Some sentences are so pregnant with implications that they seem overdue for giving birth to revolutionary insight. Here’s an example: “Burial in the simple Neanderthal style falls short of furnishing us with convincing proof of symbolic activity among these extinct hominids.”
The key phrase is “symbolic activity,” by which the author, Ian Tattersall, writing in “Extinct Humans,” means the vaunted ability of ‘fully modern humans’ to produce mental objects to stand in for physical ones. It is that capability upon which our entire world depends.
The question of Neanderthal burial has long gripped the imaginations of paleoanthropologists and lay people alike. Until recently the misconception, and human projection, was that a Neanderthal grave at Shanidar, in northern Iraq, was covered with flowers before the body was interred. This was deduced because one of nine gravesites was particularly rich in pollen.
On little more than this, a cottage industry imagining Neanderthal ritual behavior and spiritual life was born, with books like “The First Flower People” garnering popular appeal. A sober, unsentimental assessment of the evidence reveals plenty of evidence of symbolic activity all right—in us.
As Tattersall subtly but authoritatively writes, “burial by itself, without clearly identifiable grave goods, is at best an ambiguous indicator of spiritual awareness…[and] the simple Neanderthal style falls short of furnishing us with convincing proof of symbolic activity among these extinct hominids.”
Symbolically mediated activity is taken as a given, since without it we wouldn’t have complex language, technological innovation, or science. But there is another order of consciousness, seemingly as removed from most people’s everyday lives as the mentality of Neanderthals was from the first modern humans.
“The only good association of symbolic objects with Neanderthals comes in a period during which contact of some kind between these native Europeans and the arriving moderns [us] was inevitable,” says Tattersall, who is curator of the Department of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History.
Though it’s very difficult to even step back from ourselves as a species, much less view an extinct human species with clarity and insight, how is symbolic activity the defining difference between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis?
Just what is ‘symbolic activity?’ Paleoanthropologists are talking about people capable of producing the kinds of murals seen in the cave of Lascaux, in southwestern France, dating from about 18,000 years ago. But that just begs the question. Does it mean the mediation of present experience through the memories, images, words, and ideas of past experience? But is consciousness as such a given?
Beginning around 40,000 B.C., the archeological record shows that anatomically modern humans replaced Neanderthals, and became the sole hominid inhabitants across Europe, and soon thereafter, worldwide.
Different species of humans existing at the same time, much less the same place, is almost inconceivable to us. However, recent evidence indicates that, incredibly, some version of an even older species of human, Homo erectus, survived even longer in Asia, but suffered the same fate at the hands of our species.
Contrary to the notion that symbolic activity and spirituality go together, it’s clear that spiritual growth is inversely proportional to symbolic activity. That is, the more images, words, knowledge, information, beliefs, and memories we have and operate from, the less direct awareness and non-accumulative learning there is within us.
In order to go beyond symbolic activity, and move into true consciousness (which is revolutionary not evolutionary), we have to end the dominance of thought in the brain. Symbols, memory, and knowledge obviously have their place, but when they’re first, division, fragmentation, and spiritual diminishment are inevitable.
Besides, arguably the high point of symbolism and spirituality occurred long before the first civilizations ever emerged. Nothing rivals the representation of the power and awe of nature more than the paintings at Lascaux, including the great paintings of the Renaissance.
Indeed, the more knowledge man has accumulated, both useful and scientific, and non-rational and useless, the more the human capacity for spiritual awareness has decreased and diminished. In other words, as a species we aren’t spiritually evolving, but devolving.
Tattersall holds that since “Neanderthals did not evolve into moderns, or blend with them, then the two kinds of humans must have been in competition of some sort…a contest for those resources that were available on the landscape.”
That raises fundamental questions. Without separately evolving isolated populations (evolution isn’t incremental, as the word is commonly used, but differential), can Homo sapiens evolve into the next stage? What is the next stage?
The new human being—perhaps a new species of human—will not mediate experience through symbols and memory, but will only utilize symbols and invoke memory where necessary and relevant.
Clearly, for that to be the rule rather than the exception, both in the individual and in the species, the brain has to undergo a conscious transmutation.
That is the revolution in consciousness, and though preparations for it may be culminating at all levels beyond the control of any group, the breakthrough hasn’t occurred.
Related Link http://www.lascaux.culture.fr/?lng=en#/en/00.xml