Human Symbolic Revolution

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* Essay: The Human Symbolic Revolution: A Darwinian Account. Chris Knight, Camilla Power & Ian Watts. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 5:1 (1995), pp. 75-114



"By 50,000 years ago, the effects of a ‘symbolic explosion’ – an efflorescence of human art, song, dance and ritual – were rippling across the globe. Applied to archaeological evidence, standard neo-Darwinian theory offers new understandings of this improbable event. The present article defines ‘symbolism’, models quasi-ritual behaviour in late archaic Homo sapiens, extends the argument to the emergence of anatomically modern humans and concludes with preliminary tests against archaeological, ethnographic and rock art data."


"Symbolic culture facilitates co-operation beyond that explicable directly from kin selection or reciprocal altruism theory (Chase 1994); it is such uniquely human co-operation that underwrites the effectiveness of speech (cf. Carrithers 1990, 202; Bennett 1976; Grice 1969). This needs stressing because the reverse argument has recently become current among archaeologists, palaeoanthropologists and linguists debating human origins. Bickerton (1990) postulates a ‘neural macromutation’ thanks to which the descendants of ‘African Eve’ spontaneously produced ‘syntacticized language’, capable for the first time of reference to morally authoritative intangibles. ‘The gods’ and those human co-operative endeavours which depend on their authority are pictured by Bickerton as products of speech. Speech as a biological given is then credited with generating religion, art, myth and symbolic culture as a whole (cf. Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1988,6006; Mellars 1991).

Such ‘word-magic’ scenarios treat speech as an independent variable, unconditionally superior to alternative systems of communication."