Origin of Symbolic Thinking in the Paleolithic Times

Prof. Francesco D’Errico

University of Pisa

DATE: 29th August 2018
TIME: 14:30 – 15:30 am
LOCATION: Rigoni Stern Institute, Asiago

For long researchers were convinced that the complex cognition necessary to create and handle symbols appeared suddenly as a result of a genetic mutation taking place 50 ka years ago. This scenario was in the early 2000s replaced by another, positing that symbolic cultures must have instead developed in Africa as a consequence of the origin of our species in that continent. Both these scenarios are based on the axiom that cognition is a species specific caracter shaped by natural selection. In other words a new cognition would stem from the classic Darwinian process of isolation, random mutation, selection of advantageous characters, and speciation. By shaping our species, natural selection would have provided this species with a new cognitive setting resulting in the ability of producing complex technologies, symbols and embody symbols in material culture. The corollary of this axiom is that human populations of the past with different morphological characters, recognised by paleoanthropologists as belonging to different fossil species, must have had different cognitions and those different from us were probably unable to produce a symbolic, or fully symbolic, material culture. Recent discoveries shake the foundations of this axiom. We will review the archaeological evidence and show that symbolic practices and other key cultural innovations emerged at different times, in different parts of the world, among different hominin taxa. These taxa appear more and more as the phenotypic expression of largely shared, plastic cognitions. Bulding on results of research I have been conducting recently in Africa, Europe and Asia I will propose alternatives to the one-fossil-species-one-cognition axiom.

Francesco d’Errico

Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, UMR 5199 – PACEA, Université de Bordeaux, Bat. B18, Allée Geoffroy Saint Hilaire, CS 50023, F – 33615 Pessac CEDEX, France

SFF Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour (SapienCE), University of Bergen, Øysteinsgate 3, Postboks 7805, 5020, Bergen, Norway


2003 – Habilitation à diriger des Recherches (HDR), University Bordeaux 1
1989 – Ph.D., Prehistory and Quaternary Geology. Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris. 1986 – Post-Graduate School in Archaeology. University of Pise (Italy)
1985 -D.E.A. Prehistory and Quaternary Geology, University of Paris VI.
1982- Master in Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Turin (Italy).

ACADEMIC APPOINTMENTS Current *CNRSDirectorofresearch

* Research Professor, Dept. of Anthropology. George Washington Univ.,Washington DC

1994-2004 – 1


class CNRS researcher

1994 – research associate, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge, U.K.
1991 – research associate, Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum of Mainz, Forschungsbereich Altsteinzeit,Schloß Monrepos, Neuwied,Germany
1987 – visiting professor, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Institut de Paléontologie Humaine, Paris.

Visiting Professorships

2007 – Dept. of Anthropology, Princeton University, New Jersey.
2003/4 – Dept. of Anthropology, George Washington, Washington DC.
1999 – Dept. of Archaeology, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg .
1996 – Fellow, Royal Society, University of Cambridge, CNRS-Royal Society exchange program.


Jan.1993-Feb.1994: Cambridge (U. K.). Post-doct. fellow of the University of Turin, 1992: Post-doctoral Fellow, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid 1990-91: Fellow of the NATO Science Program (Advanced fellowship), Paris 1987-88: Fellow of the Fyssen Foundation, Paris

1984-86: Pre-doctoral fellow of the Italian Department for Education and Research, Paris


Francesco d’Errico is author of a book, co-author of another, and editor of two monographs. He has published 160 papers, most of which as first author in international peer reviewed journals, and presented 143 papers at international and national conferences. He has lectured in France, South Africa, England, US, Canada, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Belgium.

d’Errico, F. 1995. New model and its implications for the origin of writing: La Marche antler revisited.

Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 5, 1, 3-46.
Stringer,C.B., d’Errico, F. Williams, C.T. Housley R.et R. Hedges. 1995. Solution for the Sherborne problem. Nature, 378, 452.
d’Errico, F. J. Zilhao, M. Julien, D. Baffier, J. Pélegrin 1998. Neanderthal acculturation in Western Europe? A critical review of the evidence and its interpretation. Current Anthropology 39: 1-44. d’Errico, F. et P. Villa, 1997. Holes and grooves. The contribution of microscopy and taphonomy to the problem of art origins. Journal of Human Evolution. 33, 1-31.
d’Errico, F. Villa P. A. Pinto, Idarraga R., 1998. A Middle Paleolithic origin of music ? Using cave bear bone accumulations to assess the Divje Babe I bone “flute”. Antiquity 72: 65-79.

d’Errico, F. J. Zilhao, M. Julien, D. Baffier, J. Pélegrin 1998. Neanderthal acculturation in Western Europe? A critical review of the evidence and its interpretation. Current Anthropology 39: 1-44.

d’Errico F., Henshilwood, Ch. Nilssen P. 2001. An engraved bone fragment from ca. 75 kyr Middle Stone Age levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa: implications for the origin of symbolism and language. Antiquity.75 : 309-18.

Henshilwood, Ch, d’Errico F., R. Yates, Z. Jacobs, C. Tribolo, G. A. T. Duller, N. Mercier, J. C. Sealy, H. Valladas, I. Watts, A. G. Wintle. 2002. Emergence of Modern Human Behavior: Middle Stone Age Engravings from South Africa. Science. 295 : 1278-1280.

d’Errico F., et Sanchez Goni M.F. 2003. Neandertal extinction and the millennail scale climatic variability of the OIS 3. Quaternary Science Reviews 22 (8-9) : 769-788.

Henshilwood C., d’Errico F., Vanhaeren M., van Niekerk K., Jacobs Z. 2004. Middle Stone Age Shell Beads from South Africa. Science 304, 404

d’Errico, F. et L. Backwell (dir.) 2005. From tools to symbols. From Early Hominids to Modern Humans. Johannesburg : Wits University Press.

Vanhaeren,M. F. d’Errico. 2006. Aurignacian Ethno-linguistic Geography of Europe Revealed by Personal Ornaments. Journal of Archaeological Science 33:1105–1128.

d’Errico F., Lawson, G., 2006. The Sound Paradox. How to assess the acoustic significance of archaeological evidence? In C. Scarre and G. Lawson (eds.), Archaeoacustics. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Monographs, pp. 41-57.

d’Errico F., Henshilwood Ch, Vanhaeren, M. Karen van Niekerk, K. 2005. Nassarius kraussianus shell beads from Blombos Cave: Evidence for Symbolic Behaviour in the Middle Stone Age. Journal of Human Evolution 48, 3-24.

d’Errico F. 2003. The invisible frontier. A multiple species model for the origin of behavioral modernity. Evolutionary Anthropology 12: 188-202.

d’Errico F., Sanchez Goni M.F. 2003. Neandertal extinction and the millennail scale climatic variability of the OIS 3. Quaternary Science Reviews 22 (8-9) : 769-788.

d’Errico F., Ch. Henshilwood, G. Lawson, M. Vanhaeren, A.-M. Tillier, M. Soressi, F. Bresson, B. Maureille, A. Nowell, J. Lakarra, L. Backwell, M. Julien. 2003. Archaeological evidence for the origins of language, symbolism and music. An alternative multidisciplinary perspective. Journal of World Prehistory 17 : 1-70.

Vanhaeren, M., d’Errico, F., Stringer, C., James, S.L., Todd, J.A., Mienis, 2006. H.K. Middle Paleolithic

Shell Beads in Israel and Algeria. Science 312, 1785 – 1788.
Bouzouggar, A., Barton, N., Vanhaeren, M., d’Errico, F.. Collcutt, S., Higham, T., Hodge, E., Parfitt, S., Rhodes, E., Schwenninger, J.-L., Stringer, C., Turner, E., Ward, S., Moutmir, A., Stambouli, A. 2007. 82,000-year-old shell beads from North Africa and implications for the origins of modern human behaviour, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104(24): 9964-9969.

d’Errico, F. Henshilwood, Ch. 2007. Additional evidence for bone technology in the southern African Middle Stone Age. Journal of Human Evolution 52 : 142-163.


  • Evolution of human cognitive abilities, early use of bone tools, emergence of behavioral modernity, origin of symbolism, extinction of Neandertals and their relations with incoming Modern Humans, role of climatic changes on human evolution, grave goods associated with Paleolithic burials, Paleolithic systems of notation, bone taphonomy, application of new techniques of analysis to the study of Paleolithic art objects.
  • He leads two multidisciplinary research projects funded by the European Science Foundation and the French Ministry of Research on the origin of modern humans and language, and the use of personal ornaments as a proxy for ethnolinguistic diversity during the Upper Palaeolithic. He participates in research projects with colleagues from France, the United States, South Africa, Canada, England, Spain, and Ukraine.PhD supervisor

    2001-current : supervisor of five PhD and seven Msc (university of Bordeaux and Witswatersrand)


    Nature, Science, New Scientist, Science News, Discover, New York Times, The Guardian, La Recherche, Science et Avenir, BBC web page, Le Monde, Le Figaro, La Repubblica etc.

    Examples :

    • Lewin R. 1989: Ice age art idea toppled. Science 243, 4897, pp. 1435.

    • Bahn P. G. 1989: Getting into the groove. Nature 339, 6224, pp.429-430.
    • Bahn P. G. 1999: Neanderthals emancipated. Nature 394: 719-721.
    • Balter M. ARCHAEOLOGY: First Jewelry? Old Shell Beads Suggest Early Use of Symbols (23 June 2006) Science 312 (5781), 1731. [DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5781.1731]


Journal of Human Evolution, Current Anthropology, Evolutionary Anthropology, Quaternary International, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Antiquity, Journal of World Prehistory, South African Journal of Sci

Will be provided during the lecture