The challenge of the abstract mind: symbols, signs and notational systems in European prehistory

  • Harald Haarmann Institute of Archaeomythology, Sebastopol, California
Keywords: symbolic activity in humans, representational images, abstract signs, early experiments with writing

Abstract

Since the earliest manifestations of symbolic activity in modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) in the Upper Palaeolithic, there is evidence for two independent cognitive procedures, for the production of representational images (naturalistic pictures or sculptures) and of abstract signs. The use of signs and symbols is attested for archaic humans (Homo neanderthalensis) and for Homo erectus while art in naturalistic style is an innovation among modern humans. The symbiotic interaction of the two symbolic capacities is illustrated for the visual heritage of Palaeolithic cave paintings in Southwestern Europe, for rock engravings in the Italian Alps (Val Camonica) and for the vivid use of signs and symbols in Southeastern Europe during the Neolithic. Around 5500 BC, sign use in Southeastern Europe reached a sophisticated stage of organization as to produce the earliest writing system of mankind. Since abstractness is the main theme in the visual heritage of the region, this script, not surprisingly, is composed of predominantly abstract signs.

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Published
2005-12-31
How to Cite
Haarmann, H. (2005). The challenge of the abstract mind: symbols, signs and notational systems in European prehistory. Documenta Praehistorica, 32, 221-232. https://doi.org/10.4312/dp.32.17
Section
Articles