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ABOVE: The shell beads shown here were discovered by Christopher Henshilwood and his archeological team in Blombos Cave. They date back some 75,000 years. The shells were deliberately perforated and strung for possible use as necklaces or clothing decoration. They are a clear marker of symbolically mediated behavior in early Southern African populations.

Image courtesy of Chris Henshilwood and Francesco d'Errico

Contact: Mary Ann Meyers, Ph.D., Senior Fellow


The purpose of this symposium is to explore the insights recent archaeological discoveries may offer us in developing theories about the origin and evolution of language, symbolic behavior, and the capacity for spiritual culture among the earliest humans. The recovery of 75,000-year-old shell beads and engraved ochre at Blombos Cave, about two hundred miles to the east of the meeting site in Cape Town, suggests that the behavior of Middle Stone Age people was mediated by symbolism. Twelve scholars from four continents come together in South Africa to discuss some of the most intriguing questions emerging from Blombos, Pinnacle Point, Klasies River, and other far-flung sites. While it is difficult to imagine being human without language, symbolic behavior, and spirituality, how are we to know when these seemingly defining characteristics became a part of the repertoire of human behavior? What can currently available evidence of human physical and cultural evolution tell us about such matters? Where have new finds confirmed and where have they called into question the ideas that, during the Middle and Late Pleistocene, human behavior underwent changes not previously seen in Africa that define who we are today. In what ways is the spiritual sense related to the evolution of language, of extra-linguistic symbolic behavior, and of other elements of cognitive capacity? Did it appear with the origins of Homo sapiens—or develop earlier, or later, or in a way unrelated to the speciation “event”? Is it adaptive, or did it evolve as a kind of neutral by-product of other human traits? What kinds of research and theory building might be most helpful for addressing such difficult questions or even more intractable ones: What do language, symbolic behavior, and the spiritual sense tell us about evolving human agency and self-conception? Can human evolution inform debates about purpose and meaning in the universe? The conversation about such compelling matters takes place on the continent that was home to the first modern humans in a port city perched on the shore of a beautiful bay in the shadow of the Table Mountains.

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