World’s Oldest Rock Symbols?

The holy grail of archaeology is to discover the earliest evidence of symbolic thought in humans. Generally speaking, symbolism means that one thing represents or stands for another. In its most basic form, symbolic thought is iconic: an object in the world (e.g., rock) is related to an idea in the mind (e.g., person).

Because this relationship works in two directions, we are immediately confronted with a classic chicken-egg problem. I may see a rock that looks like a person and this may trigger thinking about a person. Or, I may be thinking about a person and see in a rock the figure of a person.

Which came first doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that this conceptual capacity is essential for language. Rock symbols provide a foundation of sorts for word symbols. But the difference between the two is significant.

Rock symbols resemble something in the world; this resemblance triggers the conceptual back and forth between object and idea. Word symbols do not resemble things in the world; there is no natural or causal relationship between word and object. The relationship is arbitrary.

With this brief lesson in semiotics, we can understand why archaeologists get so excited about really old rocks that have been altered or worked to look like people. There are two leading contenders for the oldest known rock symbols. The first is known as the Tan-Tan figurine from Morocco and is believed to be 400,000 years old:

There are eight grooves on this rock and Robert Bednarik (2003) asserts that five were incised by human hand. Bednarik’s microscopic examination also revealed traces of what he believes to be pigment or red ocher. I am not aware of anyone else who has studied the Tan-Tan, so cannot say whether Bednarik’s claim has been accepted. Because the Tan-Tan was dated on the basis of surrounding lithics (Middle Acheulian), there may be questions about its age.

The second contender is known as the Berekhat Ram figurine from Israel and is believed to be 230,000 years old:

Here is an artist’s rendering which perhaps emphasizes certain features:

Because the Berekhat Ram was found in situ between volcanic layers, the dating is fairly certain. The controversy has been over whether the lines on it are the result of natural processes or human activity. The most recent study (d’Errico & Nowell 2000) suggests the Berekhat Ram was in fact deliberately modified.

If we assume for the sake of argument that both objects were in fact modified and curated by humans, I think it important to ask what they represent. The Tan-Tan has an anthropomorphic shape but not much else. The Berekhat Ram has an anthropomorphic shape and appears to be female.

Beyond this, not much can be said. They may have been ritual objects or nothing more than pleasing reminders. Their importance lies in the fact they may be symbols, not what those symbols may speculatively represent.


Bednarik, R. (2003). A Figurine from the African Acheulian. Current Anthropology, 44 (3), 405-413 DOI: 10.1086/374900

d’Errico, Francesco, & Nowell, April (2000). A New Look at the Berekhat Ram Figurine: Implications for the Origins of Symbolism. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 10, 123-167 : 10.1017/S0959774300000056

Postscript: For those wondering, we don’t really know the name of the hominins who would have modified these rocks. For both, the answer would generally be Homo heidelbergensis, which may however be a wastebasket taxon. You could call them late Homo erectus or archaic Homo sapiens. There is a muddle in the middle.

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22 thoughts on “World’s Oldest Rock Symbols?

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    Man (homo) has been crafting in stone for 2.5 million years. Jared Diamond, in his ‘Third Chimpanzee’ relates where chimps and even an elephant has had their own art shows. Diamond speculates that a desire to create art is primordial, only waiting for opportunity. ‘Modern’ man, with his improved technologies and larger bands, had more leisure, collected a lot more stuff of all sorts, and it was this ‘better life’, not some new mental state responsible for that sudden flourishing of art. Should that be so, we should expect to find more ‘primitive’ art as we keep digging. Possibly back millions of years.

  2. admin Post author

    The oldest stone tools are from Gona, Ethiopia and have been dated to 2. 6 million years, but the first possibly modified anthropomorphic rocks are the two I discussed. This is a massive time gap. In fact, anthro/therio morphs do not begin appearing with any regularity until about 50,000 years ago. Something very important happened during the Upper Paleothic, we just aren’t sure what. My bet is on language.

  3. J. A. LeFevre

    I’ll concede evidence is woefully short (for any conclusion) but I submit the evidence is more compelling for religion. The upper Paleolithic was a ‘quick’ change, language is a (most likely long) evolved capability where ideas can be introduce without any intervening changes, virtually ‘over night’.

  4. J. A. LeFevre

    Data? All relevant data of the development of man, taken as a whole – a ‘big picture’ to start. 10,000 years is a long time, 50,000 is longer. We will never have all the data we want, but we can use what we have. Who survived? ‘Modern’ humans, little genetic diversity, small ‘founder’ population from S. E. Africa (the ‘Eve’ or modern-out-of-Africa proposition, supported by DNA analysis of surviving population world-wide).
    Efficiency is one motive – what was most likely ‘new’ at the same time. AMH appears to have the same biology, but very different ‘behavior’ as you point out. Language requires a lot of biology, and biology is harder to change than beliefs. Religion requires language, but not the other way around. Language had to come first. Every extant and historic band or tribe has had all three: language, religion and ‘modern’ behavior. The two things we do not see in ‘archaic’ sites are religion or ‘modern’ behavior.
    For a very concise summary, both religion and language are ubiquitous throughout the human history, but language has remained functionally unchanged per the suggestion of Noam Chompsky from modern man’s exodus from Africa. Following the ‘great leap forward’ (who’s idea was it to coin that term?) there was a second dramatic advance in human technological trajectory, the Neolithic. That leap forward was marked by a similarly dramatic change to organized religion, marked by the development of a priestly class in every habitat where cities were to develop. No tribe, in the history of the world, was able to advance to ‘civilized’ without first advancing its amateur shaman to professional religious practitioners, without developing organized religion. Language did not change, biology did not change, religion changed and behavior changed. I don’t think human communities larger than a few hundred have been demonstrated stable without a class of priests, nor have communities larger than a few families been demonstrated stable without shaman – but those without modern behavior all went extinct ~30,000 years ago, so data is much softer.

  5. admin Post author

    All that would have been required to kickstart and maintain the Upper Paleolithic transition is language, pair bonding, and fictive kinship. No religion needed.

    In any event, the kind of supernaturalism they would have had, some form of shamanic practice, is not oriented around groups. If shamanic practice had adaptive utility, it is in the placebo healing effect but not in group cooperation or cohesion or commitment. Shamans don’t keep groups together; kin keeps group together.

  6. admin Post author

    You are citing Noam Chomsky on language evolution? The guy who asserted for a long time that language could not have evolved? We have no way of knowing how much language might have changed since 50,000 years ago. Words and grammar do not fossilize.

  7. J. A. LeFevre

    I’m looking for common ground. That particular claim by Chompsky seems to have moderate acceptance. Without Shaman, there were no (significant) groups. Modern estimates of archaic populations hold that about 50,000 was the peak for all of Africa, Europe, Middle East and Asia combined. The peak population of Neanderthals (Europe and Middle East) is estimated at 15,000. These are not groups, but scattered families.

    Language has no demonstrated net effect on cooperation, it can start a fight as easily as mediate one. Apes have no to minimal language but do have social groups, archaic humans (AMH, Neanderthal) probably had the same language capability as do we, but no groups. Organized religion has a dramatic and well demonstrated social mediating effect. No ‘placebo healing effect’ can explain the ubiquitous and persistent presence of religion in modern populations. It is doing something much more significant. Religion is the only feature of human society which has demonstrated the requisite social mediation quality.

  8. admin Post author

    “Language has no demonstrated effect on cooperation”? Please tell me you don’t think this. If you do, please explain and cite any study that shows it or even tested for it. Language was surely the catalyst for larger kinship based groups.

  9. admin Post author

    I would also like to know what basis you have for saying Neanderthals had no groups? Where do you get this idea? What is the evidence for it? Please explain and provide citations in support.

    How is that out of approximately 300 species of extant primate, the majority live in groups? Are you saying baboons are more social and cooperative than Neanderthals? Or macaques? Baboons and macaques live in fairly large groups, after all.

  10. J. A. LeFevre

    Chris, you took my (probably over strong) statement and re-wrote it stronger. No, I do not think language was enough. I don’t think language covers the bases. If we look today, men get together to talk on an ad-hoc basis. We have no fraternal orders of men getting together to talk. We do have fraternal orders of men getting together to give secret handshakes, wear silly little hats and drive silly little cars in parades. To achieve the requisite bonding requires rituals. If I might refer you back to Russell Thornton, ‘We Shall Live Again’ and the Ghost Dance movements among Native American tribes. The principal role of the shaman was to lead the dance and repeat the myths. The sights, the sounds the kinetic engagement. Full sensory emersion, fraternal bonding. You’ve mentioned visiting Africa. Have you been to the tribal areas below the Sahara? One of the most exhilarating experiences that is not life threatening are the midnight dances under the full moon. They love teachers (This was Kenya, late 70’s, early 80’s – life there was much better then, not sure how that has changed with all their political problems) and like Brits and Americans in general, so were very encouraging that we should join in their festivities. I do not see where language was enough. (Neanderthal’s later – must work now)

  11. admin Post author

    Using ethnographic analogies for Paleolithic supernaturalism is a tricky business and we must be cautious. The Ghost Dance movement is not representative of Paleolithic supernaturalism; the Plains Tribes in general are unusual for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that nearly all of them had previously been agriculturalists earlier in time. This kind of cultural memory deeply impacted their rituals, as did extensive contact with colonizing and missionizing Christians. The Ghost Dance is not a good exemplar for what might have happened 50,000 years ago.

  12. J. A. LeFevre

    No, that I would say, is the role they invented themselves to play. A most reasonable projection into the past. While the Ghost Dance movements represents shaman at the end of (aboriginal) times where our discussion concerns the beginning (of modern aboriginal man) I do not think their role has changed. From the most primitive historic societies longest isolated to the most modern metropolis, the shaman and later priests have been the keepers of the legends and the leaders of the rites. That looks to me the principal binder of community in ‘modern’ humans.

  13. J. A. LeFevre

    On archaic Human ‘bands’
    A recent paper on ‘modern’ hunter-gatherer bands: Science 11 March 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6022 pp. 1286-1289
    Co-Residence Patterns in Hunter-Gatherer Societies Show Unique Human Social Structure
    Contemporary humans exhibit spectacular biological success derived from cumulative culture and cooperation. The origins of these traits may be related to our ancestral group structure. Because humans lived as foragers for 95% of our species’ history, we analyzed co-residence patterns among 32 present-day foraging societies (total n = 5067 individuals, mean experienced band size = 28.2 adults). We found that hunter-gatherers display a unique social structure where (i) either sex may disperse or remain in their natal group, (ii) adult brothers and sisters often co-reside, and (iii) most individuals in residential groups are genetically unrelated. These patterns produce large interaction networks of unrelated adults and suggest that inclusive fitness cannot explain extensive cooperation in hunter-gatherer bands. However, large social networks may help to explain why humans evolved capacities for social learning that resulted in cumulative culture.

    What this clip does not note that is of interest in this discussion is that these bands are egalitarian. They are free from hierarchy – I think this is a crucial point. These bands also sponsor ‘elders’, that is individuals 45 to 70 years old. Archaic hominids were all dead by 25 to 35 years. Keeping your parents alive to be grandparents is a basic socialization issue that was not solvable in archaic populations. They were not at all well socialized, something necessary for group (or band) living.

    What about Chimps, our closest living relation? Per J. Goodall, troops of up to a few hundred individuals with a strict hierarchy. Hierarchy is established by posing, posturing, yelling or through marshal domination. When a chimp enters the presence of higher strata chimp(s), he signals submission or risks attack.
    Jane related an observation where four chimps ambushed a chimp from a neighboring troop and spent the next four hours beating the tar out of him. When they tired and left, the victim crawled back towards his troop. A chimp within his own troop may challenge a higher rated individual for ranking with a fight. When one recognizes he is loosing, he can offer submission and the fight typically ends with bruises – it is hard for one chimp to kill another as noted. That is our instinct, and that is our instinctive social order. Jump to archaic hominids, with a taste for flesh, sharp sticks for piercing hides and whelped a predator – any 18 year old man with a spear could catch the biggest toughest hombre in the state off his guard and deliver a mortal wound in seconds. No chance to defend, no chance to submit. Alpha – hierarchy order (our evolved instinct) was broken with weapons, we had to disperse to survive. The great advance of modern humans, I submit, was to discover a way to form (non-instinctive, inspired by shaman and ritual bonding) egalitarian bands like we see today in our most primitive surviving societies.
    Supporting arguments: Wolpoff and Caspari, Race and Human Evolution , 1997; J. Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee: Total Neanderthal population was always small and spread over a large area (very low population density). And: The much larger modern bands (of 28 adults remember – perhaps 8 to 10 men at arms) easily out competed the smaller archaic populations. Much smaller then 26 adults is not much of a band.

  14. admin Post author

    The Ghost Dance was a millenarian and apocalyptic movement heavily influenced by missionaries and Christians. It does not project into the past.

  15. admin Post author

    The paper you cite is a good one; if I recall correctly, I wrote two posts on it. I really like your point about age; I have been arguing (to no avail) for years that archaic and Paleolithic humans rarely reached what we called “old age.” However, I can’t agree with your argument that band size was limited among “archaics” (whatever this may mean). I see no evidence to suggest that “band” size changed from 2 million years ago until the advent of agriculture, except in some exceptionally rich resource areas that are rare.

  16. admin Post author

    I would also like to know why you don’t think more parsimonious hypotheses could explain these transformations. Like language or better tools or clothing or just more people or extended kinship. All are simpler than “religion” and none require any kind of fantasy about what Paleolithic humans did nor did not believe, or what kinds of rituals they performed. All of the latter is entirely speculative.

  17. J. A. LeFevre

    Don’t get hung up on the Ghost Dancers – all shaman, all priests lead the rituals. I do not think language has the glue that ritual has for bonding. I think the tools and clothing (and various other ‘modern’ advances) can be easily explained by age – once elders entered the scene, innovation accelerated. Innovation is the effect, not the cause. Elders caused innovation to accelerate, improved bonding allowed individuals to survive to be elders. The ‘founding’ phenomenon is the improved bonding. The coincident appearance of ritual (which must follow language as human ritual is always observed with myth) suggests religion to be the parsimonious solution. I see little other function (moral code enforcement through threat of curses and ‘voodoo’ could be view as an extension or supplement I suppose) for religion, or explanation for the persistence of religion in human community.
    Human community is far more difficult than it appears – more on this later.

  18. J. A. LeFevre

    The challenge of human community.
    Most of the great apes live in communities of like apes, mostly kin and all strictly hierarchical – baddest ape is boss. Based on genetic linage, that too is the instinctive human community. Problem is, that system simply will not work among well trained hunters with weapons. The other apes are primarily herbivores with comparatively robust bodies and who fight with fists (and at times teeth). Martial completion for position cannot support a functional community if one or both contestants are likely to die from the contest. What I see as most telling evidence of no functional human community among the archaic (any non-‘modern’ human) is their early deaths – by about 30 (35 max.) – as soon as their children reach an early ‘adulthood’ of 12 to 15 years old. That lifespan doubles (to 60 – 70 years max.) as soon as ‘modern’ Upper Paleolithic human community appears. Second, this ‘modern’ community (in its modern form) averages around 28 adults – barely a community at all, and this is the best we could do until about 15,000 years ago when we began, finally, to form into the rather larger tribes. Third, the form of the human bands is egalitarian, a complete reversal of the strict hierarchy among chimp and most ape communities. We required a social order that did not involve fighting for hierarchy, but that is exactly what our instincts call for. To allow stable bands required that we suppress our instincts with education (in the bands myths/cultural conventions) and receive regular, periodic ritual refreshers, courtesy of the shaman. It took us two and a half million years from the appearance of homo habilis, the tool maker, to learn this new technology for forming these rudimentary human communities.
    The ‘modern human’ diaspora occurred as bands would grow to 10 to 20 families and then split and move apart. This was necessary because the conflicts became too great – these egalitarian bands do not appear stable with over about 30 adults – the challenge of human community is too great. This process persisted until about 15,000 years ago when the habitable earth (at least in several locals) filled up and there was no place to ‘move away’ to. Under this population pressure, a new social form, the tribe, was invented. Like with our ape ancestors’ communities, hierarch is once again a part of our society. Typically among modern tribes, the chief is selected by popular choice – unlike the apes, this hierarchy is not selected for by violence. Tribes appear stable up to about 200 – 300 individuals, they then split into two tribes, and go their separate ways.
    The pattern continues, with each increase in group size, more hierarchy needs to be added, and new mechanisms invented to enforce non-violent succession within the hierarchy. This is a continuing problem throughout the developing world – stable human community is not instinctive. Our instinct is still to fight for hierarchy, which leads to an unstable community, to failed states.

  19. Jim

    Mr. Lefebre
    I submit that a baseline athnography of the north american bison would include the fact that thier population exceeded 10 million individuals combined into one cohesive social group. Although other primates are fascinating and have a place in comparative analysis, your speculative conclusions are disheartening for astounding intellectual meekness.

  20. Anonymous

    And the point is that the bison are known for a lack of either shaman or priest AND a large population.
    While not primates, the succeeded admirably in forming an incredible large social group and therefore one must conclude that nature allows for the possibility.
    While Gobekli tepi is interesting, please reference catal huyuk on the anatolian plain and for a staggering quandry, provide more anecdotally humorous explanation for Cahokia.
    Cahokia was at it’s height, perhaps the largest city in the entire world.(perhaps 500,000 people). Yet according to our understanding, the inhabitants lacked the priestly class you so strongly suggests is a prerequisite for a population much that is a factorial smaller.

  21. Larry Stout

    Göbekli Tepe and Çatalhöyük! Two of the most fascinating archaeological sites in the world!

    Although the German excavator at Göbekli Tepe insists that the massive stoneworks were erected by hunter-gatherers, it seems to me a real stretch to suppose that undifferentiated hunter-gatherers could develop quarrying and engineering skills required for such building; the place sits smack dab in the natural range of the wild progenitors of cultivated wheat. Elaborated differentiation of tasks — specialization, “civilization” — is dependent on agricultural surplus, and involves sedentism.

    Çatalhöyük is younger by millennia (mostly ceramic Neolithic), but no less intriguing. Of particular interest to me (and many others!) is the wall painting seen by the original excavator Mellaart as a view of the Hasan Dağı volcano, just visible on the eastern horizon from the ancient mound; Hodder, in charge of renewed excavations, has discounted this interpretation, but very recent geological work has shown that some eruptions of the volcano were penecontemporaneous with the painting. (Hodder’s “entangled” theorizing, by the way, I find convoluted in the extreme — conceptual and verbal murk.)

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