Leading models of cognitive evolution tell us that the emergence of the human mind, with all its potential for art, ritual, technology, and culture, happened late in evolution, some 50,000 years ago. Their conclusion relies heavily on representational visual art as a major indicator of symbolic thinking. However, these models leave out an increasing amount of archaeological evidence on early visual signs, which strongly suggests that symbolic communication was already present in our evolutionary tree some half a million years ago, at the time of Homo erectus and was highly developed among Neanderthals. This empirical evidence offers an unprecedented opportunity to test existing models and generate new hypotheses on the origins of the human mind. The archaeological record, moreover, is supported by data from comparative psychology which suggests that symbolicity is also incipient in great apes. Research in developmental psychology, for its part, shows that symbolic understanding arises early in childhood as well; implying that learning to use and produce symbols might have been highly adaptive during the whole course of hominin evolution, not only recently. This project aims at integrating results from these different lines of research into an alternative, but likely more accurate story of the human mind; one that sees symbolic thinking as a foundation of modern cognition, not as its result. In addition, it will yield new data for comparative and developmental psychology, by recording mark-making behavior in 3 different species of great apes and human children, in order to identify shared vs. uniquely human capacities related to the production and understanding of visual signs. I expect the results will be of wide interest to the academic communities of several fields and the general public interested in human evolution and the origins of creativity and art.
Templeton.org is in English. Only a few pages are translated into other languages.
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