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The evolution of early symbolic behavior in Homo sapiens

New study published in PNAS shed light on some of the earliest examples of human symbolic behavior

2020.02.19 | Anne-Mette Pedersen

New study in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) by IMC researchers Kristian Tylén, Riccardo Fusaroli, Katrin Heimann, Niels N. Johannsen and Felix Riede, with Sergio Rojo, Nicolas Fay and Marlize Lombard used 109k – 52k yo engravings in 5 experiments to investigate the early evolution of symbolic behavior

They found that the engravings evolved adaptively over 40k y to better resonate with human cognitive systems of vision, attention and memory. That is, they became more effective “tools for the mind” as their producers became skilled symbol makers

These observations suggest that the engravings were produced with aesthetic intent and possibly served as markers of group identity. However, they do not support an account of the engravings as a system of fully developed denotational symbols.


Tylén, K., Fusaroli, R. Rojo, S., Heimann, K., Fay, N., Johannsen, N.N., Riede, F., Lombard, M. (In Press). The evolution of early symbolic behavior in Homo sapiens. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS

Read the article here


Kristian Tylén, Associate Professor
School of Communication and Culture - Semiotics
Interacting Minds Centre