Not surprisingly, claims of symbolic artifacts made by non-modern humans have been met with intense scrutiny. Part of this is due to the fragmentary nature of the early archaeological record, but there is also a deeply held assumption that only Homo sapiens could produce such artifacts.
Rather than fetishizing the ability to make symbols, we should instead concentrate on how our ancestors found novel and innovate ways to create and share meaning. My colleague, Agustín Fuentes, and I recently published an open access database of the current evidence of human symbolic expression, concentrating on examples of the creation of beads, engraved objects, and the use of ochre. Using these data, we argue that by at least 300,000 years ago, members of the genus Homo were engaging in complex, creative thought and producing artifacts laden with meanings. To be clear, the examples that date prior to 200,000 years ago are far from definitive examples of symbolic thought. Yet, they demonstrate that the human cultural niche was changing. Below are just some of the artifacts that suggest a more nuanced approach to the paleoanthropological record is necessary.
When humans began to actively use and control fire is hotly debated (see Chazan 2017). Discerning anthropogenic versus natural fires involves understanding the differences between quick-moving grass fires and those that were tended to. Research by Sarah Hlubik and colleagues (2017) suggests fire use at a 1.5-million-year-old site in Kenya. Evidence of the presence of burned seeds, wood, and flint fragments from Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel indicates that non-modern humans were using fire by approximately 800,000 years ago (Goren-Inbar et al. 2004), although it may not be until 500,000 years later that widespread fire use appears in the archaeological record. While most scholars focus on the technical utilitarian reasons for fire use (for cooking, protection, and warmth), there may be a more nuanced and important aspect—conversation and storytelling. Polly Wiessner’s (2014) study of evening campfire conversations by the Ju/’hoansi of Namibia and Botswana implies that it was during talks over firelight that humans engaged in non-subsistence related conversations that aroused the imagination; spreading rumors and spinning tales. [Continue reading…]