The evolution of early symbolic behavior in Homo sapiens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


How did human symbolic behavior evolve? Dating up to about 100,000 y ago, the engraved ochre and ostrich eggshell fragments from the South African Blombos Cave and Diepkloof Rock Shelter provide a unique window into presumed early symbolic traditions of Homo sapiens and how they evolved over a period of more than 30,000 y. Using the engravings as stimuli, we report five experiments which suggest that the engravings evolved adaptively, becoming better-suited for human perception and cognition. More specifically, they became more salient, memorable, reproducible, and expressive of style and human intent. However, they did not become more discriminable over time between or within the two archeological sites. Our observations provide support for an account of the Blombos and Diepkloof engravings as decorations and as socially transmitted cultural traditions. By contrast, there was no clear indication that they served as denotational symbolic signs. Our findings have broad implications for our understanding of early symbolic communication and cognition in H. sapiens.


  • Kristian Tylén
  • Riccardo Fusaroli
  • Sergio Rojo
  • Katrin Heimann
  • Nicolas Fay
  • Niels Nørkjær Johannsen
  • Felix Riede
  • Marlize Lombard
External organisations
  • Aarhus University
  • University of Western Australia, Perth
  • University of Johannesburg
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Communication Studies


  • symbolic behavior, human cognition, evolution, archeology
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4578-4584
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Publication categoryResearch
Externally publishedYes