Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Origins of Symbolic Thought

What distinguishes humanity from animals? Many attributes have been proposed over the years, including language and tool-use, but most have been discarded once it was discovered how widespread their use was in the animal kingdom. One candidate still survives, and that is the capacity for abstract, symbolic thought.

We take symbolic thought for granted. For example the idea that I can write my thoughts in this blog and you can (hopefully) understand them seems unremarkable, but when you take a step back the capability is quite astonishing. In his film “Waking Life,” the director Richard Linklater has a character describe the wonder of symbolic thought: it’s easy to imagine how we came up with a word for “tiger,” and a phrase that means “tiger attacking from behind!” But how did humans come up with a word for “frustration”? That’s an abstract concept, with no obvious analogue in objective reality to point to.

All of human civilization is based on this ability to conceptualize.

What an intriguing period in human history, when we were first capable of symbolic thought! There’s no way of knowing exactly when this happened, but the evidence of art on the walls of caves allows us to give it a minimum date—by the time humans were capable of painting images of animals they were obviously capable of thinking symbolically.

For many years, it was thought that the oldest cave paintings were in southern France, in the Chauvet caves. Werner Herzog produced a documentary about the art, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” and watching it, I was deeply moved by the power of the imagery produced by humans 30,000 years ago.

The paintings in the Lascaux cave complex, in southwestern France, are estimated to be about 17,000 years old. You can take a virtual tour through the Lascaux cave here, and it’s incredible seeing the art on the cave walls as you pass through—you can see how the drawings flow over the curves of the cave wall. Whenever the tour passes a drawing, a pop-up with the name appears and if you click on that it takes you to a page with a photo of just that section of the wall.

For some time all evidence for the development of symbolic thought existed only in southern Europe, from caves in France and Germany. Anthropologists currently believe that modern humans are all descended from a group that left northeast Africa about 75,000 years ago, and the European cave evidence had led many anthropologists to conclude that symbolic thought developed after people migrated to Europe, then spread around the world.

Sulawesi cave painting

In October of 2014, an Australian archeological team challenged the European beginnings of symbolic thought. They have dated cave paintings in Sulawesi, one of the larger islands in the Indonesia archipelago, to between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago. The cave contains hand stencils and animal paintings. 

The researchers published their findings in the prestigious journal Nature, which produced this video:

Chauvet cave partisans aren’t about to give up their claim to the oldest paintings; if you go to the Wikipedia page for the Chauvet cave, it still says this cave “contains the earliest known and best preserved figurative cave paintings in the world.”

In a recent New York Times article, “Hunting for the Origins of Symbolic Thought,” I learned that symbolic thought may be older still:
Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen has discovered some particularly compelling evidence of pre-European symbolism in South Africa’s Blombos cave. … At Blombos, he and his team unearthed a 100,000-year-old animal-bone paintbrush and palettes: abalone shells in which prehistoric humans mixed pulverized red ochre with bone marrow, charcoal and water to form a colorful paste. The cave also contained an ochre slab with 75,000-year-old geometric engravings and 41 sea-snail shells drilled through with holes so they could be strung as beads. 
“There is now a great deal of support for the notion that symbolic creativity was part of our cognitive repertoire as we began dispersing from Africa,” says Paul Pettitt, an expert in Paleolithic art at Durham University. Henshilwood adds that what archaeologists have found so far may be a fraction of what existed; a lot of ancient art in Africa was most likely painted on exposed rocks and eroded by the elements over millenniums.
ochre slab with engravings
National Geographic magazine has an article on “The First Artists” in the January 2015 issue, which you can read online here. There are also some photos of early sculptures, drawings, and personal ornaments.

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