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See Inside May / June 2010

Neandertal Symbolism: Evidence Suggests a Biological Basis for Symbolic Thought

Abstract thinking may date back further than previously thought

A metal pin adorning a military uniform signifies rank; a ring on the left hand’s fourth finger announces matrimony. Most scientists thought that the capability for such symbolic thinking was unique to modern humans, but a new study suggests that it dates back to before the Neandertals.

Archaeologist João Zilhão of the University of Bristol in England and his colleagues found 50,000-year-old perforated painted seashells and pigment containers on the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe, a region that was inhabited solely by Neandertals at the time. Modern humans who lived in Africa at that time used similar objects as jewelry and for body painting to symbolize their social standing. The find suggests that the brains of the common ancestor of both species must have already had the biological basis for symbolic thought, meaning its develop­ment dates back to about half a million years ago, Zilhão says. He adds that the discovery also implies that the foundation for language was already in place that long ago, because assigning specific meanings to arbitrary words and sounds is “symbolic thinking by definition.”

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