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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

Research Postgraduates

Publication details for Professor Paul Pettitt

Pettitt, P. B. (2011). The living as symbols, the dead as symbols: problematising the scale and pace of hominin symbolic evolution. In Homo Symbolicus. The Dawn of Language, Imagination and Spirituality. Henshilwood, C. & d'Errico, F. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 141-162.

Author(s) from Durham


The ‘symbolic capacity’ has come to be seen as a core trait of anatomically modern humans, and probably separates them cognitively and behaviourally from all other hominins. While archaeologists agree on what aspects of the archaeological record constitute evidence of symbolism, such as burials, use of pigments, and personal ornamentation, only generic concepts of ‘symbolism’ are invoked from these, resulting in a simplistic discourse about its origins. I try to problematise the concept of symbolism, using these archaeological categories, breaking each down into differing levels of symbolic sophistication. Following this, I try to link these to Dunbar’s levels of intention, and explore how one might identify these from the archaeological record. I conclude by making a necessarily coarse comparison of Neandertals and modern humans in terms of the expression of these characteristics.