October 17, 2009

The Stirrings of Power: Language and Myth

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , , at 12:39 am by Jeremy

In my last blog post, I introduced the idea that our modern human consciousness is under the tyranny of the prefrontal cortex (“pfc”).  In this post, I’m going to discuss the first stirrings of the pfc’s power, in the form of language and myth.

The experts disagree widely as to when language first developed, ranging from fifty thousand to a million years ago.  They disagree whether it’s a human instinct or a learned capability.  But no-one questions that it’s a hallmark of human beings.  Chimpanzees and bonobos can string a few words together, but not even their greatest supporters would argue that they speak like humans.  In the words of noted anthropologists Noble & Davidson, “language… underpins all modern human behavior.” [1]

But it’s not language itself that characterizes us.  It’s the capability underlying language: the ability to see things in terms of symbols and – most importantly – to string those different symbols together to create meaning.  Although language processing is centered in two areas in the brain’s left hemisphere[2], the ability to comprehend individual words as symbols and link these together so that each symbol has meaning within a complex web of other symbols – that’s the pfc’s first major step in establishing control, both in a two-year old infant and in the infancy of our human race.

However, this gift of meaning wasn’t free.  It came at a terrible cost.   The pfc’s ability to see ourselves as separate beings and to project out into the future caused perhaps the greatest ever trauma to our human consciousness: the knowledge and fear of death.  All animals instinctively fear harm.  But as far as we know, only humans can use the pfc’s powers of self-awareness and future scenarios to see a dead body and realize that they themselves will one day turn into a lifeless corpse.[3] “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me” said scientist/theologian Blaise Pascal,[4] giving voice to the fear that all of us have felt since the pfc first evolved in our early ancestors.

Female figurine - Conard, Hohle Fells Cave

Female figurine dated 30-40,000 years ago, from Hohle Fell Cave, Germany

To alleviate the pain arising from this metaphysical terror, the pfc came up with one of its most important instruments: mythology.  The pfc had already mastered the function of assigning meaning to symbols: an animal footprint in the earth meant dinner was close by; a sound from a fellow tribesman meant “go hunting”.  Now it began to link all the different aspects of existence – birth and death; animals and weather; food and shelter – and structure a pattern of myth around them to make meaning of the whole thing; what psychologist Merlin Donald calls a “comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe”[5].  As biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon puts it: “We are not just applying symbolic interpretations to human words and events; all the universe has become a symbol.” [6]

35,000 year old flute, Hohle Fels Cave - Conard

35,000 year old flute from Hohle Fels Cave, Germany

Although the rise of myth probably happened earlier, we see its first expressions most clearly in the archaeological record in the Upper Paleolithic Aurignacian culture.  Two recent dramatic findings of a female figurine and a flute date from at least 35,000 years ago, and offer evidence that by this time our ancestors were fully embedded in mythological and symbolic thinking.

Check out my next post, where I’ll be talking about the pfc’s ascendancy to power… along with agriculture.

[1] Noble, W. and Davidson, I., (1991). ‘The Evolutionary Emergence of Modern Human Behaviour: Language and its Archaeology’. Man, 26 (2):223-253.


[2] Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area.

[3] Elephants are the only other mammals known to be apparently aware of the dead bones of their herd and to spend hours passing these bones to each other in what we humans would think of as a respectful ritual.

[4] Pascal, B.  Pensées, 1670

[5] Donald, M., (2001). A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. New York: Norton.

[6] Deacon, T.W., (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: Norton.


1 Comment »

  1. […] future postings on this blog, I’m going to ask you to join me on a brief tour of the archaeology of the human […]

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