The Birth of Symbolic Language

Humans have been around for millions and millions of years, but it’s only been a small slice of our history were we’ve actually been able to communicate with one another.

Early humans  lacked natural physical features for protection (such as sharp teeth and claws) and became “able to use their hands to hold and shape objects, being able to use their voices to communicate with each other … all this required the growth of large brain cells and the ability and desire to socialise”(Chris Harman- A people’s history of the world). It’s the development of the vocal track, and cognitive reasoning that allowed any kind of meaningful sounds to be made, so early language would have been basic hand gestures and sounds.

I found our lecture on the birth of language very interesting, as without language humans as a species will never have progressed evolutionary to where we are today. Human nature is only a narrow slice in society. Traditionally, societies were of a few hundred to a few thousand people, and humans lived like this for about 6 million years. It’s only in the last 10,000 years for the first time ever we encountered strangers in our midst, developed tools and farming, a trading system then soon language. Tools for writing (pressing objects and carving abstract shapes into clay blocks) had to be created for easy memory and sooner or later humans developed thanks to an exchange of knowledge to life as we know it today.

Prehistoric drawings only give an insight of the lives of our ancestors and even then they’re being debated under several different specialisms about what they mean. As we have no way to travel back in time, we can only guess their meaning as the original information is long gone. Unfortunately many fake prehistoric artwork have been made: “our knowledge of true Ice Age art has become distorted”(Paul G. Bahn – Chauvet Cave), many artworks discovered in  the past may have been accidentally accepted as real, while at the same time many more are undiscovered.

A prime example of possibly the world’s oldest cave paintings is the Chauvet cave (dates back 30,000 years), located in the gorges  of the Ardèche in south-east France. Not only is the artwork painted across the cave walls impressive and have a large collection of animal drawings, the cave floor is also littered with the fossils of ancient animals:”From the archaeological record, it is clear that these animals were rarely hunted; the images are thus not simple depictions of daily life at the time they were made” (Jean Clottes- Independent Scholar. Met as there are no paintings of human figures, it is unclear if the animals in question were hunted. As for the skeletons, the cave is thousands of years old, as many are the skeletons of bears that simply hibernated.

However, there is a bear skull finely placed on the edge of a stone block- this unusual set up brings up theories between the relationship between human and bears in this cave. Scientists are unsure of any possible stories/rituals that could have taken place here and what paintings could have been centered around this. Other than paintings, engravings are also seen carved into the stone walls, which includes claw marks made by animals. The huge cave was split into categories, or “panels”, by the explorers where specific drawings have been found bunched together(examples are the lion panel and hand stencil panel).

3 beautiful horse heads drawn facing each other in the Chauvet cave.

An example of Paleolithic art featuring lions hunting bison in the Chauvet Cave

Hand stencils can be found. Possibly used as a “signature”.

The paintings are an example of what early language would have stemmed from – from observational drawings of animals, which is then abstracted overtime into pictographs until eventually “written” language(that we take for granted today).



Chauvet, Jean-Marie (1996)– Chauvet Cave. The discovery of the world’s oldest paintings. Thames and Hudson

Diamond, Jared  (2012)- The World Until Yesterday. The New York Times Company.

Harman, Chris (1999)- A People’s History of the World. London: Bookmarks Publications  (p4)



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