Ochre, Ornaments, and Origins

Anthropology asks the kinds of questions that many people find fascinating, such as where do we come from and what separates us from the rest of the animal world? When I ask students this question, they tend to think in exclusive terms (i.e., ‘humans are the only primate that has technology’, ‘humans are bipedal’, ‘humans have language’).

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Yet, not all humans walk on two legs or communicate via language. The transdisciplinary nature of the Evolution of Wisdom project allows us to answer these questions using a wide-range of datasets, seeking to understand the complex social and biological processes that led to modern humans. One way we can accomplish this is by examining the archaeological evidence for symbolic expression. From an evolutionary perspective, what makes us unique among the rest of the animal kingdom is our shared evolutionary history. That is the one thing that separates us from other species and also binds us together, showing how similar we are to other humans. Evolutionary anthropology studies this history in order to understand how the intersection of biology and culture led to the remarkable success of our species.

One behavior that seems distinctive of human behavior is the ability to think symbolically. Much of our advanced reasoning is predicated on an ability to see links between signs in the world and concepts not immediately connected to that object. For example, engraved ostrich eggshells dating to approximately 80,000 years ago from an archaeological site in South Africa show distinct crisscrossed line patterns. Is there a meaning behind these patterns? Without knowing the cultural context, we are hard pressed to interpret them. Yet, given the non-random nature of these patterns, it seems clear that these are not simply idle doodles to pass the time. The same is true of shell beads, which have been found in archaeological sites from South Africa, Morocco, and Southwest Asia. We know that they were worn, but we do not know what message they sent.

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Why would someone 80,000 years ago decorate his or her body with such beads? One approach is to ask why modern people adorn themselves with tattoos or other media. But then again, there are countless reasons we adorn our bodies. Archaeologist Laurie Wilkie studies bead use at Mardi Gras and my colleague Alison Carter has done excellent work on beads from Southeast Asia to help understand ancient trade routes. Decorating our bodies, be it by beads, tattoos, hairstyles, or any other form of modification, sends a message about who we are. Furthermore, it means that we have a desire to inform people about who we are and what we like.

Archaeologists refer to objects such as engraved ochre and beads as being symbolic. As Julia Feder notes in her post, symbols have played an important role in anthropological reasoning. As argued by Charles Peirce, symbols are connected to the concept they signify since this connection is agreed upon by its users. Finding symbolic objects suggests there was a cultural understanding of that object’s significance, a very human-like behavior. Symbolic thought is very complex. As a recent example, we can think about the role of the diamond engagement ring. I often have students think about why diamonds have become synonymous with love and marriage. They tend to suggest it has to do with either the rarity of diamonds or the fact that they are ‘forever’. However, as many of you probably know, none of these ‘facts’ are true. They are neither rare nor forever. Yet, they have taken on symbolic importance in Western culture. We can see this symbolic idea behind graffiti walls and wedding ceremonies.

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The question of when and where our ancestors began to think symbolically has led to much debate in the anthropological literature about what it means to be a behaviorally modern human. These early forms of what archaeologists label ‘modern human behavior’ can help us understand how we went from being hominins (primates more closely related to us than to any other primate) to being fully human. Admittedly, while it would be awesome if a chimp made and wore jewelry, as far as we know they do not do this. This gives us a good clue as to why it evolved in humans. Clearly the evolutionary pressures on humans were different. By searching the early examples of human symbolic thought, we can trace the evolutionary history of our species. This in turn can allow paleoanthropologists to understand what pressures, both external and internal, early humans faced. The origins of symbolic thought lie within the origins of the human cultural niche, the creation and expansion of which can be traced in the paleoanthropological record.

Finally, I want to raise a point about Neandertals – my ‘first love’ in anthropology. Some scholars believe Neandertals were able to think symbolically, while others question this. In my next post, I’ll explore this debate, including the often under-theorized question of whether or not Neanderthals had a good sense of humor.