The emergence of the ability to symbolize, as far as our species is concerned, is an event of the utmost importance. The symbol, a material or abstract entity that refers to another entity, allows, even in lack of verbal language, knowledge and sharing of information in an enlarged sphere of individuals, and therefore assumes the role of modulator of associative life itself. Piaget suggested that the origin of the conceptual system lay in internalized sensorimotor patterns.
The emergence of the ability to symbolize, as far as our species is concerned, is an event of the utmost importance.
The symbol, a material or abstract entity that refers to another entity, allows, even in lack of verbal language, knowledge and sharing of information in an enlarged sphere of individuals, and therefore assumes the role of modulator of associative life itself.
Piaget suggested that the origin of the conceptual system lay in internalized sensorimotor patterns.Today we know that the understanding of meaning does not have its sole localization in the neocortex; verbal and nonverbal processing channels are equally important. .
With respect to cognitive development, we know that nonverbal perceptual information encoded on the basis of perceptual and sensorimotor procedures is early redescribed into image schemas, beginning with categorization and/or comparison, available to be later in turn redescribed by verbal language.
We have semantic categories and concepts based on non-propositional images, on the extraction of a subset of information from what is perceived: sensory categories form the basis of abstract concepts: this is a real sensory analysis based on an innate mechanism that searches perceptually for features of regularity. Such schematizations anticipate verbal language ( J. Mandler , 1992 ), and are independent from it .
We know that categorization, a preliminary requirement of conceptualization, is a very efficient mental operation to organize thought, as it facilitates the record, retention, processing and restitution of complex information..
If it is true that a part of the cognitive structure of man was (and is) constituted on the basis of intuitive and analogical processing, it is equally true that, parallel to this modality, a symbolic organization must have developed with other tasks, as demonstrated by the existence of religious rituals, starting with burials and their procedures, and the production of stone sculpture, linked to a religious ritual instance.
The framework in which this process is inscribed is constituted, from the beginning, by the exigency of a social organization and communication, which also implies a management of emotions.
From the most recent literature, we know that representational prototypes of emotions, as images, assemble sub-symbolic experiences that precede verbal language into functional classes for interpersonal communication. Thus, mental representations are formed on the basis of stored information, and organized into categories, in modules.
In accordance with the research of W. Bucci on the multiple code, we want here to support the hypothesis that man, at his origins, devoid of verbal language organized and shareable, processed in a non-verbal subsymbolic mode, through prototypical images, to be considered as metaphors of the scheme of emotion, prototypical non-verbal symbols related to emotion (See W. Bucci, 1997)
It is conceivable that man began to categorize images, inductively dividing the world around him into basic categories, as in organic and inorganic hypothesis, as categories that immediately leap to the eye by virtue of their essential and permanent characteristics, such as life by generation and the cessation of its material characteristics as a result of death.
Already the fact of burying the dead, instead of leaving the corpse unburied, is a strong indication of symbolic thought, closely related to emotional life. This ritual was enriched by further care given to the corpse after death, such as the use of sprinkling the body or the skeleton with precious red ochre.
In Africa, at Blombos Cave, 200 miles east of Cape Town, by Christopher S. Henshilwood, archaeologist at the South African Museum in Cape Town and associate professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, together with Prof. Francesco d'Errico of the Institute of Prehistory in Talence, France, and other scholars, (see Henshilwood, C. S. et al. "Emergence of modern human behavior: Middle Stone Age engravings from South Africa.", Science, 2001), artifacts dated to 70000 years ago have been found, demonstrating evidence of symbolic thought, in addition to animal bones used to produce tools and arrowheads finely crafted, an activity that reveals the presence of concepts preliminary to the execution, were found 8000 pieces of red ocher, some of which engraved with signs of symbolic character, manifestation of abstract thought and creative, regardless of whether there was, or not, communication through verbal language.According to Henshilwood, "Symbolic thinking means that people are using something to mean something else. The tools do not have to have only a practical purpose. And the ocher might be used to decorate their equipment, perhaps themselves. That is a symbol of something else, which we don't understand. But it suggests that these people must have had articulate speech to conceive and communicate such symbolism." (New York Times, december 2, 2001
According to Henshilwood , "Symbolic thinking means that people are using something to mean something else. The tools do not have to have only a practical purpose. And the ocher might be used to decorate their equipment, perhaps themselves. That is a symbol of something else, which we don't understand. But it suggests that these people must have had articulate speech to conceive and communicate such symbolism." (New York Times, December 2, 2001).
At Qafzeh Cave, in Israel, have been found human remains of Homo sapiens of 90000 years ago, painted with red ochre, along with 71 pieces of ochre: the discoverers, including Erella Hovers of the Institute of Archaeology of the European University of Jerusalem, have immediately said of symbolic behavior, in this case the association of the red color with death. For her part, Sally McBrearty of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, U.S.A., says that the ochre work in this cave adds evidence to "the very great antiquity of the color red as a symbolic category." Stone Age Code Red: Scarlet symbols emerge in Israeli cave; see also An Early Case of Color Symbolism Ochre Use by Modern Humans in Qafzeh Cave, by Erella Hovers, Shimon Ilani, Ofer Bar-Yosef, and Bernard Vandermeersch).
At the Khavcekh cave, Israel, have been found human bones covered of red ochre; the discoverers have inferred on the presence of symbolic thought from the association with the colors (dating: 100.000 years ago) This evidence would make to infer the presence of transcendent symbolic thought regarding a concrete project, like can be that one of the fabrication of a tool, to place itself in a purely speculative and emotional area, in which the hypotheses concern the fundamental question of the man about the sense of its existence and its destiny beyond the earthly vicissitude.
According T.W.Deacon of Boston University, U.S.A, the regulation and defense of the reproductive aspect of human life would be the spring that triggered the use of symbolic thought.
It was precisely "the exclusive requirements of competition and reproductive cooperation [... to create] the preconditions of our unique form of intelligence "(TW Deacon, (1997), The co-evolution of language and the brain, NY, Norton & Company, Inc.). The social behavior, to be known and shared, it was necessarily translated into symbolic form, starting from the need to safeguard the reproduction and survival of the couple and the children, otherwise indiscriminate, defenseless and adrift. It was a very strong drive based on a selfish altruism.
This need has been expressed and made known to the community, even before the establishment of verbal language, through redundant actions, which with their repetitiveness would make well understand and remember the taboos and their respective boundaries of each kind, in a word, has emerged the need to resort to ritualized actions, transmissible and understandable by all.
Since symbolic thought provides access to various levels of abstraction, it is plausible that, even before spoken language, man reached, in his thinking, and consequently also in the concrete manifestations of it, the highest peaks of abstraction. But there is no doubt that, without symbolic thought, even in the absence of spoken language, man would not have been able to think about his destiny.
Therefore, as a first step, the use of the symbol could be configured within a problem of communication, also, and perhaps precisely because in the absence of verbal language, as a relationship between signifier and signified, a bridge between mental and material representation, a symbol used as a concrete object, therefore made common, socially shared and immediately understandable. Therefore, with informational purpose, strictly knowing (cognitive), so to speak with functions of "modulator" of emotions. (see L. Filingeri, The running of the time in the mental and material representation of the Paleolithic man (October, 2002))
But, at the other extremity of this ideal continuum of the symbolic, we find, immediately, the maximum of transcendence, with the use of the symbol to express and concretize the idea of the holy and of transcendence, once again at the service of the modulation of too intense and often unmanageable emotions, as attested by the presence of bones of the dead painted in red ochre for ritual purposes and of stone sculptures, clear representations of deity.