Material culture and language

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Archeology is one of the few disciplines likely to provide hints about when the faculty of language evolved in the human lineage. Nevertheless, what can be inferred from the material culture and bony remains of our ancestors is still disputed. This chapter focuses on one debate that has received significant attention recently. Is it possible to infer &#8220;symbolic behavior&#8221; from the material culture of early <i>Homo sapiens </i>during the ca. 300 to 30 ka Middle Stone Age (MSA) in Africa&#63; We argue that the question is answered differently depending on how we perceive the cognitive foundation of symbolic behavior. Our view is that symbolic behavior in humans stems from human-specific socio-cognitive and socio-affective skills. We then argue that the presence of these capacities &#8211; and indirectly of symbolic behavior &#8211; is evidenced by a range of innovations in the southern African archeological record during the MSA. During this period, and especially after ca. 100 ka, groups of early <i>Homo sapiens </i>began to invest significant time and energy in the nonidiosyncratic alteration of the appearance of their material culture. They made use of personal ornaments, produced abstract engravings, and included a stylistic component in their bone and stone tools. Some of the technology they used to produce their tools was highly innovative. Probably for the first time in prehistory our ancestors began to live in societies in which people cared about how others saw the world and about transforming their environment in a way that met others&#8217; expectations. In other words, they lived in a world of shared meanings.


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