Link: Symbolism, beads and modern human behavior

1 minute read

Christopher Henshilwood has written a short article for The Conversation describing the archaeological importance of the finds from Blombos and elsewhere in southern Africa: “What excavated beads tell us about the when and where of human evolution”.

Modern human behaviour can be defined as behaviour that is brought about by socially constructed patterns of symbolic thinking, actions and communication. This allows for material and information exchange and cultural continuity between and across generations and contemporaneous communities. The capacity for symbolic thought is not the key defining factor for modern human behaviour. It is rather the use of symbolism to organise behaviour that defines us.
In other words, early humans were first behaviourally modern when symbols became an intrinsic part of their daily lives.

The tranformation of archaeology toward understanding the complexity of Middle Stone Age assemblages in southern Africa is impressive. I think it may be premature to write off the behavior of earlier people as non-symbolic. After all, the production of symbolic objects can only be functional within a society in which symbolic communication is near-universal. Language provides such a basis. Even simple forms of vocal communication in other primate species involve arbitrary learned relationships between sounds and concepts, which is the definition of symbolic communication. Auditory symbol use must have been present in the earliest forms of human language as well, and evidence from the vocal and auditory channels place the origin of vocal language much earlier than the Neandertals.

This is not modern human, I would say it is simply human.

I think we should take seriously the hypothesis that the differences between Middle Pleistocene populations were quantitative and not qualitative. Symbolic behavior did not emerge instantaneously; it evolved within a context of complex social interactions of earlier archaic human populations. The use of symbolic artifacts is an important clue to ancient social systems, evidencing one aspect of complexity. The artifacts give us one kind of evidence about the connections among ancient groups and the persistence of symbolic traditions.