Signs and Symbolic Behavior


Research in archaeology and anthropology on the evolution of modern patterns of human behavior often makes use of general theories of signs, usually derived from semiotics. Recent work generalizing David Lewis’ 1969 model of signaling provides a better theory of signs than those currently in use. This approach is based on the coevolution of behaviors of sign production and sign interpretation. I discuss these models and then look at applications to human prehistoric behavior, focusing on body ornamentation, tools, and other artifacts.

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  1. 1.

    For reviews, see McBrearty and Brooks (2000) and Henshilwood and Marean (2003).

  2. 2.

    For links to biology and economics, see Skyrms (2010), Zollman et al. (2012), and Wagner (2012); for information theory, Shannon (1948) and Cover and Thomas (2006).

  3. 3.

    For partial common interest, see Crawford and Sobel (1982) and Godfrey-Smith (2013). For cases with signaling despite complete conflict of interest, see Godfrey-Smith and Martinez (in press). Another sense of complete conflict of interest is the sense seen in a “zero-sum game.” Relationships between this sense and the preference-reversal sense are discussed in the Godfrey-Smith and Martinez paper. The cases where information use exists despite complete conflict of interest are not also zero-sum.

    For a model in which sender and receiver conflicts prevent them from settling into a stable pattern, see Wagner (2012).

  4. 4.

    For some other models see Robson (1990) and Farrell and Rabin (1996).

  5. 5.

    “Examples of recognizable external symbolic storage include art work, personal ornamentation, lithic style, and the social use of space” (Henshilwood and Marean 2003, p. 635).


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Thanks to all the participants at the 2012 “Symbols, Signals and the Archaeological Record” workshop at the Australian National University, and to the City University of New York for research support. Helpful comments on an earlier draft were provided by Peter Hiscock, Steven Kuhn, Jane Sheldon, Kim Sterelny, and Mary Stiner.

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Correspondence to Peter Godfrey-Smith.

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Godfrey-Smith, P. Signs and Symbolic Behavior. Biol Theory 9, 78–88 (2014).

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  • Archaeology
  • Communication
  • Meaning
  • Prehistory
  • Sender–receiver model
  • Symbols