Biological Theory

, Volume 9, Issue 1, pp 65–77 | Cite as

A Paleolithic Reciprocation Crisis: Symbols, Signals, and Norms

  • Kim SterelnyEmail author
Thematic Issue Article: Symbols, Signals, and the Archaeological Record


Within paleoanthropology, the origin of behavioral modernity is a famous problem. Very large-brained hominins have lived for around half a million years, yet social lives resembling those known from the ethnographic record appeared perhaps 100,000 years ago. Why did it take 400,000 years for humans to start acting like humans? In this article, I argue that part of the solution is a transition in the economic foundations of cooperation from a relatively undemanding form, to one that imposed much more stress on human motivational and cognitive mechanisms. The rich normative, ceremonial, and ideological lives of humans are a response to this economic revolution in forager lives; from one depending on immediate return mutualism to one depending on delayed and third-party reciprocation.


Behavioral modernity Evolution of norms Forager economics Human cooperation and mutualism Human cooperation and reciprocation Human symbolic behavior 



Thanks to the participants in the “Symbols, Signals and the Archaeological Record” workshop for their comments on both the initial presentation of this material, and to Mary Stiner and Peter Hiscock for their comments on earlier drafts. I am particularly grateful to Peter Hiscock for helping me see the connection between the basic argument of the article and the prehistory of funeral practices, and to Mary Stiner for helping me locate these ideas in response to the archaeological research. Thanks also to the Australian Research Council, whose grant DP130104691 supported this research.


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Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy and Tempo and ModeAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  2. 2.Victoria University of WellingtonWellingtonNew Zealand

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