Licia Filingeri

The emergence of the ability to symbolize, as regards our species, is an event of the utmost importance.

The symbol, material or abstract entity that refers to another entity, allows, even in absence of verbal language, knowledge and information sharing in an enlarged sphere of individuals, and therefore assumes the role of modulator of the same associative life.

Piaget suggested that the origin of the conceptual system was in senso-motory interiorized patterns.

Today we know that understanding the meaning is not only localized in the neocortex; channels processing verbal and nonverbal are equally important.

With regard to cognitive development, we know that non-verbal perceptive informations, encoded on the basis of perceptive and senso-motory procedures, are early re-described in patterns of images, starting with categorization and / or confrontation, available to be later in turn re-described through verbal language.

We have semantic categories and concepts based on images not propositional, on a extracion of subset of information about what perceived: sensory categories form the basis of abstract concepts: it is a real sensory analysis based on a mechanism innate qualified for sensory analysis, which seeks in perceptive manner features of regularity. Such schematizations preced verbal language (J. Mandler, 1992), being independent from them.

We know that categorization, prerequisite of conceptualization, is mental operation very efficient to organize thoughts, as a facilitator recording, retention, and return of processing complex information.

While it is true that some of the cognitive structure was (and is) formed on the basis of intuitive and analogic processing, it is equally true that, in parallel to this mode, should have developed a symbolic organization with other tasks, as demonstrated by existence of religious rituals, starting from the graves and their procedures, and from the production of lithic sculpture, linked to a religious ritual instance.

The framework in which this process is inscribed consists, from the beginning, in the need of a social organization and communication, which also involves management of emotions.

Since the most recent studies, we know that representational prototypes of emotions, in the form of images, group subsymbolic experiences, preceding verbal language, in classes functional to the interpersonal communication. Therefore, the mental representations are formed on the basis of memorized informations, organized in categories and modules.

Consistent with the research by W. Bucci on the multiple code , we want here support the hypothesis that humans, at his origins, devoid of verbal language and organized support, elaborated in subsymbolic nonverbal mode through prototypic images, to be considered as metaphors of the emotional schema, prototypic nonverbal symbols related to emotion (See W. Bucci, 1997).

It is possible to think that the man has begun to categorize images, dividing inductively the world around him into basic categories, such as organic and inorganic hypothesis, as categories that immediately we can have under the eyes, by their essential and permanent characteristics, which life for generation and the end of its materials characteristics after death.

Already the fact to bury the dead, instead of losting the corpse not buried, is strong evidence of symbolic thinking, closely related to the emotional life. This ritual was further enhanced by othrt cares provided to the corpse after death, such as the use of sprinkle the body or skeleton with precious red ocher.

Some examples.

In Africa, at Blombos Cave, 200 miles east of Cape Town, by Christopher S. Henshilwood, archaeologist of the South African Museum in Cape Town and associate Professor at the University of the State of New York, Stony Brook, along with Prof. Francesco d'Errico of the Institute of Prehistory in Talence, France, and other Scholars, (see Henshilwood, CS et al. Emergence of modern human behavior: Middle Stone Age engravings from South Africa. Science, 2001), have been found findings dated at 70000 years ago, which show evidence of symbolic thinking: besides bones of animals, used to produce tools and arrow points finely worked, activity revealing the presence of concepts preliminary to the implementation, also were found 8000 pieces of red ocher, some of which engraved with symbolic signs, demonstration of abstract and creative thought, regardless of 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).

At Qafzeh Cave, Israel, have been found human remains of Homo sapiens of 90000 y. ago, red ocher paintings, with 71 pieces of ocher: discoverers, including Erella Hovers, of the Institute of Archeology of the European University in Jerusalem, have been talking about symbolic behavior, in this case the association of red with death. For her part, Sally McBrearty of the Department of Anthropology of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, U.S.A. says that the processing of ocher in this cave adds evidence to "the very great antiquity of the color red as a symbolic category." ( see 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, were found human bones covered with red ocher; the discoverers have inferred the presence of symbolic thinking by the association with colors (dating: 100,000 y. ago). It would infer the presence of symbolic transcendent thought  with regard to a concrete project, as can be manufacturing a tool, positioning themselves in a purely speculative and emotional area, in which hypotheses concerning the fundamental question by the Man about the meaning of his existence and his destiny beyond earthly.

According T.W.Deacon of Boston University, U.S.A., the regulation and defense of the reproductive aspect of the life of Man would be the spring which has triggered the use of symbolic thought.

It was precisely "the unique demands of competition and cooperation reproductive [... to create] the preconditions of our peculiar 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 universally shareable, was necessarily translated into symbolic form, starting from the need to protect the reproduction and survival of the couple and the children, otherwise indiscriminate, defenseless and disarray. It was a very strong push based on a selfish altruism.

Such requirement is expressed and made known to the community, even before settling of verbal language, through redundant actions, whose repetitiveness do well to remember and understand the taboos and their boundaries of all kinds, in a word, has emerged the need to resort to actions ritualized, transmissible and understood by all.

Since the symbolic thought provides access to different levels of abstraction, it is verisimilar that, even before the spokelanguage man has achieved, in his thinking, and thus also in concrete manifestations of it, the higher peaks of abstraction. But there is no doubt that without symbolic thought, even in the absence of verbal language, the man could not think about his fate.

So, as a first step, the use of the symbol may be configured as part of a communication problem, also, and perhaps because in the absence of verbal language; as a relationship between significant and meaningful representation, bridge between mental and material, symbol precisely used as concrete object, therefore made common, socially accepted and immediately understandable. So, with informative purposes, strictly cognitive (knowledge), aimed to "moderate" emotions. (see L. Filingeri, The running of the time in the mental and material representation of the paleolithic man (October, 2002))

But, at the top of this ideal continuum of the symbolic, we find, now, the maximum of transcendence, with use of the symbol in order to express and realize the idea of the sacred and the transcendent, once again serving to modulate too intense and often not manageable emotions, as demonstrated by the presence of bones of the dead persons painted with red ocher, with ritual purposes, and of lithic sculptures, manifest representations of divine.



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