chapter  5
24 Pages

On the origin of symbols

Archaeology, semiotics, and self-transcendence
WithAndrew Robinson

When Christopher Henshilwood and his team excavated two pieces of ochre engraved with cross-hatched markings at the Blombos Cave, South Africa, the question arose whether these pieces were evidence of ‘symbolic’ behaviour. Alternatively, perhaps they reflected something (allegedly) less exciting, such as doodling. The assumption that symbols would be more interesting than doodles reflects a recent conviction in palaeoanthropology that there is something particularly special about ‘symbolic’ representation, a capacity for which is what makes humans distinct. This in turn reflects, at least in part, the result of efforts to incorporate the insights of semiotics – the theory of signs – into human-origins research.