An Australian mid-Holocene symbolic "revolution"

Brumm and Moore (2005) review the "symbolic revolution" in the light of the Australian archaeological record.

In brief, until the mid-Holocene, there is no strong evidence in the Australian record for the systematic use of symbolism. What evidence there is consists of isolated and sporadic examples. In contrast, the mid- to late-Holocene exhibits a pattern of changes like that in Upper Paleolithic Europe, at least with respect to symbolic behavior:

As decades of archaeological research have revealed, Aboriginal social and economic systems appear to have 'intensified' and become more complex in the last 7000 years, but particularly during the middle to late Holocene (Allen and O'Connell 1995; Beaton 1985; Lourandos 1983; 1997; Lourandos and Ross 1994). Fishing technologies like rock walls, weirs, shell hooks and other equipment, as well as complex technologies for processing toxic plants appear towards the late Holocene, suggesting increased diet breadth and an intensification of marine and plant food resource extraction (Evans and Jones 1997). Along with and possibly closely related to economic intensification there appears to have been a marked increase in site usage and population density, synchronous with a growth in the size and frequency of social aggregation (Lourandos 1997). Long-distance exchange networks circulating such articles as stone artefacts, ochre and pearl shell throughout the Australian continent (see McBryde 1987) date to the middle to late Holocene, with the most extensive trading networks emerging only within the last millennium or so (Davidson et al. in press; Hiscock 1988; Tibbett 2002). Stone technology increases in complexity, a process which includes the emergence of Levallois-like stone-reduction methods around 6000 years ago (Dortch 1977; Dortch and Bordes 1977; Moore 2003a). Blade-based lithic industries and backed artefacts become well established at about the same time (Figs. 4 and 5). Ground-edge axes become widespread in the middle Holocene after a Late Pleistocene hiatus (Morwood and Hobbs 1995), and distinctive tools like large bifaces (Moore 2003b), bifacially-flaked points (Akerman and Bindon 1995), and tula adzes (Moore 2004) emerge in the Holocene (Brumm and Moore 2005:165-166).

The passage goes on to discuss changes in artistic representation, religious systems, and burial practices that also occurred in the mid-Holocene. This would seem to be the closest thing in Australia to a "revolution", but on temporal and climatic grounds, it probably is an Australian manifestation of the expansion of human population size that also occurred in pre-agricultural populations in the Old and New World alike.

The paper contrasts a "short-range" model for the evolution of behavioral modernity with a "long-range" model. In the "short-range" model, the behavioral "package" of modern humans evolved recently and quickly resulted in the dispersal of a single population across the Old World. Australians in this hypothesis must descend from this initial dispersing population, which was intensively symbol-making. Brumm and Moore consider this view problematic, since symbol-making was evidently not a central focus of Australian behavior until the Holocene:

On the other hand, if one accepts that the first colonizers were behaviourally modern -- and this is the opinion of most Australian researchers -- then the criteria used by the 'short-range' camp to identify
modern human behaviour in the Old World is undermined. The Australian record demonstrates that fully modern symbolling humans did not necessarily produce a repetitive package of symbolic traces. This in turn supports Wadley's (2001) position that a single case of symbolic storage may be sufficient for identifying modern human behaviour. The 32,000-year-old Mandu Mandu shell beads are perhaps the least ambiguous evidence for symbolic storage recovered to date from the Australian Pleistocene; they can, by themselves, confirm Davidson and Noble's (1992) contention that the first colonizers of Australia were behaviourally modern.

A pause, for dramatic effect...

Furthermore, if modern symbolic behaviour in early Australia produced a patchy archaeological record, there is no clear reason for rejecting the 'modernity' of the Middle Pleistocene record of the Old World solely on the basis of its patchy distribution.
We suggest that the Holocene Australian example could indicate that the rapid pace of change during the symbolic revolution in Africa and Europe roughly 50,000-40,000 years ago has little to do with the emergence of modern human behaviour and more to do with social, demographic, or other causes. It is possible, for example, that these changes simply reflect the reaching of an organizational threshold, that regional populations had reached a level at which new channels of information transmission became necessary to alleviate conflict and establish boundaries (Kuhn and Stiner 1998, 157) (Brumm and Moore 2005:167-168).

This also characterizes the views of Barton et al. (1994, discussed in this post) regarding the intensification of symbolic expression, and particularly art, in Upper Paleolithic Europe. There also, the real intensification of symbolic expression may not have corresponded with the arrival of modern humans, but instead apparently with demographic change and greater population densities.


Brumm A, Moore MW. 2005. Symbolic revolutions and the Australian archaeological record. Camb Arch J 15:157-175. DOI link