Symbolic Thinking

This is a symbol painted on a tree near the Willendorf site. Shurely an evidence of “Modern Symbolic Thinking”

A symbol means something, whose meaning is determined by arbitrary relationship. This relationship is a socially construction, a convention which implied a shared ideological understanding.

Popular narratives propose a model of gradual evolution of symbolic thinking, beginning with the early MSA (~ 250 k.a. BP) in Africa. Notched and incised objects, the presence of ochre, Nassarius shell beads, regional “styles” in the production of stone-points may have been indeed of symbolic nature. Anyhow, these assumptions are far from being self-evident.

There is a theoretical under-development of an archaeological concept of “symbolism”. Methods that were used to constitute the narrative of gradual evolution are strictly deductive and, more crucially they are biased by double standards.  There is a tendency to foreground the practical use of earlier artifacts and to assign symbolic values only to those which were considered to be more recent. This bias is due to the assumption that symbolic artifacts are signs of an evolved cognitive competence which most archaeologists are reluctant to locate too early in human evolution.

How should a symbol be recognized in the archaeological context? Usually Anthropologists define artifacts with a potential symbolic value for us and try to find objects in the archaeological record that may have worked as symbols for prehistoric people..

I would recommend a more modest inductive approach that should take into consideration a stable epistological foundation and avoids biasing, double standards and analogies. Such a “middle range” theory may lead to a better understanding of a very strange and unfamiliar past and of people that are separated from us by many thousand of generations.

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