The Dawn of Symbolic Life: The Future of Human Evolution

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In recent years, his team has uncovered a series of unexpected finds , which suggest that human behavior and culture became incredibly sophisticated well before anyone suspected—almost at the very dawn of our species, Homo sapiens. The team found obsidian tools that came from sources dozens of miles away—a sign of long-distance trade networks. They found lumps of black and red rock that had been processed to create pigments—a sign of symbolic thought and representation.

They found carefully crafted stone tools that are indicative of the period known as the Middle Stone Age; that period was thought to have started around , years ago, but the Olorgesailie tools are between , and , years old. Collectively, these finds speak to one of the most important questions in human evolution: When did anatomically modern people, with big brains and bipedal stances, become behaviorally modern, with symbolic art, advanced tools, and a culture that built on itself?

But this conspicuously Eurocentric idea has been overturned by a wealth of evidence showing a much earlier origin for modern human behavior—in Africa, the continent of our birth.

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The new discoveries at Olorgesailie push things back even further. They suggest that many of our most important qualities—long-term planning, long-distance exploration, large social networks, symbolic representation, and innovative technology—were already in place 20, to 40, years earlier than believed.

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That coincides with the age of the earliest known human fossils , recently found elsewhere in Africa. For the longest time, most of the tools that were uncovered at Olorgesailie were Acheulean handaxes—large, teardrop-shaped tools made by chipping away at cores of stone. Hominids like Homo erectus used these implements to butcher meat and cut wood. At Olorgesailie, they started doing this 1.

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  • And during all that time, the basic design of the axes changed very little. Acheulean hand axes did eventually go obsolete, giving way to the tools of the Middle Stone Age. These were smaller, more carefully shaped, more specialized, and more varied. Instead of just bulky axes and cleavers, they also included spear tips, scrapers, and awls.

    He concluded that these tools had completely replaced the Acheulean designs by at least , years ago. A sizable fraction of archaeologists suggest that behavioral 6 Of course, it would still be possible to suggest that the genetic modernity is most fundamentally a transition in the ideo- change was necessary but not sufficient for modernity. But this would logical life of humans, to a world of norms, conventions; to rob the explanatory strategy of its interest, both because of the lack of a positive case for the idea, and because attention would shift to symbolically-mediated and governed social interaction identifying the extra factors, presumably to do with social complexity.

    Sterelny these views often depend heavily on a tiny fragment of the cognitively complex than a young monkey learning to fear material residue of a group. To prepare and wear beads, agents need to years. These physical traces are striking. The output picture themselves as others see them.

    Not so. Perhaps I seemed to be patterned in a planned way: each line seems cannot see my own necklace when I am wearing it. So I to be executed carefully, and all the lines are cut in a single cannot tell from my own visual experience how it looks to session with the same tool. The overall combinations are you. But, first, most obviously, I can model it on another, regular: it seems very unlikely that their placement is seeing how it looks on them.

    And there are many other independent of one another. They have no plausible prosaic possibilities. One option is that beads are chosen and val- function, yet the carving seems to have been planned, ued through a less perspectival representation of their purposeful activity.

    The ochre substrates seem to have been traits: symmetry; the number or rarity of the shells; perhaps carefully chosen, and the surfaces prepared prior to the care of the workmanship.

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    Moreover, necklaces need not engraving. Yet these fragments of incised ochre are rare; be worn by their makers. Necklaces might be nuptial upwards of 1, fragments of ochre have been found at offerings, or a token of entry into adulthood. Finally, beads this site, of which 14 or so are incised. That is a troubling can be used as bracelets, or to decorate clothes. In short: number. It is too rare for engraving ochre to have been a jewelry and other appearance-altering technologies can be routine feature of life, but not so rare that we can view the used without meta-representational capacities.

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    Concern for finds as idiosyncratic innovations with no social upshot. In appreciating, say, the fine quality a staple of daily life. But more important is those of their fellows. Thus Clive Gamble, Robin Dunbar, and need not depend on especially advanced theory of mind John Gowlett write as if mechanisms of bonding and capacities. Humans do not just inhabit particular social trust and intimacy only if those by the fire realize that fact milieu; they identify as members of the groups to which about one another see, e.

    If anything, the opposite is true. Likewise, have within the group. One difficult issue in charting Paul Pettitt in discussing funeral practices rather than hominin social evolution is identifying the origins and material symbols offers a richly meta-representational elaboration of group and role identity. The archaeology of interpretation of norms and conventions. On his view, material symbols is important here, because ethnography conformity to social norms depends on three levels of shows that material symbols—styles of clothing, jewelry, intention.

    It is true that role and identity. However, material symbols can gentleman. For example, a child can pick up norms without those functions being articulated or explicitly of disgust by social referencing; a pathway no more represented by the agents in question. So, for example, a mark of local identity and belonging can begin more or less accidentally.

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    Conformist learning, pres- a, p. You do not have to be newly intelligent insiders. Dress can be a conventional signal of sex or status to be newly convention-ridden. Indeed, conventions of social Demographic Expansion and Social Complexity distance and food taboos seem so natural to insiders that they are not seen as conventional at all.

    Conventions— The obvious alternative to genetic forcing is social com- including those of material symbol use—do not have to be plexity. Social complexity changes over time, and history understood as conventions in order to regulate behavior. If the signals of behavioral modernity are shows that conventional signals can become established responses to complexity, it is no surprise that they come and and be used stably through trial-and-error learning. The leading version of this idea links modernity to Indeed, the point can be put more strongly than this.

    Size helps a group preserve and extend its social worlds, with their specialization and division of informational resources. If the risks of incompetence, deceit, and ill luck to many models; loss can be restored if the band is part of a were psychologically salient to us, risk-averse responses meta-population linked by movement in and out; cognitive would sabotage many systems of exchange and coordina- resources can be amplified if a larger population allows for tion.

    Many norms and conventions of social role and greater variance in skill level, and if the next generation have identity likewise depend on tunnel vision. They function a tendency to use as their models high-end outliers Henrich because they are not seen as norms and conventions of ; Powell et al. There social role and identity, not despite their not being so seen.

    This is most obviously true of religious rituals, if these Specialization increases tool diversity: an agent that spe- really do function, as many suppose, to build cooperative cializes in say fishing or targeting waterfowl has an communities and mark their limits. Rituals, including incentive to invest time and effort in making and mastering religious rituals, have affective power through their sensory specialist equipment. Larger groups, with their larger cus- and physical impact, not just their ideological content.

    But tomer base, support specialization more easily, perhaps to the extent that their content is causally potent, it depends initially a specialist fire-keeper, as Ofek suggests. Larger groups even when mobile deplete their most local identity. So it is no surprise norms as well, for part of norm internalization is coming to that the idea that behavioral modernity is a signal of popu- see norms as objective natural facts or external standards; lation growth is gaining considerable acceptance Lycett and not as decisions or agreements, which are contingent and Norton ; Premo and Kuhn ; Kuhn That said, the model faces two problems.

    One is This is part of the idea that true norms are authority- empirical: as Richard Klein has pointed out, there is no independent Joyce Once conventions are estab- direct, convincing empirical support for demographic lished and entrenched, to children being born into a culture, expansion in the period kya Klein , Agents do not think to Indeed, Klein argues that foraging data indicate low pop- themselves that they should avoid eating spiders or beetle ulation densities, for hominins around the time of transition larvae because they thereby signal their ethnolinguistic were able to exploit resources that disappear quickly if identity to insiders and outsiders alike; rather, such vermin intensively harvested Klein and Steele The second are inedible, so eating them is disgusting.

    In brief: the is that the model explains only one aspect of modernity: the emergence of behavioral modernity may have involved a expansion of utilitarian technology. This second issue will new ideological life of norms and conventions mediated by be the major focus of this article, but let me first outline the the use of material symbols. But if so, that new ideological empirical challenge. No such on the aggregation and interaction of groups in a landscape. Sterelny But demographic information is typically meager, patchy, have depended on specialization.

    But early forms of and indirect guessed from data about site number, site material symbol technology are not technically demanding, size, perhaps effects on the local ecology, and from genetic and hence do not seem to depend on the kind of informa- patterns in descendant population. To the extent that a technology is simple and Indeed, this somewhat understates the problem, for we error tolerant; to the extent that it is in regular use by all or need to distinguish between objective and experienced most members of a group; and to the extent it can be demography.

    The objective demography of group size and reverse engineered from persisting samples, a technology is density determines the resource impact of humans on their less vulnerable to accidental loss. If individuals within a landscape and largely determines the rates at which band use ochre, shells, animal teeth, or ostrich egg shells as humans encounter one another and other animals. But the decorations, they provide models to the entire group.

    These sociocultural organization of human populations—their are not secret or transformative technologies, but rather experienced demography—is enormously salient to the ones which could be readily reverse engineered. Moreover, effect of overall population size on informational resour- unlike a demonstration of a difficult or subtle skill, they ces.

    Thus ethnographic foragers typically live in bands of persist over time. A wheel might not carry the idea of a 20 or so adults. But their sphere of interaction is quite fluid. In others, bands So does engraved ochre, despite the rarity of these frag- can aggregate: sometimes to exploit windfall resources or ments. Likewise, though all groups experience the death of periods of seasonal plenty; sometimes they aggregate members, the organized disposal of corpses in archaeo- around permanent water in dry seasons. Even when bands logically visible ways came late to the human lineage.

    It remain separate, they can be linked by territorial overlap, became gradually more common only over the last trade, and kinship. The capacity to retain informational , years. It is deeply implausible that this pattern is resources will in part depend on the frequency with which explained by an informational constraint: that a group bands are in contact, and the extent to which they are could only retain funeral practices as stable traditions once porous, with relatively free movement between bands there were enough humans in one place to collectively Kuhn How hard is it to depends on social practice, in part on objective demogra- bury the dead in some chosen spot?

    But this article is it is less clear how that expansion explains the appearance centered on a different issue. If the threshold model were of material symbols in the archaeological record.

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    An right, until that threshold was crossed, cryptic transforma- alternative possibility is that material symbols are a tive technologies, error-intolerant technologies, and spe- response to size-dependent social stresses. Steven Kuhn cialist equipment could not be stable parts of the hominin and Mary Stiner have suggested that material symbols toolkit. The informational resources needed to make and function as social markers in a larger social world Kuhn use such technologies were not reliably maintained, and and Stiner a, b. As group size, or more likely the nor were there standing incentives to invest in such tech- meta-group size, expands, face-to-face mechanisms and nologies.

    While this model offers a very natural explana- personal familiarity no longer suffice for social navigation.

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    By the family or clan membership. On their view, material sym- late Pleistocene, with its impressive cave art, material bols indicate a retreat from a social world of intimacy and symbol production was impressively skilled, and may well experiential knowledge of one another. Perhaps so, but if these signals are to others within their 8 Arguably, there is genetic data about the size of the population from own band-metaband aggregates, these ethnolinguistic units which living humans descend, and that data shows a latish Pleistocene would have to be surprisingly large for numbers to over- bottleneck.

    But the fact if it is a fact that we all descend from a whelm our capacity to keep track of individuals and their human population of about 10, that lived about 70 kya does not history. Kim Hill has recently reported that the members of tell us that there were only 10, sapiens living 70 kya. The frequency with which we find exotic materials, and the distance of materials from their sources, gives us some individuals had no problem tracking one another as indi- information about exchange networks. Reciprocation-based cooperation is human group size: he gives an army battalion often around a more cognitively and motivationally demanding than thousand men as about the largest group in which individual mutualism, and is more apt to generate conflict.

    So as the tracking is possible. Moreover, if you know your friends, economic organization of forager lives changed, they allies, and kin by personal recognition, even without the aid evolved a set of social tools for limiting conflict costs: 1 of cues and signals, you automatically know that alien groups an elaborated kinship system; 2 explicit norms; 3 ritu- you encounter are alien. The fact that there is no one in them als, ceremonies, myths. Ethnographic foragers some- Famously, forager lives are cooperative, with a lot of times are in close association with strangers Murphy and sharing and mutual support.

    Without high velocity weapons I shall argue that the expansion of material symbols in or poison darts , hunting and power scavenging are col- the transition to behavioral modernity signals increasing lective, cooperative mutualisms Tomasello et al. Size was one of those threats. The Foraging parties consisting of all or most of the adults10 of larger the social group, the more probable it is that dan- the band would drive scavengers from the prey, or make a gerous conflicts will emerge. The more individuals you kill, and divide the spoils immediately.

    Chimps and other meet, the more likely it is that you will encounter one you great apes live almost completely in the now; they consume find intolerable. As has often been noted, conflict is dan- the resources they need on contact and capture. Early- to gerous in forager societies, because there are no institu- mid-Pleistocene hominins already had evolved a delayed tional mechanisms to restrain escalating conflict.

    So return economy: they did not live wholly in the present. As the metapop- preparation and planning, and return on this investment. It is themselves were likely to be arduous and time-consuming. Material removed to a safer place for division and processing. For example, hand axes are general-purpose tools, But peacemaking is probably one important effect of ritual likely to be used for a range of daily tasks.

    Moreover, the and ceremony, and ethnography shows that ceremonies and gains from cooperation were immediate, and shared rituals typically involve amplifying and altering individual immediately, in public, in the presence of all or most of appearances. Importantly, shared ceremonial and ritual those who contributed to the communal effort.

    Cooperation activities can help make peace, even if they are not about of this form is mutualistic; it does not depend on a favor peace: collective, communal activities build affiliative today being returned next week, perhaps by a third party, bonds by building affiliative emotions. My suggestion is perhaps in a different currency. In the past fifty years, our talking machines have continued to evolve, but none of them have become as authentically malicious as HAL.

    It sounded like a logical fallacy, but it seemed pleasantly futuristic nonetheless. Soon voice-command technology reached the public, ushering in our current era of unreliable computer interlocutors given to unforced errors: half-comical, half-pitiful simpletons, whose fate in life is to be taunted by eleven-year-olds. Despite the reports of cackling Amazon Alexas, there has, so far, been fairly little to worry about where our talking devices are concerned.

    Clarke and Kubrick had been wrestling for years with questions of what the film was, and meant. These enigmas were merely handed off from creators to viewers. On set, the legions of specialists and consultants working on the minutiae took orders from Kubrick, whose conception of the whole remained in constant flux. The film took for granted a broad cultural tolerance, if not an appetite, for enigma, as well as the time and inclination for parsing interpretive mysteries.

    Later audiences had another advantage. Downstream would be midnight showings, monographs, dorm rooms, and weed, but first there was the letdown. The films are designed to advance his distinct filmic vocabulary in new contexts and environments: a shuttered resort hotel, a spacious Manhattan apartment, Vietnam. Its dazzling showmanship harkened back to older cinematic experiences. These films were, in essence, exhibits: simple scenes from ordinary life—a train arriving, a dog cavorting. Their only import was that they had been captured by a camera that could, magically, record movement in time.

    Kubrick loved the effect, and left it in. These details linger in the mind partly because they remind us that a brilliant artist, intent on mastering science and conjuring science fiction, nevertheless knew when to leave his poetry alone. The film hangs on as a staple of YouTube video essays and mashups; it remains high on lists of both the greatest films ever made and the most boring.

    Moon landings and astronaut celebrities now feel like a thing of the past. Space lost out. Those screens were the future.