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Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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When Did Humans First Use Symbols?

Friday, April 20, 2018

markings symbols ochreAARHUS, DENMARK—According to a report in Science Magazine, cognitive scientist Kristian Tylén of Aarhus University led a team of scientists who investigated the possibility that markings found on rocks at sites in South Africa could have been used as symbols by early humans. If the marks, which ranged in age from 52,000 to 109,000 years old, were made as decorations, Tylén reasoned, modern humans should be able to recognize the patterns, and if the marks had been reproduced as local cultural traditions to convey meaning, they should still be memorable. The scientists took 24 images found on stones and shells in Blombos Cave and another site in South Africa, cleaned them up, and showed them to 65 Danish university students, who were asked to distinguish between the marks and reproduce them after a brief glimpse. Tylén’s team found that the students were better able to remember and reproduce the more recent markings, but they were not able to distinguish them from each other, or sort them into groupings based upon where they had been found. Thus, Tylén thinks it is unlikely the markings were made as symbols with individual meanings. To read more about research at Blombos Cave, go to "In Style in the Stone Age." 

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