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The Origin of Art

Natural Signs, Mental Modularity, and Visual Symbolism
  • Steven Mithen
Part of the Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology book series (IDCA)

Abstract

Recent attempts to explain the origin of visual symbolism have focused on image making (Davis 1986), and the relationships between perception, depiction, and language (Davidson and Noble 1989). I build on this work by developing a two-stage model for the evolution of visual symbolism. The first stage concerns the evolution of the ability to attribute meaning to visual images. For this I consider the role of ‘natural signs’—epitomized by the tracks and trails left unintentionally by animals. The significance of these has been prematurely dismissed by Davidson and Noble (1989). The second stage concerns the integration of this ability, with those for making marks, communicating intentionally, and classifying signs. Taken together, these four physical/cognitive processes constitute the “capacity for visual symbolism.” I discuss the process of their integration by drawing on recent work concerning mental modularity, accessibility, and hierarchization in cognitive evolution. In essence I concur with Mellars (1991) that the Middle/Upper Paleolithic transition, of which the appearance of visual symbolism is a fundamental feature, marks a critical threshold in cognitive evolution. But, rather than invoking language, which is more likely to have arisen much earlier in evolution, the major event is likely to have been increased accessibility between mental modules allowing the development of high-level cognitive processes.

Keywords

Modern Human Mental Module Vervet Monkey Intentional Communication Social Intelligence 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steven Mithen
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of ReadingReadingUK

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