On the origin of visual symbols

J Comp Psychol. 2020 May 14. doi: 10.1037/com0000229. Online ahead of print.


What is the origin of visual symbols? The artifacts that are viewed as the first visual symbols-or at least their prototypes-are the remains of stones and other objects with engravings and colorful markings. Our only access to the origin of this behavior that we share with our ancestors within the genus Homo is through skeletons, artifacts, and genetic testing, and we can only draw indirect conclusions about the reasons for their behavior and the underlying cognitive capacities. Yet indications from different disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, and psychology, fit together to form an overall picture. Through empirical studies, we can analyze and draw conclusions from the advantageous visual effects caused by material symbols. In this review, we first examine a definition of visual symbols that captures their essential characteristics and also provide an overview of the evolution of Homo sapiens and the emergence of the species' cultural behavior. Next, we present two prominent theories regarding the origin of material symbols: a cultural intensification across the entire evolution of the genus Homo versus a later cultural revolution involving only anatomically modern humans and the assumption of additional anatomical or genetic changes, and we describe the difficulties each theory faces. We then examine differences in the cultural behaviors of different primates and indicate which aspects of the two theories are testable, discussing the advantages and limitations of experimental approaches. In conclusion, we clarify how the invention of material symbols can be embedded in the (cultural) evolution of Homo sapiens. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved).