Book Review

CHRISTOPHER S. HENSHILWOOD & FRANCESCO D'ERRICO (ed.). Homo symbolicus: the dawn of language, imagination and spirituality. xii+237 pages, 30 colour & b&w illustrations, 3 tables. 2011. Amsterdam & Philadelphia (PA): John Benjamins; 978-90-272-1189-7 hardback €99 & $149.

Review by Huw S. Groucutt
Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, University of Oxford, UK

Groucutt image

This volume brings together eleven chapters, as well as a short introduction, on the emergence of symbolic culture. The focus varies from empirical evidence through to the highest echelons of theory, the back cover indeed declaring that no less is at stake than "our very conception of human nature".

The prominence of 'symbolism' in the recent palaeoanthropological literature, particularly in the context of the emergence of modern human behaviour, reflects both negative and positive factors. Chief among the former is the repeated demonstration that apparently uniquely human behaviours, such as using tools, are found in other species. It is often implied that 'symbolic material culture' is the one distinctively human element left. The positive aspect comes from archaeological discoveries, particularly of the African Middle Stone Age (MSA). This book offers a useful reference which reflects current knowledge on these two themes.

The chapter by primatologist William McGrew describes 'Pan symbolicus'. In their introduction the editors support the idea that symbolism is not exclusively found in hominins. McGrew's examples of apparent Pan symbolism in the wild are hardly overwhelming but, as he acknowledges, this reflects a tradition of fieldworkers reporting anecdotal evidence but then not following these up with detailed research. Nevertheless, a theme running through the book is that humans are not as distant from other animals as many have suggested. Several contributions seek to root the evolution of symbolic material culture in terms of symbolic abilities which are found in several species and over the long term. João Zilhão (p. 111) suggests that symbolic thinking and language are probably as old as the human genus. I am sympathetic to this view, but proving anything on the origin of language is notoriously difficult.

David Sloan Wilson and George F.R. Wallis's chapters address the significance of heavily co-operative behaviour in human evolution and the nature of modern language respectively. Sloan Wilson makes the important point that an absence of symbolism need not demonstrate insufficient brain power, but simply that in a particular context symbolism is not adaptive. We might likewise see symbolism as only being 'culturally adaptive' in certain demographic and cultural situations. Benoît Dubreuil's contribution argues that many popular models, such as Robin Dunbar's Theory of Mind, are flawed in that they are insufficiently precise as explanatory frameworks, relating, for instance, to the activation of several areas of the brain. Instead we should look for "precise cognitive mechanisms realized in specific neural structures" (p. 186).

Savage-Rumbaugh and Fields' chapter focuses on the significance of baby apes clinging to their parents, and the absence of this behaviour in modern humans, for the origins of language. As with Justin L. Barrett's hypothesis of the co-origin of modern behaviour and religion, these ideas are as hard to test as they are interesting. Dubreuil argues for the use of 'developmental neuroscience' and fossil endocasts. The relevance of modern developmental processes as an analogue for evolutionary processes is, as Dubreuil acknowledges, problematic and well-preserved crania are extremely rare. Ultimately most categories of evidence comparing humans and non-human primates face the problem of the extinction of the majority of the hominin lineage. This book recognises that we therefore have to use the archaeological record to cast light on the behaviour of extinct hominins.

South African MSA engravings, which have become rather iconic of early 'symbolism' in recent years, are considered in Henshilwood and d'Errico's chapter. At Blombos Cave some of the 1500+ pieces of ochre recovered are engraved. While this seems 'deliberate', what is the significance of such engraving? The authors convincingly argue against many functional interpretations, but we need to avoid a situation where symbolism is merely applied to anything with an unknown 'function'. From Diepkloof, some 270 fragments of engraved ostrich eggshell from around 60 000 years ago were discovered. Four distinct 'motifs' were recognised, and there appears to be temporal patterning in them. This recurrence of similar patterns is perhaps the strongest evidence the authors provide.

Paul Pettitt in his chapter makes the point that the catch-all notion of 'symbolism' should be broken down into components such as decoration, enhancement, time/space-factored symbolism, etc. Given the conceptual ambiguities of much of the evidence, this is surely necessary, as part of the need to theorise symbolism, not merely chase 'empirical' shadows. Likewise, Lyn Wadley attempts to address the issue of symbolism indirectly. In essence her argument is that the complexity of the process of manufacturing compound adhesives for hafting purposes in the MSA—involving extensive planning, multitasking, precise control of fire temperature etc.—is indicative of minds similar to ours, which have symbolism. Her research is an interesting example of ways in which we can elucidate complex behaviour without reference to poorly defined symbolism.

The volume as a whole offers a useful interdisciplinary source for students of human evolution, reflecting well the current state of knowledge. It is written in an authoritative but accessible manner, is well edited and features excellent figures. I agree with the editors' assertion that progress critically depends on archaeological evidence brought into play in concert with palaeoenvironmental science. To me the key problem relates to the theorisation of what is meant by symbolism and how this relates to symbolic material culture. In this sense the topic is a good example of the articulation of good questions being as important as providing the answers. This book makes a useful start but, considering our extremely variable knowledge of spatial and temporal variability in the Palaeolithic archaeological record, great surprises surely remain in store; it contributes to the now mature criticism of the idea that 'modern human behaviour' appeared suddenly in Europe around 40 000 years ago. What will replace this narrative, however, remains a largely open question.