Part 2: Social and socio-cultural systems


Primate communication, lies, and ideas

Alison Jolly


Communications which are interestingly symbolic involve a partial detachment from the referent: one criterion of a proto-linguistic mentality is how good it is at lying. Primate taxonomy does not correspond one-to-one with social structures. It correlates more closely with complexity of social intelligence. Our near relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos, have male-bonded societies in which females migrate between troops, and individuals leave and rejoin the group. This means an individual potentially has private information it could share or withhold. Vocalizations of monkeys, and probably apes, contain semantic detail about social relations as well as external threats. Chimpanzees give food-calls in the wild which attract others; in captivity they can lead others to hidden food, and convey its quality. Apes, and occasionally monkeys, deliberately deceive others, concealing both food and sex, and even facial expressions or erections. Apes (but not monkeys) recognize themselves, removing marks from their faces in mirrors, and can take others' roles in shared experiments. The capacities to give or withhold information and to be aware of others' intentions may be pre-requisites for the capacity to manipulate signs detached from the immediate: in other words, to have an idea.



Social relations, human ecology, and the evolution of culture: an exploration of concepts and definitions

Tim Ingold


'Society' and 'culture' are among the most contentious concepts of the human sciences. Sometimes treated as virtually synonymous, sometimes radically distinguished, their study has been maintained as the particular preserve of social and cultural anthropology, at the same time as it has been opened up by biologists to embrace almost the entire field of animal behaviour. This chapter is an attempt to resolve some of the conceptual ambiguities surrounding these notions, through an exploration of both the continuities and the contrasts between the worlds of humanity and of non-human animals. The argument is presented in three main parts. The first examines alternative foundations of sociality, distinguishing its interactive, regulative, and constitutive forms, and establishes the connections between social life, consciousness, and culture. This leads, in the second part, to a discussion of the ways in which human beings and other animals construct their environments, and to a characterization of the connection, established in production, between social and ecological systems. In the third part, a contrast is set up between definitions of culture that emphasize its non-genetic mode of transmission, and those that rest on the symbolic organization of experience. This contrast is linked to the distinction between learning and teaching, and to alternative views of the possible analogies and contrasts between 'biological' and 'cultural' evolution. The chapter concludes with a word on the relation between learning, thinking, and consciousness.


Social relations, communication, and cognition

Andrew Lock and Kim Symes


The human body can be used to communicate either by itself or as a support for a number of 'props'. Bodily communication is often emotional in nature, relying on underlying physiological and physical responses. What evokes these responses is generally learned, and varies across cultures. Expressive repertoires are used to mark social roles and power. These are also marked by using the body as a 'prop' for various adornments, such as tattooing or clothing. The use of body mutilation is related to the permanence of status assignment of individuals in a society, being generally absent from complex, mobile societies, where temporary adornments such as jewellery or clothing take on a larger burden for marking social roles.

The marking of social roles is also reflected in language forms. Many societies have different forms of male and female speech. Female forms of speech tend to be more conservative than male forms, and reflective of 'prestigious' styles used by high status groups. Status, or social power, is widely marked by particular speech-forms in socially stratified societies. Speakers also shift their speech-forms in predictable ways across different social situations, thus marking a society's construction of social contexts.

A number of indices of a society's complexity or 'differentiation' have been put forward. These indicate a trend for societies to become more complex over time; but as they become more complex their elements become less cohesively integrated. This is not a simple relationship, but one involving factors such as an individual's ability to use the resources provided by more complex social organizations to assay novel activities, and to promote the formation of subcultures. Hunter-gatherer societies tend to have low social complexity, while agricultural ones show increasing degrees of complexity. Family structures tend to be related to food-procurement strategies, being of an 'extended' type mainly in sedentary, agricultural societies. Food-accumulation practices also show a relationship to child-rearing practices, tending to emphasize compliance in agricultural societies versus assertion in hunter-gatherer ones.

Social structure, language, thought, 'individuality', and child-rearing practices are elements of human life that have been claimed as interrelated. A central notion in these interrelationships is 'shared presuppositionality'. The essential argument is that high levels of shared knowledge, such as would hold among members of small-scale, undifferentiated societies and in those where social roles are rigidly marked, reduce the need for highly explicit linguistic coding of information for effective communication. The elements of language, both grammatical and lexical, reflect social needs. Less 'elaborated' linguistic structures provide fewer resources for the handling of complex problem-solving the view not that language determines thought, but that it provides the equivalent of a problem-solving 'tool-kit', variously facilitating or hindering certain forms of problem formulation and solution. Both language and social structure also mediate child-rearing practices, and hence the process of cultural reproduction. These interrelations have been explored in a number of studies which stem from different theoretical stances, making the comparison of results difficult. But, while at this point in time it is not possible to specify the exact nature of these interrelationships, their broad outlines can be perceived. These suggest that claims as to the availability of complex language in Upper Palaeolithic societies may be unwarranted, as the relatively simple structure of these societies would have promoted high levels of presuppositionality among their members, enabling effective interpersonal communication to be conducted with quite restricted forms of symbolic language.


On the evolution of human socio-cultural patterns

Randall White


The reconstruction of the development sequence of human socio- cultural evolution is one of the most important and difficult goals of prehistoric archaeology. Until recently, such reconstruction was accomplished speculatively by extrapolating from the present. Archaeologists have now developed a series of methods, many of them unfamiliar to the lay public, for monitoring changes in social patterns and complexity. Applied to the prehistoric record, these methods make possible a general summary of major trends in the evolution of human social patterns. It is clear that prior to 35 000 years ago hominid social patterns were very different from those of the more recent past. Subsequent to 35 000 years ago hominid behaviours reminiscent of those of the present emerged rapidly, and set the stage for the socially complex world of modern times.


The evolution of tools and symbolic behaviour

Thomas Wynn


Tools constitute the most abundant evidence of hominid behaviour over the last two million years. While they have undeniably played an important, if not central, role in hominid ecology, they have also played a role in semiotic behaviour. This role probably had its origins in the agonistic use of tools we still see today in non-human primates. When we first encounter extensive use of stone tools, about two million years ago, the ecological context of use is not dramatically different from that of modern apes, and we may assume that the semiotic role of tools was also comparable. By one million years ago tools present patterns well outside the range of anything we know for apes, tempting some scholars to argue for the presence of language. However, given the cognitive and developmental contrasts between tool behaviour and language, such conclusions are unwarranted. At 300 000 BP the ecological context of tool behaviour was much like that of modern hunting and gathering, but the tools present an enigmatic conservatism in style that suggests a semiotic role very different from that of tools in modern culture. And yet the hominids appear to have had an almost modern intelligence. It is not until relatively late in human evolution, certainly by 15 000, that tools present the volatile time and space patterns typical of the indexical role of modern tools.


A history of the interpretation of European 'Palaeolithic art': Magic, mythogram, and metaphors for modernity

Margaret Conkey


'Palaeolithic art' provides a corpus of evidence that bears on central questions in the study of the evolution of modern human abilities, in that it appears late in the human archaeological record (from around 40 000 years ago), and is almost exclusively associated with Homo sapiens sapiens remains. This 'sudden' appearance is germane to debates concerning the evolutionary continuity of human lineages versus the replacement of earlier populations through migration from a single geographical 'homeland' [the 'Eve hypothesis; see Campbell, and Waddell and Penny, this volume]; the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition [see White, this volume]; and the very sustainability of 'grand narratives' in our understanding of the origins of our symbolic abilities.

How this corpus of 'art' bears on these issues is a question that is only now beginning to be formulated adequately. Our understandings to date have been coloured by our uncritical acceptance of earlier interpretations that have a particular intellectual history. While 'Palaeolithic art' has a worldwide distribution, its interpretation has been essayed on the basis of the rich sites of south-western Europe. Interpretations of these sites and their images are embedded in the presuppositions of their period of discovery - the 19th Century western zeitgeist in which prehistoric 'man' represented a stage in the evolutionary ascent to civilised 'man': a stage associated through analogical metaphors with 'savage', 'primitive' and 'childlike'. Given the sometimes spectacular representation of large animals in this 'classical' corpus at one period, 'Palaeolithic art' came to be seen as involved in rituals particularly as a form of 'hunting magic' (despite the fact that no correlation has been established between the repertoire of animal images and the remains of animals taken as food during this period the images are a 'bestiary', not a 'menu').

This classic corpus of south-western European imagery is spread over a period of 25 000 years. It was created by a wide variety of techniques. It comprises portable pieces (art mobilier) and cave wall decorations (parietal art). It is an open question as to how representative what has survived to the present is of what was created at the time. There is little direct evidence that establishes a clear cut chronological dating of portable or parietal images, either absolutely or relative to each other, with any confidence. Animal images are more frequent than geometric designs or human/anthropomorph images, but the repertoire is quite diverse. It is thus difficult to characterise it adequately, nor can we be confident that any interpretive categories of ours reflect the productive, functional and symbolic categories of its makers. But neither the diversity of the corpus, nor its problematic status, prevented the historical hegemony of the 'foundation hypothesis' of hunting magic from coming to dominate the interpretive landscape.

The first challenge to the 'foundation hypothesis' was made by Leroi-Gourhan around thirty five years ago, in the context of 'structuralist thought'. Thus he sought to show that images were not randomly placed on cave walls, but were placed according to the use of regular rules. From this spatial analysis he essayed a semiotic interpretation based on the differential 'maleness' and 'femaleness' of different classes of the imagery, and established a stylistically-based chronological scheme of sequential styles in a continuous evolutionary schema of styles. Irrespective of the sceptical current status of this interpretation, it served to establish the 'modernity' (as opposed to 'primitivity') of Upper Palaeolithic human cultures, and a status for the 'art' as amenable to study by the methods of scientific inquiry.

Subsequent interpretations located the 'art' in adaptive frameworks, hypothesised to have been generated by ecological influences on the interpretive frameworks of the 'artists', often mediated by shifting human social group structures and inter-group relations that the changing climate of the Upper Palaeolithic period 'forced' on human social subsistence practices (and to which they were able to 'react' successfully by such strategies, strategies that had previously been unavailable as possible ways of reacting). Marshack has pursued a related line, attempting to infer the cognitive capabilities or the 'historical' elaboration of the cognitive technologies that modern cognition uses and is constituted by from the 'properties' of many of the objects he has studied, particularly with respect to calendrical and incipient mathematical systems. Again, in both cases, the security of the underlying premises from which these accounts are essayed is open to critique.

At present, it has become appreciated that 'Palaeolithic art' is polysemic, and no monolithic interpretation is possible. Detailed studies of portions and aspects of the record are being undertaken. On a wider scale, it may prove that the reflexive study of the interpretive frameworks that have been used to characterise 'Palaeolithic art' is a useful way of elucidating the principles and processes that generated the 'art' in the first place [eds].



Photogallery of contemporary hunter-gatherer art

A. Australian Aboriginal art

Andrew Lock and Margaret Nobbs


B. South African Bushman art

David Lewis-Williams, Thomas Dowson, Andrew Lock and Charles Peters


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