an early case of color symbolism - radical radi .hovers et al.an early case of color symbolism f
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C u r r e n t A n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 44, Number 4, AugustOctober 2003 2003 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved 0011-3204/2003/4404-0003$3.50
An Early Case ofColor Symbolism
Ochre Use by Modern Humansin Qafzeh Cave1
by Erella Hovers, Shimon Ilani,Ofer Bar-Yosef, andBernard Vandermeersch
Prehistoric archaeology provides the temporal depth necessaryfor understanding the evolution of the unique human ability toconstruct and use complex symbol systems. The long-standingfocus on language, a symbol system that does not leave directevidence in the material record, has led to interpretations basedon material proxies of this abstract behavior. The ambiguities re-sulting from this situation may be reduced by focusing on sys-tems that use material objects as the carriers of their symboliccontents, such as color symbolism. Given the universality ofsome aspects of color symbolism in extant human societies, thisarticle focuses on the 92,000-year-old ochre record from QafzehCave terrace to examine whether the human capacity for sym-bolic behavior could have led to normative systems of symbolicculture as early as Middle Paleolithic times. Geochemical andpetrographic analyses are used to test the hypothesis that ochrewas selected and mined specifically for its color. Ochre is foundto occur through time in association with other finds unrelatedto mundane tasks. It is suggested that such associations fulfillthe hierarchical relationships that are the essence of a symbolicreferential framework and are consistent with the existence ofsymbolic culture. The implications of these findings for under-standing the evolution of symbolic culture in the contexts of theAfrican and Levantine prehistoric records are explored.
e r e l l a h o v e r s is a lecturer in the Institute of Archaeology,The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Mt. Scopus, Jerusalem91905, Israel [email@example.com]). Her fields of interest in-clude Middle Paleolithic lithic technology and human ecology,
1. Excavations of the Mousterian deposits at Qafzeh Cave in theyears 196573 and 197779 were sponsored by the French Ministryof Foreign Affairs. The petrographic, chemical, and mineralogicalanalyses reported in this study were carried out in the geochemicallaboratories of the Geological Survey of Israel with the help of Y.Deutsch and O. Yoffee. Geological fieldwork was conducted withthe help of E. Zilberman. The geological map of the Qafzeh area(in the electronic edition of this issue) and figure 9 were drawn byN. Sharagai and S. Hoyland. J. Skidel-Rhymer made the drawingsof lithic artifacts, and the photographs were taken by G. Laron atthe Institute of Archaeology. We thank A. Belfer-Cohen and J. Speth,as well as six diligent reviewers, for their comments and usefulsuggestions on previous drafts of this paper. [Supplementary ma-terials appear in the electronic edition of this issue on the journalsweb page (http://www.journals.uchicago/edu/CA/home.html).]
the evolution of symbolic behavior and of human cognition andconsciousness, and the archaeology of the Late Pliocene andearly Pleistocene.
s h i m o n i l a n i is a researcher in the Geological Survey of Is-rael. His main interests are petrography, mineralogy, andgeochemistry.
o f e r b a r - y o s e f is a professor in the Department of Anthro-pology at Harvard University. He is interested in the cultural se-quence of the Middle Paleolithic, the demise of the Neandertals,the emergence of Upper Paleolithic entities, and the Neolithicrevolution in the Near East.
b e r n a r d v a n d e r m e e r s c h , now retired, was a professor ofphysical anthropology at the University of Bordeaux. He is inter-ested in human evolution, particularly in the issues of Neander-tals and modern humans and their cultural and environmentalcontext.
The present paper was submitted 1 ix 02 and accepted 9 x 02.
For many researchers the ability to create arbitrary re-lationships between ideas and their referentsthat is, toconstruct and use complex symbolic systemsis the de-fining characteristic of Homo sapiens. Biologists, cog-nitive scientists, and philosophers address questionsabout the origins and functions of these higher cognitiveabilities. In this context, it is prehistoric archaeology thatprovides information about the time frames and tem-poral depth involved in these evolutionary processes.Thus archaeologists are constantly searching for earlymanifestations of symbolic behavior in the prehistoricrecord.
Language, considered the most complex symbol sys-tem used by H. sapiens, is often the focus of discussionin the various disciplines which aim to understand hu-man symbolism. Unfortunately, the prehistoric record ofnonliterate societies by definition cannot contain directevidence for the existence of language, an abstract entity.In the absence of such evidence, archaeologists constructever-broadening tiers of interpretation, attempting torecognize material proxies for language in the archaeo-logical record and to infer from them the cognitive fac-ulties that underlie them. Indeed, many of the debatesin the recent archaeological literature on the evolutionof modern behavior and symbolism stem from disagree-ments among researchers about such inferences.
There is a solution to this conundrum. Ethnographicevidence suggests that in many societies there exist sym-bolic networks in which material objects are the sym-bols. Among these, symbolic color systems are wide-spread and shared by many societies. If similar systemsexisted in the prehistoric past, it would make sense forarchaeologists to identify and study them directlythrough their preserved material manifestations ratherthan speculating about the meanings of material objectsfor understanding the evolution of language.
A rich prehistoric record of pigment use indicates thatred and black pigments are relatively ubiquitous in Pa-leolithic habitation and quarry sites, from the Plio/Pleis-tocene to Upper Paleolithic (Late Stone Age) times (Bar-ham 1998; Bednarik 1992b; Bordes 1952; dErrico andSoressi 2002; Henshilwood et al. 2001, 2002; Marshack
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1981, 1989; McBrearty and Brooks 2000; Solecki 1982;Watts 1999; Wreschner 1983). There is an increase overtime in the frequency of pigment occurrence in the pre-historic record, but although it occurs at different timesin different regions, in general it can be placed in thecontext of the Middle Stone Age/Middle Paleolithic inAfrica and in Europe, respectively. It is therefore withinthis time period that we look for indications of the useof pigments in a symbolic rather than a utilitarian con-text. In this paper we examine the ochre finds from theMiddle Paleolithic deposits of Qafzeh Cave, Israel, andevaluate the possibility that their occurrence was relatedto the operation of a symbolic cultural system.
Humans today routinely engage in symbolic behavior.It is often a premeditated activity with symbols at itscore (e.g., the playing of national anthems at formal re-ceptions for heads of states). In more mundane contexts,encoded information about socioeconomic status maybe emitted purposefully by ones fashion statements orunconsciously by ones table manners, whereas theposter of a rock star symbolizes her to people who havenever met her. And yet, although symbolic behaviortakes place all around us, understanding it is not simplebecause symbols themselves are not simple (Deacon1997). In the examples just mentioned symbolic behavioroccurs in a number of referential frameworks. To thedegree that symbol systems reflect the logic of thoughtprocesses in the modern human mind (Peirce 1897 and1903, as discussed by Deacon 1997), they incorporatethree fundamental forms of referential associations: (1)Icons point to their referents by resembling them (as inthe case of the rock star poster). (2) Indices are mediatedby some redundant physical or temporal association be-tween sign and object (the tag of an expensive designeron ones clothes is indexical of the amount of moneyone can afford to invest in clothing). (3) Symbols aremediated by arbitrary, formal, or agreed-upon links, ir-respective of the physical characteristics of either thesignifier or the signified (see also Chase 1991), as is thecase with flags, national anthems, and team colors.
The following discussion revolves around symbols, themost complex of these referential associations, but it isimportant to recognize that they invariably rest on afoundation of icons and indices. Iconic reference is thedefault, basic, and irreducible referential form. At theother end of the scale, symbolic reference is based onthe recognition that the relationship of a sign to an objectis more than just a function of their co-occurrence (whichwould count only as an indexical relationship). Symbolsrefer to things in the world indirectly and by virtue ofreferring to other symbols. We recognize that there is anindexical relationship between the tag of an expensivedesigner and the amount of money invested in buyingclothes made by him, and we make the additional ref-erence that this relationship is itself indexical of socio-logical status and economic ability; the tag becomes asymbol of socioeconomic success. Symbolic referencestems from combinatorial possibilities and impossibil-ities. The referential powers of symbols are derived fromtheir positions in an organized system of other symbols.
These allow the recognition of higher-order regularities,which in turn enable symbolic predictions. This processfacilitates the construction (learning) of symbols andtheir deconstruction and use (interpreting them and thuscommunicating through them).
Of all the symbolic behaviors in which H. sapiens en-gages, language is judged the most complex and consid-ered a unique trait