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This paper argues that the origins of language can be detected one million years ago, if not earlier, in the archaeological record of Homo erectus. This controversial claim is based on a broad theoretical and evidential foundation with language defined as communication based on symbols rather than grammar. Peirce’s theory of signs (semiotics) underpins our analysis with its progression of signs (icon, index and symbol) used to identify artefact forms operating at the level of symbols. We draw on generalisations about the multiple social roles of technology in pre-industrial societies and on the contexts tool-use among non-human primates to argue for a deep evolutionary foundation for hominin symbol use. We conclude that symbol-based language is expressed materially in arbitrary social conventions that permeate the technologies of Homo erectus and its descendants, and in the extended planning involved in the caching of tools and in the early settlement of island Southeast Asia.
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Semiotics and the Origin of Language
in the Lower Palaeolithic
Lawrence Barham
&Daniel Everett
#The Author(s) 2020
This paper argues that the origins of language can be detected one million years ago, if
not earlier, in the archaeological record of Homo erectus. This controversial claim is
based on a broad theoretical and evidential foundation with language defined as
communication based on symbols rather than grammar. Peirces theory of signs
(semiotics) underpins our analysis with its progression of signs (icon, index and
symbol) used to identify artefact forms operating at the level of symbols. We draw
on generalisations about the multiple social roles of technology in pre-industrial
societies and on the contexts tool-use among non-human primates to argue for a deep
evolutionary foundation for hominin symbol use. We conclude that symbol-based
language is expressed materially in arbitrary social conventions that permeate the
technologies of Homo erectus and its descendants, and in the extended planning
involved in the caching of tools and in the early settlement of island Southeast Asia.
Keywords Language evolution .Peirce's theory of signs .Tools as symbols .Acheulean
technology .Sea-faring
Language is biocultural behaviour (Darwin 1871;Sapir1927;White1940;Deacon
1997; Tomasello 2005; Christiansen et al. 2009; Fitch 2010; Arbib 2018); thus,
research into its origins is necessarily an interdisciplinary exercise. Models of language
origins typically integrate social, cognitive, anatomical and genetic data as well as
broad comparative perspectives drawn from ethology (Tallerman and Gibson 2012).
Archaeology provides the critical time depth for model building. Although there is
*Lawrence Barham
University of Liverpool, Department of Archaeology, Classics & Egyptology, Liverpool, UK
Bentley University, Department of Sociology, Waltham, MA, USA
Published online: 10 August 2020
Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (2021) 28:535–579
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broad agreement that symbols are crucial to language, there is profound disagreement
on what constitutes language, when it evolved and on the interpretation of the material
evidence (e.g. Noble and Davidson 1996;Deacon1997; Corballis 2002;Hauseret al.
2002; Everett 2017; Fitch 2017;Boëet al. 2019).
We take a uniformitarian approach which assumes language evolved by natural
selection from a primate heritage of vocal and gestural communication. Our theoretical
foundation combines Peircessemiotics(1977), which distinguishes between index,
icon and symbol, with ethnolinguistic data which challenge preconceptions about the
inherent grammatical complexity of language (Everett 2005; Jackendoff and
Wittenberg 2014).
Both sources enable us to broaden the search for the beginnings
of language beyond the current consensus among archaeologists on what constitutes
evidence of symbol use (e.g. Klein 2017). Comparative ethnographic and anatomical
evidence also shows that language, defined here as communication based on symbols,
does not depend on either a broad vocal repertoire or a fully modern vocal tract (Böe
et al. 2017; Fitch 2018). We use these data to offer a model for a simple grammatical
structure in the earliest language, with recursive grammar a later and non-essential
component of language.
Sociological, ethnographic and ethological observations provide evidence of a
central role for tools in the construction of society (Pfaffenberger 1992;Latour1992;
Hodder 1994,2012; Gosden and Marshall 1999;Ingold2001; Skibo and Schiffer
2008). Contemporary societies have names for tools and conventions for their making,
and they carry expressive meaning beyond their utilitarian ends (Arthur 2018). In
Peirces semiotic scheme, names are symbols, and by implication, the earliest evidence
of symbols lies in conventional tool forms and the strategies for making them. Our
summary in this paper of Peirces scheme has a secondary aim which is to reintroduce
the study of signs to evolutionary cognitive archaeology as a complement to current
models drawn from cognitive science (Wynn 2017). We do not set out to offer an
entirely new theory of the origin of language, but rather a new perspective on the
evidence base that supports the thesis that Homo erectus had language.
We begin with a brief review of the philosophical and historical context of the
current debate over language origins, highlighting the contrast between punctuated and
gradualist models. The hypothesis of a recent and rapid appearance of language, as
defined by symbols organised in complex nested grammatical structures (recursion),
continues to dominate interpretations of the archaeological record (e.g. Bolhuis et al.
2014; Klein 2008,2017). This non-Darwinian perspective on language origins is
founded on the work of the linguist Chomsky (1955,1965). Proponents of gradualist
hypotheses tend to posit a protolanguage phase which precedes the emergence of
recursion-based language (e.g. Donald 1991; Corballis 2002;Bickerton2014). We
highlight previous applications of Peirces theory of signs to the issue of language
evolution (Deacon 1997,2010; Cousins 2014;Everett2017). Our approach differs in
accepting symbol use with a simple grammar as sufficient evidence for the existence of
language with no need for a protolanguage. A three-part evolutionary typology of
grammars lies at the foundation of Everettsmodel(2017), in which symbols arose as a
A brief definition of Peircean signs, to be elaborated as our discussion progresses, is as follows: icon
physical similarity (in shape, image, size, colour, etc.); indexphysical connection or relation in terms of
time, space, or causality; and symbolconventional link between the object, interpretant and form of the sign.
536 Barham and Everett
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distinctive form of communication based on arbitrary conventions of meaning gener-
ated in cultural contexts (Everett 2016).
We then outline a theoretical foundation that defines symbols and considers the
social contexts of symbol use in relation to technology. First is Peircestheoryofsigns
and his concept of a semiotic progression from icon to index to symbol (Peirce 1998;
Fisch 1986). Second, we draw generalisations about tools as symbols from observa-
tions by sociologists and anthropologists of contemporary and pre-industrial societies.
These observations highlight the social construction of the meaning of tools and how
decisions about production methods reflect social conventions (e.g. Latour 1992;
Killick 2001). This section concludes with an assessment of the non-human primate
capacity to generate perceptual and conceptual categories of objects (Grüber et al.
2015) as evidence of a deep evolutionary foundation for constructing symbols. Modern
humans are distinctive among animals for using tools as symbols.
We then examine the early archaeological record for evidence of socially construct-
ed conventions (symbols) with a focus on the Acheulean of Africa and Eurasia from
about one million years ago onwards when conventional tool forms become a recurrent
feature of the archaeological record. The evidence takes the form of regional and
chronological changes in approaches to making large bifaces (cleavers, hand-axes),
and in the life history of these technologies which demonstrate spatially extended
chaîne opératoires including the caching of tools in the landscape (Preysler et al.
2018). Multiple ways of achieving similar ends (equifinality) become evident in core
preparation strategies at this time (Sharon 2009; Galloti and Mussi 2017)whichwe
interpret as evidence of culturally governed choices among viable alternatives (Latour
1992; Pfaffenberger 2001). Semantic scaffolds (words or gestures as labels) would
have eased the cognitive demands created by some core strategies which involved
nested hierarchies of steps in blank production (Herzlinger et al.2017). Language
(speech and gesture based) would also have facilitated the teaching of such complex
routine to novices (Morgan et al. 2015; Gärdenfors and Högberg 2017:201). Evidence
in the Acheulean for the caching of hand-axes is indicative of extended future planning,
and arguably for abstract thought which is the foundation of symbol construction
(Gärdenfors 2004). Language without complex grammar was sufficient for the trans-
mission of all these aspects of Acheulean technological behaviours.
Additional support exists for an early emergence of language in the settlement of
island Southeast Asia by hominins ~ 800,000 years ago (Bednarik 1997,2014; van den
Bergh et al. 2016;Ingiccoet al. 2018). Early sea crossings arguably involved levels of
coordinated planning and action that exceed the communicative capacity of gestures
The structure of our argument, building on Peirce, addresses five questions raised by
Ingold (1993):337) and others since (Noble and Davidson 1996;Corbeyet al. 2016;
Tennie et al. 2016; Shea 2017) on the utility of hand-axes as evidence for early
language: (1) can the longevity of the hand-axe (and cleaver) as forms be evidence
of cultural norms given there is no modern analogue for such persistence; (2) does such
persistence necessitate cultural transmission; (3) did the objects conform to a represen-
tation in the mind of the maker; (4) do they tell us anything about hominin sociality;
and (5) might they have had communicative or semiotic as well as technical func-
tions?We return to these questions in the discussion and conclude with the implica-
tions of attributing language to Homo erectus and erectus-like species.
537Semiotics and the Origin of Language in the Lower Palaeolithic
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From Plato to Chomsky: Epistemologies of Language Origins
A fundamental division characterises current research on how and when language
began. The split lies along deep philosophical fault lines that separate Platonists
who believe in universal or innate ideas shared by all humans (Defez 2013)and the
Aristotelian view of language as an inherently cultural phenomenon, learned in social
contexts from a young age (Corballis 2002; Tomasello 2005,2014; Everett 2016,
247ff) and based on neurobiological capacities for acquiring language (see Tallerman
and Gibson 2012 for a summary of a debate on language specific vs. generalised
biological structures for language learning).
These contrasting positions formed the basis of discussions on the origins of
language in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Platos perspective of language
as an innately human faculty was transformed into a theological position of human
exceptionalism explained by the divine origin of reason (Müller 1864). The Société
Linguistique de Paris, in 1866, famously decreed that it would no longer discuss the
issue at its meetings as it was an insoluble metaphysical problem (Defez 2013). Darwin
(1871) took a more broadly comparative approach to the problem of language origins,
finding continuity between human and non-human forms of communication. Natural
and sexual selection supplanted, in his view, essentialism as mechanisms for under-
standing how language evolved. Darwins gradualist view of language origins follows
from his view of evolution as an accumulative process that can produce complexity.
New traits emerge from existing traits, and abilities related to human language will be
found in other species, and particularly among primates.
Platonism returned in force in the mid-twentieth century with the work of Chomsky
(e.g. 1956,1965,1959,1995). In his Transformational-Generative Grammar (or
Minimalism), language is a grammatical system above all else. Chomskysembrace
of Cartesian dualism leads him to reject Darwins idea that we might find the precursors
of human language in other species (Berwick and Chomsky 2016). Indeed Chomsky
and his followers have argued explicitly against Darwinism (e.g. Piatelli-Palmarini
2010), in favour of the position of Alfred Wallace that language could not result from
Darwinian evolution. Bickerton (2014) refers to this as Wallaces Problem.
In the late twentieth century, the case for language as product of gradual natural
selection was articulated by Pinker and Bloom (1990). More recently, the evolution of
language has been framed in the context of more holistic approaches to cultural evolution
which recognise the importance of social learning in the acquisition of language
(Richerson and Boyd 2005;Tomasello2005), and in the gradual development of linguis-
tic structures (e.g. Christiansen and Kirby 2003; Steels 2012;Hurford2004,2014).
Models of Language Origins and the Interpretation of the Archaeological Record
Given Chomskys enormous influence in linguistics and related disciplines, a philo-
sophical divide continues between supporters of a recent punctuated origin of language
and those who maintain a gradualist evolutionary position (summarised in Tallerman
and Gibson 2012; Haspelmath 2020). The material evidence used by both camps
incorporates both the archaeological and fossil record, with inferences drawn about
In Wallace (2009), Wallace argues that natural selection cannot account for the mental faculties of man.
538 Barham and Everett
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the need for language (symbols) in relation to the hierarchical complexity of a task
(Wynn 2002), and from the fossil record in relation to the capacity to produce speech as
a component of language (e.g. Lieberman 2007). We start with the essentialist position
of Chomsky and illustrate its lasting impact on archaeological theory and method. The
gradualist position lacks a figurehead and instead manifests itself in a variety of
accretionary hypotheses including our semiotics-based position presented here.
A Punctuated Origin
The most enduring model developed since the 1950s is that of Chomsky, in which
human language is distinguished from other forms of communication by the presence
of hierarchical recursive grammar generated by a computational system in the brain,
independently of cultural context (Chomsky 1965; Chomsky and Scutzenberger 1963;
Hauser et al. 2002). Recursion involves embedding sub-phrases into phrases of similar
type, and in theory enabling an unlimited range of sentences (and meanings) to be
constructed from a limited range of sounds. According to this innatist view, all modern
humans are born with this uniquely human faculty for producing language with
recursion (universal grammar) which arose suddenly in Homo sapiens from a genetic
mutation in the brain sometime between 70,000 and 50,000 years ago (Bolhuis et al.
2014). The most relevant archaeological evidence for language takes the form of
proxies for symbol use because language is interdependent with symbolic thought
(Bolhuis et al. 2014:3). Botha (2010):202) adds the requirement of a bridging theory
between claimed evidence for symbol use and fully syntactical language (or recursion).
Such a theory should incorporate testable hypotheses, such as those drawn from
neuroscience, marshal factual evidence and not be ad hoc. At the core of this approach
is a computational model of the mind in which the language mutation represents a
marked increase in information processing capacity, independent of cultural context.
The proposition that recursion is the essence of language has never been fully
accepted by all linguists (see Tallerman and Gibson 2012), but it entered the main-
stream of archaeological interpretation in the 1970s in a regional analysis of the Middle
to Upper Palaeolithic transition in southwestern France (Mellars 1973). Stark contrasts
were drawn between the two behavioural records produced by two different species,
Neanderthals and Homo sapiens respectively. These became the unintended foundation
of the concept of a more general Human Revolution(Mellars 1989,2005)inwhich
symbol use and complex (recursive) language marked the emergence of behavioural
modernity (Henshilwood and Marean 2003).
The human faculty for producing recursive grammar, or its equivalent fully
syntactical language, features consistently as the key advantage that Homo sapiens
possessed over other hominins, especially in relation to Neanderthals. The Middle to
Upper Palaeolithic transition reflects this underlying difference in communicative
superiority, with anatomically modern humans able to produce a range of behaviours
far beyond the capacity of Neanderthals (Mellars 1973,1989,2005). Complex lan-
guage enabled the development of new kinds of standardised stone tools (blades),
organic artefacts, long-distance transport of materials, new subsistence behaviours and
objects bearing symbolic value as well as the capacity to innovate quickly. Symbolic
value was recognised to reside in abstractions such as cave and portable art as well as
personal jewellery and the act of burial with grave goods.
539Semiotics and the Origin of Language in the Lower Palaeolithic
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The relatively abrupt transition from the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic marked a
symbolic explosion which must reflect the existence of relatively complicated and
highly structured forms of languageassociated with H. sapiens (Mellars 1989:359).
Similar interpretations were made of this transition in the 1980s and 1990s (Chase and
Dibble 1987; Davidson and Noble 1989; Byers 1994) with the more recent addition of
demographic superiority as a consequence of the human capacity for innovation
founded on fully syntactic language (Mellars and French 2011).
Elements of the Revolutionhave since been found in the African Middle
Stone Age (from 300,000 years ago with regionally variable end dates) associ-
ated with Homo sapiens, supporting arguments for an earlier development of
symbol use in Africa than in Europe (McBrearty and Brooks 2000;
Henshilwood and Marean 2003; Barham and Mitchell 2008;Wadley2015).
This evidence has been incorporated into the essentialist paradigm as evidence
of the language mutation occurring as early as 70,000 years ago with Homo
sapiens in Africa (Bolhuis et al. 2014), or even later once there is consistent
rather than episodic evidence of symbolic behaviours in the African record
(Klein 2008,2017; see Fisher 2017 for a critique of the genetic evidence).
The latter interpretation takes an absolutist position that Dawkins, in a blogpost
(2011), calls the tyranny of the discontinuous mindwhich is blind to intermedi-
aries. Clear discontinuities should exist, in this extreme view, between the modern
human capacity for recursion-based language and the more limited linguistic capacities
of other hominins (Zilhão 2019). Recent discoveries of evidence for the capacity of
Neanderthals to create a range of symbolic objects appear to give this hominin
membership in the once exclusive club of symbol makers (e.g. dErrico and Stringer
2011;Finlaysonet al. 2012;Aubertet al. 2014; Villa and Roebroeks 2014;Jaubert
et al. 2016;Hoffmannet al. 2018). There have been challenges to the claims of
Neanderthal authorship of rock art based on issues of contamination with the dating,
and similarly with the early dates attributed to some personal ornaments (White et al.
2019; Pons-Branchu et al. 2020).
An extended assessment of the evidence for Neanderthal symbol use and
language concludes that to organise the hunting of large game they had to refer
to abstractions of space and time in the planning (i.e. not here, not now). To do
so required the capacity to construct arbitrary Saussurean linguistic signs
Botha (2020):155) which in Peirces semiotics (below) would be symbols. He
concludes that they lacked the necessary brain structures to produce complex
grammar (recursion), but may have had the capacity to string together simple
sentences. In the gradualist model developed in this paper, the capacity to
create symbols is sufficient for language with no need for complex grammar
to communicate complex thought. If we attribute this capacity to Neanderthals,
then parsimony points to an earlier origin of language with the common
ancestor of H. sapiens and Neanderthals (Deacon and Wurz 2001), now thought
to have existed at least 600,000 years ago (Martinon-Torres et al. 2018;Welker
et al. 2020), or to convergence through separate, independent evolution. The
first position opens the door to the roots of language with Homo erectus or its
descendants, and the second suggests the foundations for symbol making were
widespread among other hominins, with the possibility that language evolved
independently more than once.
540 Barham and Everett
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A Gradual Evolution of Language
Gradualist models have a long pedigree (Darwin 1871), but placed in the time frame of
Chomskys influence, a variety of approaches have emerged that vary in emphasis on
the biological or cultural factors influencing the origin of language, and in their
interpretation of the archaeological record (e.g. Donald 1991; Dunbar 1996; Noble
and Davidson 1996; Mithen 1996; Power 2009; Corballis 2002; Bickerton 1990,
Bickerton 2014; Coolidge and Wynn 2009;Rossano2010; Lombard and Gärdenfors
2017). Deacon (1989; 2010), Cousins (2014) and Everett(2017) stand apart from other
gradualists in using Peirces theory of signs. None is an archaeologist, which is
noteworthy given the rarity of engagement with Peirce by Palaeolithic archaeologists
(Iliopoulos 2016;Wynn2017; Ruck and Uomini in press). This reluctance by archae-
ologists to apply semiotics to the deep past may reflect unfamiliarity with Peirces
work, or resistance to it because of its association in recent decades with structuralism
and the post-structuralist critique of positivist science (Preucel 2006). In this context,
the work of evolutionary biologist Deacon (1997) marks a key development in using
Peirces triad of signs (icon, index and symbols) as a framework for the evolution of
human consciousness. He argues that only humans represent or give meaning to
experience through arbitrary symbols (language) and that Homo erectus had the
capacity to form language-based societies, but lacked the anatomical ability to produce
articulate speech, citing Liebermans reconstruction of the anatomical constraints of the
pre-sapiens larynx (Lieberman 1984). These societies communicated using a mix of
limited sounds that carried symbolic meaning coupled with gesture, and over time, a
linguistic niche evolved (though cf. Everett 2016, 170ff for a critique of niche
construction theory). The coevolution of an extended childhood and articulate lan-
guage followed a Baldwinian trajectory which favours the selection for traits which
facilitate social learning (Deacon 2010).
Deacons characterisation of the limited capacity for articulate speech with
H. erectus plays a critical role in his gradualist model of a developing language niche.
That status of the vocal tract as critical to articulate speech production has since been
challenged (see Laitman 1984; Boe et al. 2013;deBoer2017;Fitch2018;Boëet al.
2019 for syntheses of human and non-human primate evidence and Dediu et al. 2017
for variability of the vocal tract in modern human populations). The fossil evidence
now indicates that modern-like speech and auditory capacities had evolved by at least
430,000 years ago in the ancestor of Neanderthals and Denisovans (Martínez et al.
2004,2008; Gómez-Olivencia et al. 2007; Dediu and Levinson 2013; Steele et al.
2013;Aboitz2018). The neurological control of breathing to produce articulate speech
may have evolved as early as 1.8 Ma with Homo erectus, but was not present in
australopithecines (Meyer 2016; Meyer and Haeusler 2015;cf. MacLarnon and Hewitt
Comparative linguistic data provides additional support for the observation that only
a few sounds are needed to produce language (Newbrand 1951; Firchow and Firchow
1969; Everett 1979), and the majority of the worlds languages (6070%) employ tones
to distinguish words (Yip 2002) along with other prosodic features that rely on
laryngeal features that do not implicate the vocal apparatus directly (Everett 2012).
Homo erectus, and other hominins, could have used tones to supplement a small
541Semiotics and the Origin of Language in the Lower Palaeolithic
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phonemic inventory to clarify, as all tone languages do, words that might otherwise
sound alike.
Cousins (2014):163), a cultural psychologist, uses Peirces framework to argue for a
semiotic coevolutionof the capacity for meaning-making with supportive cognitive,
social and vocal structures. Agreed meaning is only adaptive in the context of cultur-
ally grounded knowledge about the world conventions, narrative, beliefs(Cousins
2014:164). In this model, cultural knowledge emerged from tool-making, starting with
the Oldowan, as a physical nexus for cooperation between individuals. Tool-making,
language and social learning co-evolved, creating a distinctive cultural niche. As with
Deacon, Cousins (2014):164) posits an initial protolanguage based on a few words
(symbols) which gradually evolves through Baldwinian selection into more a gram-
matically complex language.
Everett (2008,2016,2017) applies his perspective as an ethnolinguist, with a long
experience working among South American hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists, to
developing a model of language evolution that draws directly on Peircestheoryof
signs. Underlying Everetts approach is a three-stage typology of grammatical com-
plexity that recognises the variability observed among contemporary languages, in-
cluding those lacking recursion, as found in some small-scale societies (Jackendoff
1999; Everett 2005;Gil2009; Jackendoff and Wittenberg 2014). A meta-analysis of
the morphological and syntactical structures of > 2000 languages has shown a signif-
icant correlation between group size and language structure (Lupyan and Dale 2010).
Speakers of languages in small societies use fewer words, but more inflection to
express meaning than speakers of languages in large groups who typically rely on
increased word content and grammatical complexity to convey meaning.
In Everetts typology, the most basic grammar, referred to as G1,hasalinearword
order (subject-verb-object) that conveys meaning (Fig. 1). G2languages have hierar-
chical structures but no recursion (Fig. 2), and G3languages have recursion (Fig. 3)
(Everett 2017: Chapter 9). In this hierarchy of grammars, there is no need for a
protolanguage in language evolution; a G1language is sufficient to convey nuanced,
abstract meaning. G1languages evolved first, with recursion a late and unnecessary
expectation for early languages (Karlsson 2009; Everett 2012). G1G3coexist today
with G1and G2languages found in societies without written languages (Everett 2005;
Gil 2009).
The empirical differences in these three grammars are illustrated diagrammatically
using sentences 13, in Fig. 1ac:
1 John came in the room. John sat. John slept.
2 John entered the room by the garden. John slept.
3 John came in the room, sat, and slept.
The illustrations in Fig. 1acconform to a G1 grammar.
In these diagrams, there are no category labels, e.g. nounor verb, and no phrase
labels, such as verb phrase. The simplest grammatical structure would be a linear
arrangement of words as a proposition/sentence. There are modern languages repre-
sented by G1 grammars, for example, Pirahã (see also Futrell et al. 2016; Everett and
Gibson 2019) but also Warlpiri, Wargamay, Hixkaryána, Kayardild, Gavião and Amele
among others (Pullum 2020).
542 Barham and Everett
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A G2 grammar would allow the structure in Fig. 2which shows hierarchical nesting
of sub-phrases.
A G3 grammar would allow structures such as that shown in Fig. 3.
Two sentences are contained in or dominated bythe highest sentence making this
a grammar without constraints on recursion.
Everett(2017) uses Peirces theory of signs (below) to outline an evolutionary
pathway to symbol-based language based on speech and gestures. The archaeological
record of Homo erectus provides the material evidence for concluding that this hominin
Fig. 1 acThree diagrams illustrating the linear sentence structures enabled by G1 languages
Fig. 2 An example of the hierarchical nesting of sub-phrases in a G2 language
543Semiotics and the Origin of Language in the Lower Palaeolithic
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used symbols and at least a G1level of language to transmit complex cultural
knowledge (Everett 2016). We develop that evidence in detail here.
Defining and Recognising Symbols; Peirces Semiotics
Between the late 1800s and his death in 1914, Peirce developed one of the most
comprehensive philosophical programs since Aristotle. Semiotics, the theory of signs,
was Peirces focus and touchstone (Peirce 1992,1998). His symbolic system was the
result of neither nature nor nurture, but was constrained by logic (as it in turn
constrained logic), a theory opposed to Cartesian dualism, introspection and intuition,
all of which Peirce considered deeply unscientific. Perhaps because of the popularity of
the simpler, dyadic semiotic system of Saussure (1916 [1983]), those unfamiliar with
the triadic Peircean system might be excused for confusing signs and symbols. Whereas
Saussure postulated only a dyadic sign-form-meaning composite, Peirce postulates a
triadic theory of signs.
Peirce contended that all living systems communicate with their surroundings by
responding to visual, acoustic and chemical cues (signs); a founding principle of
biosemiotics (Barbieri 2008) and zoosemiotics (see Delahaye 2019 for an overview
of these fields). In this framework, signs communicate an object to an interpreter, and
the response by the interpreter is called the interpretant (Peirce 1998). Most signs
(indexes and icons, below) do not require conventions to understand and respond to the
Fig. 3 Diagram of the embedded structure of a G3 language with recursion
544 Barham and Everett
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cues, but humans in particular generate meaning from signs based on socially learned
conventions (symbols).
The ability to use symbols exists among non-human primates as in the case of the
bonobo, Kanzi, who was taught by humans to communicate using visual symbols
(Gibson 2002; Savage-Rumbaugh et al. 2004). Vocal symbols also exist among some
primates, as in the case of vervet monkeys which learn over time how to respond to the
groups alarm calls linked to specific external threats (Ribiero et al. 2006). Vervet
symbol use, however, differs from the human faculty for using symbols to generate a
potentially infinite number of new combinations and meanings (Piantadosi and
Fedorenko 2017).
Peirces theory of signs encompasses a wide empirical range, and we discuss only
five key components needed for understanding our claim that H. erectus possessed a
symbolic system and language: icon, index, symbol, object and interpretant.
Icons resemble their referents (objects). They are not merely reflections, photos or
drawings and can be anything which resembles in some way. For example, ground
moisture level can be a cue or icon, tellingan earthworm to surface. When an
earthworm decidesthe amount of water that passes its threshold, the amount of
water is an icon of maximum tolerable exposure. A human faces reflection in the water
is an icon of the face (and other faces generally). In grammar, examples of iconicity can
be seen in the fact that prepositions with more content (before,towards) tend to be
longer than prepositions with less content (to,in).
Indexes signal a spatial, temporal or other physical relationship with the object. A
mouse rustling in grass is an acoustic index-sign to a cat. Humans also use indexes
(smells, footprints, sounds) and images, and natural tolerances, such as temperature,
taste and texture, but use more complex versions of these signs. Indexes may be
pronouns like here,there, or simply pointing to something where the line from
the pointing appendage to the object is an imaginary connection.
A symbol is in general any sign by which the form signals its meaning by a
conventional cultural interpretation, linking object, interpretant and the sign. The
symbol dogmeans Canis familiaris in English because the culture from which
dogemerged valued this concept and agreed (by practice) to link the phonetic form,
i.e. oral sign, [d g] with the object, a specific dog or the class of dogs, via aculturally
agreed interpretation.
Indexes and icons in language function only because their forms and relations are
conventional, that is they are simultaneously symbolic and indexical, symbols-as-icons
and symbols-as-indexes. This multiplicity of meaning also applies to material objects,
such as a steel butter knife which operates simultaneously as an icon of the category of
knife, an index of the metal, its properties and intended function/spreading movement,
and as a symbol of the process of preparing food or the habitual time of use, such as
breakfast. These multiple functions coexist in the object, and as habituated users we are
unaware of these learned associations and the range of interpretations they represent.
Humans and animals overlap in using indexes and icons and needing to interpret them,
they differ in that humans use and create symbols habitually, and no known non-human
systems require or manifest culturally productive symbols (Hurford 2004; Piantadosi
and Fedorenko 2017).Yet no human language lacks symbols (Everett 2016), and we
have the socio-cognitive foundations for creating symbols (Callaghan 2020).
545Semiotics and the Origin of Language in the Lower Palaeolithic
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Once symbols have arisen through convention (e.g. recognising a tool as more than
an icon and an index, but also a symbol of craftsmanship, cultural purpose and personal
identity), how does this new set of conventional signs acquire a grammar? Bates and
Goodman (1999), Goldberg (2019) and Fedorenko et al. (2012), inter alia,offera
valuable clue. Symbols (what these authors refer to as words and constructions)are
claimed to be not only logically prior to grammar, as Peirce would claim, but also
psychologically foundational for grammar (Bates and Goodman 1999) and neurolog-
ically more significant than grammar per se (Fedorenko et al. 2012). The grammar of
symbols becomes in this view, the choiceof how to arrange the symbols of a
particular culture (Everett 2012,2017). This arrangement can be complicated as in
many modern languages, but given the variation found in the worldslanguages,there
is no one model of complexity required for the first languages contra Chomsky (1995).
1is the simplest option for communicating meaning, and logically the
earliest in a gradualist model of language evolution.
Chase (1991) considers stone tools as iconic objects created as a result of an
understanding of the cause and effect relationship of the properties of stone in relation
to the laws of physics. But as Cousins (2014):179) observes, there is nothing inherent in
the stone that leads to an awareness of the variables to be managed in order to strike a
flake from a core with consistency. The physical properties of the core, the hammer,
and the control of the angle and force of blow are not inherent in the materials; they are
interpretations made of the materials as part of a process of meaning-making. This is a
semiotic perspective which then raises issues of the context of learningis it shared
intentionally through teaching (e.g. Morgan et al. 2015; Lombao et al. 2017)orlearned
individually by trial and error (Tennie et al. 2016)?
Wynn (1993):402) acknowledges that certain elaborated tools, like hand-axes, can
be indexes of the hierarchical process of making the object and come to represent the
maker. If the object represents an activity and the maker, and does so through repetition
rather than shared intention, then in Wynns perspective, the hand-axe is an index.
When shared intention is involved, then the object becomes a symbol. The question
becomes how do archaeologists, as observers of the objects separated by deep time
from the social contexts of makers and users, recognize shared intention in the
Palaeolithic record? The question is not new (see Holloway 1969), and we incorporate
the two criteria, restated by Davidson (2002):181), of Noble and Davidson (1996)into
our analysis: the manufacture of tools of preconceived form, produced outside the
immediate context of use, must entail a representation of intention, something that we
may consider indicative of language as communication using symbols.
The difficulty of distinguishing between icon and symbol in objects which are
unfamiliar to us is one reason archaeologists have focused on representational images
in cave art as markers of symbol use (e.g. Mellars 1973,1989,2005). These images show
contemplation and attention to meaning, but in the absence of other contextual data,
representational (depictive) art is notsymbolic. It is only iconic, but non-representational
images, such as the abundant dots and grids in Upper Palaeolithic cave art (Bahn and
Vertut 1997), have potential symbolic content given they are arbitrary, repeated forms.
Symbols can originate in many ways, exploiting the different senses, including
visually, as with tools, and orally. Orally, symbols arise through sound symbolism,
such as onomatopoetic words like crash,bangand boom. We can also see sound
symbolism in clusters of sounds in words with similar meanings, such as gleam, glow,
546 Barham and Everett
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glitter and glisten. It can be seen in particular sounds that show intensity, such as tamp
vs. tap, stomp vs step. Sound symbolism is common across the worldslanguages
(Sapir 1915;Urban1988; Everett 1979). Each sign needs a physical form, and vocal
sounds are the best solution to providing form for signs (Everett 2012).
An interpretant is necessary for the arbitrary content of symbols to be meaningful to
a viewer or listener. A bridging component, the interpretant, can take the form of other
signs and meaningful conventions: In a world without interpretants a sickle and
hammer would only mean a sickle crossed with a hammer. And LeonardosLast
Supper would only be a very gloomy dinner or a meeting of thirteen unshaven men
(Eco 1976:1467). With material objects, interpretants may become part of the learned
cultural knowledge, signalling aspects of the object that the viewer will recognize
implicitly as meaningful. This meaning is ephemeral and context specific, as in the case
of the butter knife. It is not accessible by a viewer separated in time, space and
culturally from this implicit knowledge, but as with icons we can infer that interpretants
existed when we find repeated (conventional) artefact forms and selection among a
range of strategies for making these objects.
In summary, symbols are both necessary and sufficient conditions for language.
Complex recursive grammar is not the point of origin for all human languages (contra
Hauser et al. 2002; Berwick and Chomsky 2016), and grammatical structure alone is
not sufficient for language; for any human syntax, each node in a syntactic tree must be
labelled (e.g. noun phrase, verb phrase; Murphy 2015:715). Labels are symbols in the
Peircean senseconventional, categorising generalisations across different units of
linguistic representation.
Tools as Social Conventions and Symbols
To support a claim that tools of the Lower Palaeolithic carried symbolic meaning, this
section draws generalisations from sociological, ethnographic and ethological research
about tool-making as socially learned, conventionalised knowledge. It starts with
contexts of meaning generation and discusses the distinction between utilitarian and
symbolic objects as a potential obstacle to a uniformitarian approach. A comparative
assessment follows of the social contexts of tool use among non-human primates with a
focus on chimpanzees as our closest genetic relatives. Their cognitive capacity to
discriminate between kinds of tools is relevant in the evolution of the capacity to create
Tool use is widespread in the animal kingdom (Lefebvre et al. 2002;Beck1980;
Aunger 2010, Bentley-Condit and Smith 2010;Shumakeret al. 2011), but tool-making
as the deliberate modification of an object is relatively rare among animals (Biro et al.
2013). The creation and sharing of tools in the human context differs from that of other
animals in that it combines the material with the ideational. Human technologies
materialise and sustain worldviews, identities, social relations and life-ways (Guindon
2015:7980). Perhaps the most unusual aspect of tool use for humans is that tools
become symbols, as well as functioning as indexes and icons (Pfaffenberger 2001).
The symbolic aspect of technology is well theorised and empirically supported in
sociological studies of technologies in contemporary and historical contexts and in
archaeological contexts with diverse and chronologically well-constrained data (e.g.
547Semiotics and the Origin of Language in the Lower Palaeolithic
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Hodder 1982,2012; Kopytoff 1986; Pinch and Bijker 1984;Latour1992;Ingold1993;
Gosden 2005;Wallis2013). The obvious limitation of this approach for archaeologists
working with early to mid-Pleistocene material is that we do not have access to texts or
verbal accounts that enrich sociological analyses. Nor do we have the broader range of
material culture found in some later Pleistocene contexts with which to distinguish
indexes and icons as well as a range of tool-making conventions, and we must contend
with a discontinuous and often poorly dated record (Shea 2017). We can, however,
draw inferences about the past existence of meaning-making in a semiotic sense from
the judicious use of human and non-human analogues, recognising their inherent
limitations (e.g. Wobst 1978;McGrew2010), combined with experimental archaeol-
ogy with direct application to the archaeological record (Stout et al. 2019). The latter
generates observations on the social and cognitive processes involved in interactions
with objects (Gärdenfors and Högberg 2017). Research in cognitive archaeology adds
to the understanding of tool-making and use as embodied biocultural behaviours
integrating perception and action within wider physical and social environments
(Leroi-Gourhan 1993; Stout 2002;Stoutet al. 2019;Malafouris2013;Uominiand
Meyer 2013; Fairlie and Barham 2016; Overmann and Wynn 2019).
Creating Meaning with Tools: Inferences from Social Constructionism
Social constructionists working cross-culturally among pre-industrial societies, and
with an eye to the archaeological record, provide useful generalisations on symbol
use applicable to the past. Killick (2004:573-4) outlines three basic differences between
pre-industrial and industrial societies in relation to the social transmission of
technologies, and the ideational roles of tools and technologies. The learning of
technical skills takes place using a combination of language, gesture, imitation and
guided intervention or teaching in what Csibra and Gergely (2011) call natural
pedagogy(e.g. Draper 1976:210, learning leather-work among Ju/hoansi children,
Botswana). Technology shapes the social persona and world view of the
individual, as among Nuer pastoralists of the Sudan (Evans-Pritchard (1976:89
[1940]) for whom their limited material culture serves as chains along which
social relationships run, and the simpler is a material culture the more numer-
ous are the relationships expressed through it.Theories of technology
(ontologies) in pre-industrial societies are often linked to social processes and
natural phenomena (Stout 2002). Gamo horticultural communities (Ethiopia) are
one of the few remaining makers of stone tools, and perceive their tool-stone as
a named living and social being with a life history that mirrors that of the tool-
maker (Arthur 2018).
Among recent and historical hunter-gatherers, the cultural act of attributing symbolic
value to raw materials is widespread (e.g. Gould et al. 1971, Australia; Tayanin and
Lindell 2012, Southeast Asia; Brandišauskas 2016, Siberia; Guindon 2015,Canadian
subarctic; and papers in Boivin and Owoc 2004 for cultural perceptions of soils and
minerals). Objects also carry meaning as arbitrary conventions linking the object to
social personas. The sharing of object names with social persona and personal identity
is seen with the womans kaross among the Ju/hoansi (chi!kan) which doubles as a
colloquial term for women(Lee 1979:124); in the names of tools among the Netsilik
(Canada) which are selected as personal names for individuals as protection from
548 Barham and Everett
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misfortune (Balikçi 1970:199200); and among the Piraha (Brasil), the hunting bow
(hóií) is used by men only, but the bowstring (hóií hoí) is made by the mans wife, with
the complete bow symbolising their union (Everett 2016). These examples show raw
materials and tools operating simultaneously across the semiotic range with their
material properties integrated into making and transforming systems of meaning
(Wallis 2013:209).
Creating Meaning with Tools
As Pfaffenberger (2001:7778) observes, tool-related activities are contexts for learn-
ing from others, for creatingand maintaining relationships, for reinforcing world views;
they are not passive settings limited to functional ends. Tools as symbols, icons and
indexes bear multiple kinds of meaning and values depending on where they are made,
used and seen. From almost the start of their lives, children learn the social value of
objects, including tools, from adults who act as symbol makerwith the child as
pointing to things to make intentions clear, using objects in conventional socially
agreed ways and talking to the child (Rodríguez and Moro 2008:111; Tomasello
2005;West2018). The learning process is intimate, interactive, embodied and cumu-
lative starting with perceptual categories moving to higher-level conceptual categories
(symbols) (Sloutsky 2010; Trevarthen and Delafield-Butt 2013). The physical relation
between infant and parent (intersubjectivity) and the joint attention given to an object
are both critical to word (symbol) learning (Studdert-Kennedy and Herbert 2017). The
cooperation involved in infant learning has parallels with a novice learning to make
tools from an expert with words (speech and gestures) used to convey conceptually
opaque actions and their consequences (Csibra and Gergely 2011; Barham 2013;
Herzlinger et al. 2017). Simple utterances of just a few words, as in a G1grammar
(hit there;turn it over), can greatly enhance knowledge transfer (Laland 2017).
The study of social learning among hunter-gatherers provides insight into processes
operating in recent small-scale, non-hierarchical societies and offers analogues of
relevance here for the deeper evolutionary past (Marlowe 2005). Comparative studies
show that at the community level, the transmission of knowledge and know-how is
affected by demographic variables including size of age cohorts, rates of interaction
between generations and with non-kin (Migliano et al. 2017). For example, among the
egalitarian Aka foragers (Central African Republic), most early learning (80%) takes
place between parent and child, and this form of vertical transmission promotes
stability while allowing for some individual variation (Hewlett and Cavalli-Sforza
1986:932). From middle childhood on into adolescence, more learning takes place
from peers and unrelated adults (Hewlett 2016). Cross-cultural data shows that learning
to make tools is similar to the pattern seen among the Aka, namely transmission of
knowledge from parents and older children to the novice (MacDonald 2007), with
increased teaching (by verbal instruction, demonstration, pointing) in early adolescence
related to more complex technologies and demanding activities such as big game
hunting (Lew-Levy et al. 2017,2018).
At the population level, quantitative modelling of social learning from an evolutionary
perspective, predicts that the intensity of interaction between individuals and groups is more
important for the transmission of information than is population size alone (Powell et al.
2009; Grove 2016). As the scale of analysis broadens to include social learning among
549Semiotics and the Origin of Language in the Lower Palaeolithic
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Acheulean tool-makers, then issues of habitat instability, population isolation and local
extinctions add to the list of factors that disrupt cumulative learning (Hopkinson et al. 2013).
Utilitarian or Symbolic?
Archaeologists have long recognised the difficulty of distinguishing style from function
and by implication symbolic intent from functional design (Rouse 1960; Sackett 1982,
1986;Dibble1987; Dibble et al. 2016; Davidson and Noble 1993; McPherron 2000).
Standardisation of tool forms may indicate symbolic content, but only if not imposed
by functional constraints (Gowlett 1996) or by selective bias imposed by archaeological
typologies (Davidson 2002; Shea 2017). More problematical for a semiotic approach is
the argument that artefacts can have a practical function without having any symbolic
significance whatever(Chase and Dibble 1992:48).
From a social constructionist point of view, the distinction between symbol
and function is a false dichotomy. The underlying source of this distinction is a
dominant ideology in Western industrial society that leads us to expect that all
behaviour should be goal-oriented, with a function that is a means to an end
(Hodder 1982:164). Utilitarianism permeates our dark matter, (our unconscious,
culturally articulated personal knowledge; Everett 2016) and archaeologists tend
to be more comfortable equating symbol use with behaviours that do not have
immediate functional value, such as ritual (Hawkes 1954). Utility and symbolic
value, however, are inseparable from social conventions (Hodder 1982,2012).
A utilitarian purpose is a social construct (Skibo and Schiffer 2008), and “…
even the most technical and mundane of acts implicates social aspects of life
(Hodder 1994:385). From the perspective of Peirces semiotics, every article
produced by a human society has the potential to carry conventional meaning,
such as the humble butter knife which carries meaning as an index, icon and
symbol depending on the context in which it is seen. The challenge for
archaeologists is to generate sufficient contextual information to identify levels
of intention that reflect the use of symbols (Davidson 2002).
The extraordinary longevity of Lower Palaeolithic tool technologies poses a
potential problem to the constructionist and semiotic perspectives as we have
no modern frame of reference for such enduring conventions (Ingold 1993).
Hodder (1994):385), however, suggests that the continuity and stability of
form indicates Lower and Middle Palaeolithic handaxes clearly were made
using rulesand the rules were social constructs even if they were implicit
from social conditioning. As discussed below, there is an enduring set of
ergonomic principles embedded in the making of hand-axes and cleavers
(Gowlett 2006). They may become implicit through experience or perhaps
explicit as categorical concepts with semantic labels (Herzlinger et al.2017).
Rules apply also to short-term end-goaltechnologies such as scrapers. The
life history of scrapers from manufacture to discard reflects social conventions
related to function, but also to ontologies of technology (e.g. Arthur 2018). At
a practical level, lithic analysts can measure the variables that affect the
effectiveness of a tool for a particular task (e.g. morphology, edge angle, use
traces), and draw inferences on decisions made during the life history of the
object (Preysler et al. 2018). Decision points identified by lithic analysts are
550 Barham and Everett
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etic observations, and though they can be independently verified, they do not
reflect the meanings once held by their makers. Those meanings are context
specific and lost to us, but the existence of some level of meaning or signifi-
cation (icon, index or symbol) can be inferred from (1) conventions in tool
forms, (2) selection among equally effective tool-making strategies and (3) in
the choice to store (cache) tools for future use (below). Symbolic content
resides in each of these contexts given they are arbitrary social constructs.
Conventions and Categories Among Non-human Primates
Conventions for tool-use also exist among non-human primates, and most relevant here
are longitudinal studies of chimpanzees which form the basis of recognising local
socially learned traditions or cultures(Whiten 2005). Byrne (2007):582) identifies
signals of culturally guided acquisitionin behaviours that are both intricate in
complexity (multiple steps involved) and near uniform in a population. Among chim-
panzees, the basic contexts in which tool use takes place include feeding, hygiene
maintenance, threat displays, weapon use and amusement (Goodall 1986). The widest
range of tool forms is associated with feeding. Local traditions are recognised in central
and west Africa including in similar habitats, which minimises the role of adaptation as
an explanation for variability (Whiten et al. 1999). Learning of tool use takes place in
social contexts by imitation and emulation of others, by individual trial and error
(Whiten et al. 2009; van Schaik and Burkart 2011; Sanz and Morgan 2013) and
teaching using active intervention and provisioning of tools, typically from mother to
offspring (Musgrave et al. 2020). Teaching appears to be more common where the
technology is relatively complex with multiple steps in its making (Musgrave et al.
2020), an observation of relevance when considering the complexities of making hand-
axes and cleavers (see below).
Chimpanzees and other non-human primates, however, do not meet Davidsons
(2002) criteria for symbol-based tool use. Although there are local traditions, tool forms
are made with minimal elaboration when compared with human tools (Goodall 1986),
and are task oriented, context specific and intended for immediate use (Gowlett 2015;
Wynn and Gowlett 2018:25). Despite these limitations, there is evidence for the capacity
to conceptualise objects not just in terms of their physical properties, but also as more
general categories such as tooland types of tools (Goodall 1986). This level of
conceptualisation is involved in human communication when establishing shared mean-
ing for names, nouns and adverbs (Gärdenfors 2003; Medin and Rips 2005). Shared
concepts are also essential for reaching understanding about objects or events not in the
immediate environment, or of immediate experience. Symbols, whether vocal or visual,
externalize these shared understandings. Bonobos and chimpanzees, trained to use
symbols under controlled conditions, do use their training to communicate future
intention, with one possible observation of symbol use in a natural context (Savage-
Rumbaugh et al. 2004;Lynet al. 2011). Non-human primates in the wild and in
captivity can recognize perceptual categories of objects, and may form more abstract
conceptual categories (based on kind, such as food, predators) (e.g. Queiroz and Ribeiro
2002; Seyfarth and Cheney 2003; Pedersen 2012;Vonket al. 2013;Slocombeand
Zuberbühler 2005). Chimpanzees, in their natural habitats do seem to recognize the
551Semiotics and the Origin of Language in the Lower Palaeolithic
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differing properties of objects used as tools and can apply that understanding to other
settings (Grüber et al. 2015:7).
As well as socially learned traditions of tool use, chimpanzees (and bonobos) have
evolved multimodal forms of communication that integrate gestures, vocalisations and
facial signals (Gillespie-Lynch et al. 2014). Gestural traditions of communication
appear to be more variable in form than their range of vocalisations (Pollick and de
Waal 2007). From the perspective of quantitative linguistics, the structure of chimpan-
zee gestures follows mathematical laws seen in the transmission of information in
human language linked to frequency of word/gesture use (Heesen et al. 2019). The
similarities in structure point to commonalities in primate communication that have
great evolutionary depth (Boë et al. 2019).
Chimpanzee vocal repertoires are often characterised as context-specific impulsive
(emotional) responses with a limited range or intention, but there is increasing evidence
of variation in response to social context (Hopkins et al. 2007), to food types
(Slocombe and Zuberbühler 2005;Kalanet al. 2015) and awareness of the perspectives
of others (intentionality) (Crockford et al. 2017). The learning of new grunts for a
particular food (apples) was recorded among chimpanzees transferred to a new zoo
where the resident chimpanzee group had a different grunt for the same food (Watson
et al. 2015). The incomers gradually learned the existing referential grunt, but only after
social bonds were developed between the groups. This is evidence of the capacity for
vocalisations linked to objects and learned collectively which lies at the root of symbol
generation through constructing words.
Words in Peirces semiotics are symbols, and the labelling of objects is so
entrenched in our learning of language that we take for granted this facility to categorise
and focus attention on a class of objects (Clark 2011). Labelsnot syntaxare at the
core of language (even for some minimalist linguists, e.g. Murphy 2015), and at some
stage in the gradual evolution of language, the transition from visual to verbal labelling
took place (Corballis 2002; Gentilucci and Corballis 2006). If categorisation is emer-
gent in non-human primates and ubiquitous among modern humans, then parsimony
points to the evolution of symbol useand languagelong before Homo sapiens.
Pedersen (2012) concludes, following a study of the ability of captive bonobos to
acquire visual and auditory symbols, that language evolved from deep-rooted semantic
and conceptual abilities in the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and hominins,
some six million years ago, and in recent work, it is argued that the neural, auditory
pathway for language evolved at least 25 million years ago among monkeys (Balezeau
et al. 2020). The shared inheritance is based on biological and cognitive similarities in
how humans and apes experience the world through their bodies and senses (Lakoff
and Johnson 1999).
Lower Palaeolithic Tools as Symbols
Stone tool working constitutes the longest record of hominin technology, with the
earliest evidence from 3.3 million years ago (Ma) in East Africa, pre-dating the
emergence of the genus Homo (Harmand et al. 2015). Preservation biases favour stone
over organic materials in the archaeological record with bone and horn core use found
in South African cave deposits after 1.8 Ma in association with more than one hominin
552 Barham and Everett
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(Barham and Mitchell 2008). In East Africa, the earliest evidence of bone use comes
from Olduvai Gorge between 1.8 and 1.6 Ma, probably associated with Homo erectus,
and in the form of bone hammers and a bone hand-axe (Backwell and dErrico 2005).
The earliest evidence of woodworking takes the form of plant residues on 2.0 Ma tools
from Kanjera South (Tanzania) (Lemorini et al. 2014), but the oldest probable wooden
artefact is substantially later (~780 ka) in association with the Acheulean site of Gesher
Benot Yaaqov (Israel) (Belitzky et al. 1991), which also has early evidence for the
control of fire (Alperson-Afil et al. 2017).
These non-stone technologies are relevant in the context of language evolution and
semiotics because they provide evidence for the extension of the range of cultural
choices for tool use to other materials. Our focus, however, is early lithic technology as
it is the most widespread evidence base. The evidence includes conventions of tool
forms, choice of manufacturing strategy and stages in the life history of a tool that
indicate the concept of displacement or detached thought (Hockett 1960). Complemen-
tary sources of data drawn from evolutionary cognitive archaeology are incorporated
into this section where relevant.
Icons to Symbols in the Archaeological Record
The archaeological record before 1 Ma is reviewed briefly here in setting the context for
the evolution of symbol use and language. Using Peirces triad of signs, a tentative
claim can be made for the early use of icons in the Pliocene which overlaps with the
oldest evidence for stone-tool-making. The Oldowan Industry of the Early Pleistocene
provides the backdrop of behaviours elaborated later in the Acheulean. These include
strategies of raw material selection, learned techniques of core reduction and tool-
making. Our focus then diverges with a focus on evidence for regionally variable
strategies for biface making after 1 Ma, and another on the growing evidence for sea
travel in Southeast Asia. Both behavioural complexes reflect, at a minimum, the use of
The earliest possible evidence of an intentionally interpreted and contemplated icon
is associated with Australopithecus africanus at the site of Makapansgat Cave, South
Africa. The deposits are dated to between 4.12 and 2.16 million years old (Herries
2003). A red cobble was found in the deposits and was probably brought to the site by
an australopithecine rather than by natural processes (Bednarik 1998; Berlant and
Wynn 2018). The cobble has erosional marks on both surfaces that resemble a primate
face with eyes and mouth (Bednarik 1998). The physical resemblance to a face
qualifies this object as an icon in our eyes, and presumably in the eyes of the hominin
beholders. Other icons resembling human forms or elements of anatomy occur consid-
erably later, after 800 ka in the North African and Southwest Asian records (Bednarik
The Makapansgat pebble is roughly coeval with the earliest stone working technol-
ogy currently known. The site of Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya (Harmand et al.
2015) preserves evidence of the deliberate detachment of large basalt flakes using a
block-on-block technique. Using the reasoning of Chase (1991), these flakes are iconic
objects created as a result of an understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship of
striking a block of basalt against a stone anvil. In Cousins(2014) semiotic coevolution,
the process of making these flakes, which involves selecting the raw materials and
553Semiotics and the Origin of Language in the Lower Palaeolithic
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applying force, is an act of interpretation (of physical properties) to create something
new, and to do so more than once. In his Baldwinian model of the coevolution of
language and technology, Lomekwi 3 marks an early emergence of a social learning
niche among hominins.
For the time being, there is a gap of 700,000 years between the flakes and cores at
Lomekwi 3 and the earliest Oldowan at 2.6 Ma (Stout 2011). The early Oldowan
arguably marks the beginning of cumulative, learned culture with this contention
supported by experimental replication of core reduction strategies that indicate learning
by copying (Morgan et al. 2015; Stout et al. 2019). By 2.0 Ma, Oldowan-like
assemblages of flakes, cores and a limited range of small retouched tools (scrapers,
notches, denticulates) are found in Southwest and Central Asia, India and China
(Barsky et al. 2018). Standardised tool forms are rare, but other behaviours relevant
to the development of symbol are evident. The site of Kanjera South, Kenya (2.0 Ma)
provides the first evidence for the selection and transport of raw materials up to 13 km
to a central locality where a range of activities took place including stone tool-making,
butchery of small antelopes (possibly hunted), working of wood and processing soft
plant matter including underground storage organs (Braun et al. 2009; Ferraro et al.
2013; Lemorini et al. 2014).
The selection and transport of raw materials some distance from the intended place
of use have cognitive implications in terms of foresight (planning, long-term memory).
It may also indicate a social value (meaning) was placed on these materials. There is
evidence from earlier in the Oldowan of the selection of raw materials and the carrying
of artefacts across landscapes to favoured localities (Potts 1991;Kroll1997; Stout et al.
2005). The broader social interpretation of the Kanjera locality is that it was repeatedly
used by tool-dependent cooperative groups (Plummer and Bishop 2016). The pragmat-
ics of symbol development and learning involve individuals interacting face to face in
contexts associated with tools and their use (Gärdenfors 2004; Tomasello 2005;
Rodriguez and Moro 2008). Kanjera South offers an early example of the kind of
setting conducive to social learning that predates the evolution of Homo erectus.
The earliest evidence of large retouched tool forms marks the beginning of the
Acheulean Technocomplex 1.75 million years ago in Africa, and the subsequent spread
of its distinctive tools made on large flakes (> 10 cm) and blocks of stone into
Southwest Asia, Europe, South Asia and parts of East Asia (de la Torre 2016;
Barsky et al. 2018). The characteristic retouched tool forms include hand-axes, cleav-
ers, picks and knives (Fig. 4ac). Their making requires additional steps in planning
compared with Oldowan cores and flakes, with greater spatial and temporal separation
of stages of making and use (Muller et al. 2017). The hand-axe and cleaver are
distinguished from Oldowan tools by their large size (> 10 cm), but particularly by
their bilateral and plan form symmetry (Roe 1968; Crompton and Gowlett 1993;
Shipton et al. 2018). Symmetrical hand-axes occur early in the Acheulean 1.7 Ma
marking an elaborated attention to form over function which distinguishes these tools
from Oldowan retouched tools (Diez-Martína et al. 2019). This focus on form becomes
more widespread from ~ 1.2 Ma with some regional trends towards greater refinement
(Shipton et al. 2018), but not in all parts of the Acheulean range (e.g. McNabb and Cole
2015). A broader range of small tools also occurs in the Acheulean some of which
appear to be conventional forms such as awls, denticulates and scrapers (Isaac 1997;de
la Torre and Mora 2005;Dominguez-Rodrigoet al. 2009), but our interest lies in the
554 Barham and Everett
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large retouched forms and their extended production sequences as evidence of early
symbol use.
Homo erectus (sensu lato) is the hominin generally associated with the Acheulean
up to 1.0 Ma (Antón et al. 2014), after which other taxa continued the tradition in
Africa, Eurasia and South Asia (Moncel and Schreve 2016;Monceletal.2018). In
Africa, hand-axes and cleavers were made as recently as 212 ka and possibly by Homo
sapiens (Benito-Calvo et al. 2014; de la Torre et al. 2014). In Europe, hand-axes appear
sporadically in contexts associated with late Middle Pleistocene Neanderthals (de
Lumley et al. 2004;Preysleret al. 2018). In north central India, bifaces were still
being made as recently as 100 ka (Shipton et al. 2013), and presumably by H. sapiens.
The stability of hand-axes and cleavers as symmetrical tool forms across the long
span and wide geographical distribution of the Acheulean has sparked decades of
speculation about their social and cognitive implications (see summary in Lycett and
Gowlett 2008). At one end of the interpretative spectrum are theories of minimal
behavioural intention involved in the making of these tools, and minimal social
learning (Tennie et al. 2016). The shapes may have resulted from use as cores, from
re-sharpening, from differences in raw materials or from an inherent perceptual bias for
symmetry in hominins, or they were under some genetic control (Davidson and Noble
1993;McPherron2000;White1998;Hodgson2015; Corbey et al. 2016). At the other
end of the interpretative spectrum are claims for symmetry signalling genetic fitness or
trustworthiness of the maker to conspecifics (Kohn and Mithen 1999;Spikins2012),
and more generally as deliberately imposed and socially transmitted forms (Shipton
et al. 2018).
Experimental work has demonstrated the difficulty in producing symmetrical forms,
and the importance of learned skill in managing the thinness of the tool and the
straightness of the edges (Lycett et al. 2016; Shipton and Nielsen 2018). This research
undermines the argument that learning to make bifaces is easy and could be indepen-
dently invented by trial and error during the process of alternate edge flaking (Davidson
2002;Tennieet al. 2016). The argument that hand-axe symmetry reflects increased
reduction intensity has been tested quantitatively with flake scar density and symmetry
Fig. 4 Late Acheulean large tools: ahand-axe (silcrete), Victoria Falls, Zambia; bcleaver (quartzite),
Kalambo Falls, Zambia; cpick (quartzite), Kalambo Falls, Zambia (images copyright Chris Scott)
555Semiotics and the Origin of Language in the Lower Palaeolithic
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found to be largely independent variables (Shipton et al. 2018). Experimental work has
also shown that raw material differences are not a primary limiting factor in hand-axe
form (Lycett et al. 2016;García-Medranoet al. 2019;Key2019). An innate human
perceptual bias towards symmetry (Hodgson 2015) has also been challenged through
experimental work (Shipton et al. 2018). The suggestion of some genetic control of
symmetry is undermined by the temporal and regional variability in the Acheulean
(Hosfield et al. 2018), and the absence of hand-axes in regions populated by Homo
erectus despite having suitable raw materials (Wynn and Gowlett 2018). Hand-axe
dimensions and shape can change with persistent re-sharpening or thinning (McPherron
2000), but intended shape (final form) is evident on bifaces made on flakes with little
subsequent shaping (Sharon 2008;Liet al. 2017; Malinsky-Buller 2016;Preysleret al.
2018), and on cobbles (façonnage) indicating knapping to a plan (García-Medrano
et al. 2019).
Hand-Axes as Standardised Forms
The debate on the intentionality of biface symmetry has shifted towards a
consensus that although there is regional and chronological variability in these
forms, the hand-axe and cleaver were socially transmitted, learned constellations
of knowledge (Shipton et al. 2018). They meet Davidsons(2002) criterion of
standardisation and are not the products of expediency or figments of archae-
ological typology (cf. Shea 2017). Within the constellations that separate the
hand-axe form (pointed, symmetrical) from cleavers (divergent, symmetrical)
are potential interpretants (signs) that linked form with meaning (see Discus-
sion and Conclusion, point 5). Of particular relevance is the case made for a
set of six design imperativesor ergonomics-based variables linked to the use
of these objects as hand-held tools (Gowlett 2006)(Fig.5): (1) a rounded base
to fit the hand; (2) extension of the working edge and thinned tip to maintain
balance; (3) bifacial trimming to support the working edge; (4) extension of the
sides to minimize twisting during use; (5) adjustment of overall thickness to
control the weight and (6) a slight adjustment of the symmetry to work with
the handedness of the user. This constellation of options provides the tool-
maker with scope for variation around a basic size-shape framework, with
decisions about the weighting of the variables made during knapping. These
geometrical concepts carry meaning that may reduce the cognitive load in what
is a demanding hierarchical, multivariate process of construction (Gowlett
We cannot know which of the design rules signalled meaning, or if the
overall symmetrical shape of the object was a bridging sign. In Peirces
semiotic framework, a sign can be simultaneously an index, icon and symbol.
Hand-axes and cleavers could be indexes of tasks to be performed (e.g. cutting,
chopping); icons of one another (they represent a pattern of tool design); and
symbols of the cultural values they were designed to support, such as the
identity of the maker (Cole 2012), and appropriate contexts of use and discard.
In Donalds(1991) model of a gradual evolution of language, language be-
comes evident with the development of external forms for storing and trans-
mitting conventional cultural knowledge. Externalised symbols require socially
556 Barham and Everett
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understood routes of access to their meaning which can be communicated
through sight, touch, sound, gesture and speech (Donald 1991:131). Hand-
axes and cleavers as enduring conventions of tool-making could serve as
externalised storage of cultural knowledge, with the specifics of that knowledge
Fig. 5 Hand-axe and cleaver design imperatives(modified and redrawn after J.A.J. Gowlett 2006,Fig.2,
with the authorspermission).Theglob-buttis the centre of the mass, typically at the butt end; forward
extensionprovides leverage and is balanced by the weight of the butt-mass; support for the working edgein
the extension provides a buttress for working edges in relation to the butt, and this applies to cleavers as well as
hand-axes; lateral extensionoffers resistance to twisting during use, especially for long working edges;
thickness adjustmentaddresses the need for adjusting the thickness of the mass and controlling edge angle
557Semiotics and the Origin of Language in the Lower Palaeolithic
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inaccessible to the modern viewer, and not needed to interpret these forms as
potential symbols.
Choice Among Ways of MakingEquifinality
The social constructionist approach to identifying social conventions seeks evidence of
choices made where multiple options exist, each equally effective in satisfying an aim
(Killick 2004). In the context of the Acheulean, options exist in the making of hand-
axes and cleavers starting with the basic choice of reduction method. The tool can be
made on a flake struck from a core (debitage) or by reducing a block or core
(façonnage) (Gamble and Marshall 2001). The use of large flakes (> 10 cm) as blanks
for these two tool forms appears from the very start of the Acheulean in East Africa (de
la Torre and Mora 2005) and occurs widely, after ~ 1 million years ago, in Southwest
Asia, India and Iberia (Sharon 2008,2009,2010; Shipton 2013;Preysleret al. 2018).
Over this broad geographical range, Acheulean tool-makers devised as many as nine
different strategies, each with multiple steps, for managing large cores to produce flake
blanks (Sharon 2009; Shipton et al. 2013;AkhileshandPappu2015;Liet al. 2017).
These methods involve different approaches to handling three-dimensional volumes
and working them hierarchically to produce blanks. The methods differ substantially
enough that the decision to pursue one option precludes others, and needs to be taken
early in the reduction process. There are regional variants as well with the Victoria
West technique distinct to South Africa (Li et al. 2017) and the Tabelbala-Tachengit
technique and the Kerzaz core method found only in small areas of North Africa
(Sharon 2009). These three strategies are technically complex, with the Victoria West
method, dated to approximately 1 Ma comparable in complexity of volumetric control
to the Levallois technique associated with Middle Palaeolithic/Middle Stone Age
technologies after 300 ka (Li et al. 2017).
The variety of strategies for meeting similar functional needs (equifinality) and their
regional as well as chronological differences reflect capacities for innovation and social
transmission across the Acheulean range (Sharon 2009). The complexity and
standardisation of the prepared core approaches, such as Victoria West, have been
interpreted as indirect evidence of technical knowledge learned through language
(Sharon and Beaumont 2006). Experimental evidence from neuroimaging research
supports the coevolution of neural networks that underpin language and tool-making
(Uomini and Meyer 2013;Stoutet al. 2015 and references within). The teaching of
tool-making is hypothesised as the recurring behavioural context which coupled
cognitive structures supporting communication and motor systems, leading to the
evolution of language (Kolodny and Edelman 2018). We would add that the teaching
of tool-making also involves the basic parent-offspring relationship of learning through
physical proximity (intersubjectivity) and joint attention on a shared task (Studdert-
Kennedy and Terrace 2017). Controlled experiments on learning to make stone tools
provide more specific evidence that learning the nested hierarchical processes needed to
make a hand-axe, such as alternate bifacial flaking, and edge and platform preparation
(involving the non-dominant hand), requires teaching using language (speech and
gesture) to minimise errors in transmission between expert and novice (Uomini and
Meyer 2013; Putt et al. 2014;Ruck2014;Morganet al. 2015;Lombaoet al. 2017;
Ruck and Uomini in press). Gärdenfors and Högberg (2017):196, table 1) outline a
558 Barham and Everett
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hierarchy of forms of intentional teaching and levels of joint attention and theory of
mind between teacher and pupil. They link these levels to increasing difficulty of
transmitting an understanding of patterning or concepts to the extent that language is
required, as in the case of learning to make an Acheulean hand-axe using soft hammer
techniques. The multiplicity of production phases (sub-goals) that need to be completed
to move to the next stage of production adds to the levels of knowledge (planning
depth) to be transmitted and understood. In the case of bifacially thinned hand-axes, a
cause-and-effect understanding of sub-goals associated with bevelling (flaking) and
abrading platform edges cannot be understood from copying the actions alone; teaching
with language is required (Gärdenfors and Högberg 2017:1989).
Mahaney (2014)in
a detailed study of single expert knapper draws parallels between the complexities of
soft hammer thinning of hand-axes with the production of sentences in the English
language. The parallels illustrate the skill levels involved and not the kind of language
or grammar required to make a hand-axe. A G1language in our typology lacks
recursion in its structure, but places no restriction on the capacity for recursive thought.
As Everett (2005,2012,2017) and Pullum (2020) have argued, recursive thinking does
not require a recursive grammar and there is no evidence for a one-to-one mapping of
thought onto language (Everett 2017).
A cognitive analysis of cleaver production provides additional insights on the
linkage between planning depth, expertise and the role of language in managing the
cognitive demands of this craft (Herzlinger et al.2017). Cleavers made from large
flakes struck from large cores differ from that of hand-axes in not being produced by
retouch, but instead by the planned management of the core before the cleaver blank is
struck (Sharon 2008). The planning begins with the selection of raw material, and
cleavers tend to be made more consistently on coarser-grained rocks than hand-axes.
This preference occurs across the geographical and time range of the large flake
tradition of blank production and arguably reflects the socially agreed functions of this
tool form (Sharon 2008:13323). At the 780,000-year-old site of Gesher Benot
Yaaqov (GBY) (Israel), three different core and flake management strategies were
used to produce wedge-shaped working edges (Levallois-like, Kombewa, and blank
delineationbyretouch)(Herzlingeret al. 2017). Each strategy involved a different set
of hierarchical steps with sub-goals, with the choice of strategy made early in the
chaîne opératoire. A technical and cognitive analysis of the production sequences of
GBY cleavers draws on the concept of expert cognition (Wynn et al. 2017). Modern
experts in craft tool-making share a set of characteristics that provide a template for
considering the level of skilled technical cognition to make cleavers (and hand-axes).
Craft knowledge took years to learn, and with mastery of the craft came great accuracy
and reliability in production, a capacity for rapid in-depth assessments of problems and
Karl Lee, a primitive technologist with 25 years of experience making hand-axes, observes Edge mainte-
nance is invariably where students go wrong. Angle of abrasion can have a dramatic effect on the intended
removal in terms of width, depth and risk of problems such as overshooting. One particular problem is
triangles!. Even a 1mm raised speck on an abraded edge/platform can be the difference between a clean
removal or a damaged hard/soft hammer, or preform. Even a tiny triangular irregularity can be incredibly
strong, requiring more than twice the force (and risk) totake a removal. One over or under abraded edge could
ruin the entire piece. Instruction regarding abrasion and abrasion angles, technique and highlighted dangers,
would be difficult without even a rudimentary form of language.(2 July 2020: https://www.primitive-
559Semiotics and the Origin of Language in the Lower Palaeolithic
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making adjustments, and a capacity to focus and retain that focus after an interruption
without a loss of intention (Wynn et al. 2017:23). In the context of the GBY cleaver
strategies, Herzlinger et al. (2017):11) conclude:
The number of categories may have been fewer than one would find with a modern
expert, but categories were definitely present in the minds of the GBY knappers.
Further, it would seem likely, though this is impossible to know, that the GBY
knappers had declarative/semantic labels for these concepts, either in the form of vocal
words or perhaps gestures (we favor the former).
This proposed linkage between the complex nested routines of cleaver-making and
the use of symbols (words) as scaffolds for managing the sequencing of tasks,
complements neuroimaging research on shared networks for tool-making and language
(Uomini and Meyer 2013;Meyeret al. 2014; Stout et al. 2015;Puttet al. 2019), and
the experimental studies showing the effectiveness of teaching with language in
learning complex tool-making routines (Morgan et al. 2015;Lombaoet al. 2017).
In summary, the arbitrary (conventional) forms of hand-axes and cleavers are
symbols in Peircestriad(1998) because they bear no inherent relationship to their
functions (Shipton et al. 2018). These forms are social constructs that can serve as
icons, indexes and symbols depending on contexts in which they are perceived and the
knowledge of the viewer. Attention to form appeared early in the Acheulean and
became more common after one million years ago (below) with the development of
soft hammer thinning. The complexity of biface production, in particular the process of
thinning, exceeds the capacity for a novice to understand cause and effect from
observation alone. Teaching with words arguably becomes a necessity to gain technical
mastery (Morgan et al. 2015; Gärdenfors and Högberg 2017). Language may have
evolved in the context of the needs of teaching increasingly complex coordinated
actions. In such contexts, whether tool-making, foraging or hunting, simple sentences
would give teachers a low-cost means of transmitting information with greater preci-
sion than possible with gestures alone (Laland 2017:2278). A G1language with its
linear sequencing of words would fulfil this need.
After One Million Years Ago
The Middle Pleistocene archaeological record between 1 Ma and 300 ka shows
increasing behavioural variability across continents, which we argue reflects the impact
of symbol-based language on cognitive evolution (encephalisation) and the evolution
of an extended childhood as a period of social learning (Antón et al. 2015). Culturally
transmitted conventions of tool-making and tool-use change in the Acheulean as seen
in the shift in Southwest Asia by 500 ka away from the large flake tradition with its
giant cores, use of coarse raw materials, and abundant cleavers towards smaller cores
and finer-grained materials for making hand-axes and the discontinuation of cleavers as
atoolform(Sharon2008;Malinsky-Buller2016). In Western Europe, subtle regional
variations emerge in biface conventions among contemporary groups between 500 and
400 ka (White 1998; Ashton 2016; White and Foulds 2018;García-Medranoet al.
2019). In Britain, a distinctive range of hand-axe forms exists with some forms difficult
to make and these two features are interpreted as evidence of socially transmitted norms
(Shipton and White 2020).
560 Barham and Everett
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Innovations in knapping methods also emerge after one million years ago in Africa,
India, Southwest Asia and Europe including the use of softorganic hammers or softer
stone hammers to thin hand-axes (Clark 2001;Gallottiet al. 2010; Galloti and Mussi
2017; Shipton 2016,2018, Malinsky-Buller 2016; Stout et al. 2015). As discussed, soft
hammer thinning requires not only an understanding of the properties of the hammer
and its use, but also the need for embedded routines linked to edge management and
thinning (Mahaney 2014). Teaching with language is argued to be necessary to transmit
this conceptually opaque knowledge (Csibra and Gergely 2011; Gärdenfors and
Högberg 2017). From a neural perspective, the hierarchical organisation of these
additional sub-routines of biface making is linked to cognitive control functions
involved in processing linguistic syntax (Stout et al. 2017:586).
This understanding of the properties of other materials combined with increasingly
extended production sequences would be the foundation for the invention of hafting
later in the Middle Pleistocene with its added complexities of composite hierarchical
constructions (Ambrose 2010; Barham 2013). Other innovations in the Acheulean
include a new tool form, the handpointin East Africa and Spain (Gowlett 2013;
Preysler et al. 2018), the making of blades in East Africa from ~ 550 ka (Johnson and
McBrearty 2010) and the use of Levallois prepared cores for making cleaver blanks in
the late Acheulean of East Africa (Tyron et al. 2006). The use of ochre also enters the
archaeological record in southern Africa between 500 and 400 ka (Watts et al. 2016),
adding to the diversity of recurrent, conventionalised behaviours linked to working
The Life History of Bifaces
The final criterion in Davidsons(2002) framework for recognising the use of symbol-
based language is the separation of the making of tools from their use. Preysler et al.
(2018) reconstruct the life history of hand-axes and cleavers at Gesher Benot Yaaqov
(Israel) and at later sites in central Spain. Common to both localities is a production
sequence starting with the selection of suitable rocks or active quarrying to obtain the
raw material with cores shaped at the raw material source then large flakes were struck
from the cores and initially shaped by retouch with final shaping usually away from the
raw material source. The tools were then transported to places of use, where some were
re-sharpened, used and then discarded.
The life history sequence also includes an important option in the context of symbol
use which is to store or cache unused tools in anticipation of predicted needs. Caches of
raw materials and tools represent future planning (Kuhn 1992), and this behaviour has
been observed among individual captive great apes (Osvath 2009;Osvathand
Karvonen 2012) and in the wild (e.g. Boesch and Boesch 1984). In the case of
collective caching cooperation about detached goals requires that the inner worlds
of the individuals be coordinated. It seems hard to explain how this can be done without
evoking symbolic communication(Gärdenfors 2004:6). There is tentative evidence
for caching in the late Acheulean of Spain (Méndez-Quintas 2018:3) and more
persuasive evidence at Gesher Benot Yaaqov (Preysler et al. 2018:131). The latter
site also provides evidence of contexts for extended social interaction necessary for
transmitting knowledge, including symbols, across generations. The lake shore locality
was used over a period of 100,000 years for activities including animal and plant food
561Semiotics and the Origin of Language in the Lower Palaeolithic
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processing, the working of stone and wood, making fire and caching hand-axes (Goren-
Inbar 2011). The caching of these large, unused tools in the landscape indicates
provisioning of places rather than provisioning of individuals (Kuhn 1992:192).
Evidence for future planning, and by implication symbol-based language, also
occurs early in the Acheulean of East Africa 1.4 Ma at Koobi Fora (Kenya) with the
allocation of different areas of a contemporaneous landscape to separate stages in the
making and use of hand-axes (Presnyakova et al. 2018). This spatial fragmentation of
the life history of hand-axes extends the time depth and evidence base for H. erectus
communicating shared abstractions using language. In the context of a gradualist model
of language evolution, the roots of symbol use and G1grammars may lie in shared
activities such as the persistent provisioning of raw materials at Kanjera two million
years ago which involved planning actions distant in time and space (Hockett 1960;
Osvath and Gärdenfors 2005; Plummer and Bishop 2016).
Middle Pleistocene Seafaring
The onset of the Middle Pleistocene, roughly 900,000780,000 years ago, marks a
transition to increasingly variable and harsh climatic conditions (Head and Gibbard
2005). H. erectus is widespread by this time, having settled China and Southeast Asia,
including Java. The earliest Acheulean in Java is dated to about one million years old
(Simanjuntak et al. 2010). Sea level fluctuations linked to the waxing and waning of
glacial stages meant periodic isolation of some island populations. Parts of Indonesia
were never linked to the Asian mainland, and the Acheulean did not spread beyond
Java. East of Java on the island of Flores, however, there is an archaeological record of
stone tool-making from one million years ago, primarily flakes, without hand-axes,
cleavers or picks (Brumm et al. 2010).
As argued above, tools are symbols and the hand-axe and cleaver as standardised
forms provide indirect evidence of cultural traditions and at least a G1level of language.
The absence or rarity of these tools in the Southeast Asian record poses a challenge in
this respect for the early language hypothesis. That challenge is met by considering
another aspect of the regional behavioural record that reflects extended future planning
based on language. The settlement of Flores and other islands of Wallacea by
H. erectus or related taxa is arguably a process that required language to collectively
plan and execute the crossing of open bodies of water (Davidson and Noble 1993).
Wallacea is a transitional biogeographic zone unique in having islands that were never
connected to the mainland of Southeast Asia (Sunda), or to Australia/New Guinea
(Sahul) (Kealy et al. 2016). Sea crossings would have been necessary for hominins to
settle these islands (Bednarik 1997), and the arrival of Homo sapiens in Australia some
5060,000 years ago is often cited as a reliable indicator of the necessity of language
for planning a sea crossing of 90 km (Davidson and Noble 1992). Building a boat
requires the kind of conceptualisation of an arbitrary form intended for an imagined
purpose that is only possible by the use of symbols to convey such abstractions.
Constructing a boat or raft involves joining multiple parts to function as a whole, a
form of extended hafting. Provisioning of water and food and having the capacity to
fish would be part of the planning process. By this logic, evidence for the earlier
settlement of Wallacea would imply an earlier use of language.
562 Barham and Everett
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Bednarik (1997,1998) drew attention to the published archaeological evi-
dence for stone tools on the island of Flores associated with fossil fauna in the
Soa Basin, palaeomagnetically dated to ~ 700 ka. The tool-makers were attrib-
uted to Homo erectus based on well-known fossil evidence on Java, and
Bednarik speculated on the kinds of watercraft needed for travelling between
the islands. To reach Flores from Bali involved crossing two islands (Lombok,
Sumbawa) and distances of 10 km of open water. Subsequent research in
Wallacea has identified submerged islands that at a sea level 45 m lower than
today could have been staging posts for a north-south connection between
Sulawesi and Sumbawa/Flores, offering additional food resources for dispersing
hominins (Kealy et al. 2016). Lower sea levels would have existed during
glacial maxima in the Middle Pleistocene, and presumably other islands would
have emerged as habitats for coast-adapted communities.
The radiometric dating of the archaeological record on Flores has extended a
hominin presence to 1 Ma (Brumm et al. 2010), and there is fossil evidence for a
hominin ancestor of Homo floresiensis on the island 800 ka (van den Bergh et al.
2016). The largest island of WallaceaSulawesiis now known to have been occu-
pied by hominins at least 200 ka (van den Bergh et al. 2016), and there is evidence for
hominins in the Philippines, north of Wallacea, ~ 700 ka in the form of stone tools
among the remains of a butchered rhinoceros (Ingicco et al. 2018).
Despite the uncertainty about which hominins settled these islands (Cooper and
Stringer 2013), the evidence is accumulating for multiple sea crossings in the early
Middle Pleistocene. The short crossings between the islands of Wallacea, though less
demanding than the long crossing to Australia with no landmass apparent, also required
shared awareness of a future goal, not unlike the caching of hand-axes. Language
would be necessary in this context for constructing watercraft and storing provisions
(food and water), and a G1language would be sufficient to convey the information
required to navigate between visible islands (Gil 2009). Ongoing experimental building
and testing of rafts using local knowledge of plant resources (e.g. bamboo poles, vine
bindings and rope making) has demonstrated the feasibility of crossing distances of 20
to 50 km by H. erectus using rafts with paddles (Bednarik 2014). The intentional
settlement of these islands by genetically viable populations is a more parsimonious
explanation than the accidental seeding of hominins on islands by tsunamis or other
random natural processes (e.g. Ruxton and Wilkinson 2012).
Discussion and Conclusion
Finally, there is the fact that many quite reasonable hypotheses in the historical
behavioral sciences cannot, as a practical matter, be refuted absolutely. It is
possible to choose among alternative hypotheses in terms of their relative
(Chase and Dibble 1992:50).
Throughout this paper, we have drawn evidence from a range of sources in support of
the contentious claim that language evolved earlier in hominin evolution than is
563Semiotics and the Origin of Language in the Lower Palaeolithic
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normally accepted (Belfer-Cohen and Goren-Inbar 1994; Sharon 2009;Goren-Inbar
2011). Homo erectus rather than Homo sapiens was the first ancestor to generate
symbols, and symbols are the essential component of language, not syntax (Hurford
2004; Piantadosi and Fedorenko 2017; Studdert-Kennedy and Terrace 2017). Our
conclusion derives from our reading of Peirces semiotic progression and its
application to the archaeological record against criteria set by Noble and Davidson
(1996) for the recognition of language in tools. As the work by Steels (2005)suggests,
even all the later additions to the basic symbolic system and grammar of language are
the filling-in of the semiotics of language (see also Everett 2017, 197ff for a discussion
of how language complexity can develop over time, from a simple G1 grammar).
We outlined at the outset five questions posed by Ingold (1993):337) for
those who would interpret hand-axes as evidence for early language. We
respond as follows:
(1) There cannot be a modern analogue for the longevity of the Acheulean given the
present is short. The longevity of the hand-axe (and cleaver) as recurrent forms is
evidence of cultural norms (Hodder 1994) that reflect stabilised solutions to
particular needs (Pinch and Bijker 1984;Deacon1997)thatweretransmitted
over generations in small-scale societies by natural pedagogy including teaching
using language (Csibra and Gergely 2011; Lew-Levy et al. 2017). Small popu-
lation sizes and limited rates of interaction inhibited rapid innovation (Hopkinson
et al. 2013).
(2) The persistence of these forms necessitated cultural transmission given the com-
plex hierarchical processes of manufacture (Morgan et al. 2015; Gärdenfors and
Högberg 2017;Herzlingeret al. 2017), and the range (temporal and geographical)
of available alternative strategies to achieve similar ends (Sharon 2009)these
are cultural choices (e.g. Killick 2004;Byrne2007).
(3) Representational models of tool-making are being challenged (Fairlie and Barham
2016; Overmann and Wynn 2019) in recognition that the process is embodied and
reflexive, with knappers responding to changing affordances rather than imposing
invariant forms (Malafouris 2013), but the production of hand-axesand espe-
cially cleaversunfolds from decisions made early in the reduction process
linked to raw material properties and to an intended end-form (Gowlett 2006;
Herzlinger et al. 2017).
(4) The extended life histories of large Acheulean tools are the product of cooperative
societies in which technology is entangled with daily lives as conduits and
creators of meaning (Pfaffenberger 2001; Goren-Inbar 2011;Hodder2012). The
evidence for caching of hand-axes (Preysler et al. 2018) indicates the shared
abstraction of future use (Hockett 1960; Gärdenfors 2004).
(5) The standardised forms and cultural selection of production processes are recur-
rent conventional constructs indicative of symbol-based language (Holloway
1969;Peirce1998). The forms may have held semiotic value to those who made,
used and viewed them, but we cannot know the culturally specific meanings of the
signs, including interpretants, generated by these objects. The identification of
recurrent ergonomic design features in hand-axes and cleavers (Gowlett 2006),
however, provides a way of disentangling Peirces triad as applied to these forms.
For objects, his theory of signs specifies a logical-causal relation between material
564 Barham and Everett
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form and the signalling of meaning as indexes (proximity, causation) and icons
(resemblance), whereas symbols are conventional constructions more dependent
on cultural knowledge to interpret (Wallis 2013:210). The process of making a
hand-axe involves responding to raw material constraints (e.g. internal flaws) and
changing opportunities (e.g. edge angles) during the production process
(Mahaney 2014; Shipton 2018). Adjustments are made in response to these
indexes in relation to an implicit awareness of the design imperatives (Wynn
and Gowlett 2018). The form of the tool signals immediate or future actions and
as such is an icon, and this association can extend to components used in the
knapping process, such as hammers and cores. An element of cultural knowledge
exists in indexes and icons, but symbols are essentially arbitrary constructs of
meaning though ultimately linked to the material object.
The superstructure of our argument, building on Peirce, is uniformitarian in design and
content. Cross-cultural observations drawn from pre-industrial societies demonstrate
the centrality of tools as media for generating and transmitting meaning and value.
Tools have expressive symbolic value beyond fulfilling particular functions, and in the
case of hand-axes and cleavers, they may have had multiple uses (McCall 2016:
Chapter 3). The ability to agree value is distinctly cultural, and we make the wider
point that symbols do not have to be reserved for ritual or other rarefied activities.
Peirce makes no assumptions about the association of symbols with specific behav-
iours, and nor do we. Objects made to arbitrary repeated forms, such as a butter knife,
are the products of symbolic thought. We assume that this was also the case in the past
with hand-axes and cleavers. We also argue that the development of labels (words as
symbols) for the repeated forms of the hand-axe, cleaver and perhaps the pick was the
most efficient way of referring to these objects where proximity was not possible (pointing
as an index), and gestural images (icons) were too ambiguous to convey intention clearly
(Donald 1991).Clarityofintentionisalsorelevantinmakingthecasefortheefficacyof
words in teaching to make complex tools (Morgan et al. 2015; Gärdenfors and Högberg
2017; Herzlinger et al.2017;Laland2017; Lew-Levy et al. 2017).
Our typology of grammars contributes to the growing gradualist approach to
language evolution by highlighting the capacity of simple word order to convey
meaning without the need for complex grammar (Hurford 2004; Piantadosi and
Fedorenko 2017). Cross-cultural evidence for the correlation of group size with
grammatical complexity (Lupyan and Dale 2010; Dale and Lupyan 2012)addssupport
to the contention that that Homo erectus, with a language based on words as symbols
with minimal grammar (a G1language) could have created complex tools, including
boats, and planned for the future by provisioning landscapes and reaching distant
islands in Southeast Asia. We are not the first to attribute the capacity for symbols
and language to H. erectus (e.g. Deacon 1997;Tobias2005;Gowlett2009), but our
claim is based on a semiotic framework linked explicitly to technology and a distinct
typology of syntax (G1-G3 grammars) as sufficient to underwrite language.
Human tool-making is an order of complexity greater than that of any other animal,
and that is in part because language has integrated technology into all aspects of our
social lives (Arthur 2009). Learned traditions of tool use and making exist in non-
human primates, often focused on immediate needs with minimal attention to the form
of tools (Goodall 1986), but chimpanzees show a nascent capacity to categorise tool
565Semiotics and the Origin of Language in the Lower Palaeolithic
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function (Grüber et al. 2015) which suggests that the ability to partition causality
existed in our last common ancestor. There are hints too of vocalisations that are
referential and learned, which if supported by observations in the wild would add to the
behavioural flexibility of that common ancestor, and to case for a gradual and early
evolution of language.
The archaeological record suggests an early awareness of icons based on intentional
use of resemblance, and by two million years ago, hominins had developed a reliance
on technology and a range of cooperative behaviours that exceeded those seen in other
primates today (Plummer and Bishop 2016). With the emergence of the Acheulean
tradition 1.7 million years ago, the first evidence exists of attention given to the visual
form of artefacts, in this case a large symmetrical hand-axe from Olduvai Gorge that
prefigures the standardisation of the hand-axe form later in the Acheulean after 1.2
million years ago (Diez-Martína et al. 2019). The establishment of conventions of
hand-axe and cleaver forms, and multiple ways of making these tools (Sharon 2009),
marks the development of symbols and language.
The capacity to share abstract concepts using language was a key transition in the
evolution of communication and in hominin evolution. By extending that capacity to
H. erectus, we are not denying the achievements of Homo sapiens; we are simply
placing them in a broader evolutionary time frame which accords with current
Acknowledgements We thank the following for their valuable comments on the content and structure of our
paper: Mary Earnshaw, Morten Christiansen, John Gowlett, Anders Högberg, Anneliese Kuhle, Geoffrey
Pullum, Khaled Hakami and Dafydd Gibbon. We are also grateful to Kathryn Weedman Arthur and Natalie
Uomini for specific information related to their research. Karl Lee provided expert advice on the complexity of
biface making (footnote 3). Chris Scott provided the photographs in Fig. 4and retains copyright. Three
anonymous reviewers provided extensive feedback that has improved greatly the structure and content of our
paper. Thank you for your considerable input and investment of time. Any errors of fact and judgement are
ours alone.
The idea of the paper arose from work undertaken as part of the Arts & Humanities Research Council (UK)
funded Deep Roots of Human Behaviour(AH/N008804/1) project (LB). Financial support for DEsstayin
Liverpool was kindly provided by the School of Histories, Languages and Cultures, University of Liverpool.
Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which
permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give
appropriate creditto the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the CreativeCommons licence, and
indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the
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included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory
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