d: 33-36).
An animal tooth, such as the wolf’s incisor from the
Repolusthöhle, is much more difficult to perforate. At the time of the advent
of Upper Palaeolithic technology, between 40 and 30 ka ago, even stone
materials were perforated, to be used as pendants. The earliest examples are
the broken specimen from Shiyu wenhua in central China (Figure
5) and several
items from Kostenki 17, made from stone, fossil coral and belemnites (Bednarik
1995d: Fig. 4). However, the sparse record available to us provides no
indication of an ‘evolution’ in the standard of workmanship. On the
contrary, some of the older examples are much better produced than the more
recent. The Libyan Acheulian beads are more carefully made than the Upper
Palaeolithic specimens from India (Figure 3). The perforation on the Repolusthöhle
tooth is significantly finer than the clumsily made holes in the two Bacho
Kiro teeth, which are ‘merely’ 42 ka old (Marshack 1991). There can be no
doubt that even the earliest beads and pendants we currently have involved a
great deal of skill and understanding of material properties in their
production. The hominids who made them were outstanding craftsmen.
symbolism of beads
Of much greater significance, however, are the findings
concerning the symbolic qualities of the beads. In making many replicas of the
Acheulian ostrich eggshell beads I discovered that the smallest size such a
bead can realistically be ground down to is about 6 mm diameter. There are two
reasons for this. First, as the size approaches this order of magnitude, the
disc becomes increasingly difficult to hold between fingers, and as the finger
tips are beginning to rub against the grind stone as the bead becomes smaller,
their skin is also abraded and the process becomes quite painful when making
many beads. Second, since the diameter of the central hole can be no smaller
than 1.4 to 2.0 mm, it follows that the bead’s fragility increases
exponentially as the outside diameter of 6 mm is approached. This diameter
represents the smallest size at which the bead remains structurally strong
enough to withstand some rough handling. I have established this
quantitatively, through controlled destruction experiments.
The next observation is even more meaningful. The
Acheulian beads are very well made, with a near-perfect circular outer margin
and an equally perfect rim thickness all around. In my replication work I
found that these precise forms can be achieved only intentionally, by constant
checking of the shape during the final abrading phase. It is practically
impossible to obtain such a perfect round shape and centrality of the
perforation by accident. This means that the makers had not just a
well-developed sense of symmetry, but a clearly defined concept of the perfect
geometric form they aspired to.
This leads to several observations. Even if it is
preferred to have a perforated bead, this does not necessarily call for a central
perforation. The rational explanation why the maker would go to such lengths
to abrade the bead equidistantly is because of a sense of perfection. This
proposition is confirmed by the size of the beads. It seems self-defeating to
make beads so small. Surely a purpose of a bead is to be seen, and a large
bead is much easier to see than a small one. Yet the labour investment of
making a very small bead is significantly greater than that required for a
large bead. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the production process is that
the Acheulian beads are, as noted already, of the smallest possible size in
which these objects can realistically be made. There is a palpable impression
that the primary objective was to push the available technology to its very
limits. It is from this perspective that we need to examine these symbolic
objects, and the nature of their semiotic function.
Lower Palaeolithic hominids have few models of the
form-concept that would underpin the mental template of a disc bead. To our
thinking, used to the idea of the wheel, this is a great deal more familiar
than it would have been to early humans. Of course they may have collected
circular fossils such as those reported above, and used them as beads. Perhaps
this is how the very concept came into being, and the humanly made disc beads
were merely substitutes, in place of the fossils that were in short supply.
Whatever the process was, these hominids did possess a clear concept, applied
no doubt many thousands of times, of a perfect geometric form that had no
practical value at all. It may sound provocative to say this, but they had in
fact developed the wheel without discovering its practical application. As one
reams out the perforation it is easiest to hold the reamer still and rotate
the disc around it, like a wheel. Similarly, the finished bead can be turned
around the string, or one can run it along a surface like a wheel by holding
the string tautly.
Naturally the hominids had no use for wheels (or means
of making large-scale versions), but they may well have been fascinated by
their properties. They certainly went to a great deal of effort to produce not
just beads, but perfectly proportioned, ‘aesthetic’ masterworks. Even as
non-utilitarian objects, the beads did not need to be so well made. There is
some special significance in this perfection, this self-conscious display of
ability. The product itself expresses it, it is itself a symbol. Not only does
it no doubt have one or more cultural meanings of a kind that will remain
inaccessible to us, one meaning is not: the bead expresses perfection,
technological confidence and competence. Its perfection is the message. It has
become a symbol of achievement, and it is displayed to the beholder at least
partly for this very reason. As an experienced maker of such beads I can see
no other reason for wanting to create perfectly proportioned specimens of a
demonstrably smallest possible size. Occam’s Razor demands that there must
have been a justification for this considerable labour investment in artefacts
that are of no practical use or survival value. All of this tends to attribute
essentially modern human behaviour patterns to hominids of the late Lower
To produce this purely symbolic object, methods were
required that may have become available for non-utilitarian purpose, and to
display it effectively, non-utilitarian technology had to be engaged. Cordage
of some form was almost certainly used for a variety of other purposes (e.g.
to construct rafts, as we have seen), and a string was threaded through the
bead’s perforation, and in some way fastened. So a whole interplay of
different materials and production tools came together, different methods of
technology, forms of procuration and maintenance, and all with one ultimate
purpose in mind: to lead to the display of a perfect, and perfectly useless,
tiny object, probably together with many similar objects. If the beads were
used in this way, which seems highly probable, than their number would invoke
yet another message, become another symbol. It would underline the message of
perfection, and add one of surplus energy. This is a far cry from the bleak
picture of a subsistence level existence archaeologists have always painted
for early hominids.
It has now become obvious that the hominids who first
engaged in this practice had not only a great deal of technology at their
disposal, they applied and retrieved a variety of symbolic meanings, which
could be attached to objects at will or through complex cultural conventions.
The practice of wearing such objects as beads and pendants obviously requires
a comprehension of the self, of the existence of the individual. Individuality
is a central factor in all ‘decoration’, necessarily, and that applies
also to the pretense of perfection: there seems to be no reason to wish to
project the concept of perfection in the absence of a concept of the self.
Self-consciousness with all its implications is an important factor in
cognitive evolution, and can be assumed to have been available to select for,
probably well before the advent of beads.
In this paper I have argued that the African Eve model,
which emphasizes the differences between the Moderns, the ‘chosen people’
of evolution, and all other hominids, has no archaeological justification
whatsoever. From a biological perspective, particularly ethologically, humans
are so closely related to other primates that incipient forms of even their
most distinctive cognitive abilities can be observed in other species. Human
technological ascent and encephalization over the past 2.4 million years
demand a much earlier appearance of language, culture and modern cognition
than permitted by the Eve model. The use of symbolic systems demonstrated by
seafaring and palaeoart finds extends certainly several hundred millennia into
the past, which deprives the Eve model of all plausibility, unless it
accommodates a divergence time much earlier than that currently espoused. The
same is demanded by applications of taphonomic logic, to any class of relevant
evidence, and I regard this as particularly strong evidence that the African
Eve advocates are greatly mistaken. Taphonomic logic should have precedence
over any other form of archaeological reasoning (Bednarik 1994c).
Finally, the use of such sophisticated objects as beads
and pendants in the Lower Palaeolithic demonstrates, beyond reasonable doubt,
that its hominids possessed well-established semiotic systems of various types.
In examining the origins of symbolism we would be well advised to abandon the
traditional focus on the art of the Upper Palaeolithic of southwestern Europe.
It played no decisive role in the advent of human symboling capacities, and it
is probably not even relevant to the topic of symbolic origins. What is relevant
to this topic are the products of symbolism that have survived from the earliest
phase of human culture, the Lower Palaeolithic. This evidence has so far hardly
been considered, but has been neglected widely since its first tenuous mention
140 years ago. It is especially through this neglect, and through the frequent
neglect of evidence not published in the English language, that the precarious
models of recent years have been able to flourish as they did.
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Robert G. Bednarik
is the Editor
and Permanent Convener of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations
(IFRAO); the founder, Editor and Secretary of the Australian Rock Art Research
Association (AURA); and the Editor of the Archaeological and Anthropological
Society of Victoria. He edits three scientific journals and a series of
monographs. His several hundred articles and books include over 400 works in
refereed scientific journals, and they have appeared in nine languages. He
specializes in the origins of human constructs of reality, cognitive
archaeology, rock art dating and microscopic studies, and he has conducted
extensive fieldwork in all continents.
Figure 1. Two
ivory ring fragments, two perforated animal canines and a fossil shell with an
artificial groove for attachment. Châtelperronian, Grotte du Renne,
Arcy-sur-Cure, France. These objects were used, and almost certainly made, by
Figure 2. Jasperite
cobble from Makapansgat, South Africa, deposited in an australopithecine-bearing
cave sediment almost three million years ago.
Figure 3. Pleistocene
ostrich eggshell beads from India (a-c) and Libya (d-f). The three lower
specimens are of the Acheulian.
Figure 4. Pendants
from the Repolusthöhle in Austria, late Lower or early Middle Palaeolithic.
Wolf incisor, perforated near its root, and flaked bone point.
Figure 5. Broken
stone pebble pendant, drilled through the centre, from Shiyu wenhua, China. From
the Middle/Upper Palaeolithic transition.
This text is the exclusive intellectual
property of Robert G. Bednarik (firstname.lastname@example.org)who holds the copyright 2000.