The emergence of symbolic material cultures and modern cognition: putting the African record in a global perspective

Presented by ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences

2015 Mulvaney Lecture

Professor Francesco d’Errico
University of Bordeaux, Pessac, France

In his 2012 paper in Antiquity John Mulvaney rightly raises arms against a simplistic view of the origins of symbolic behaviour, specifically one that ignores evidence from Australia. In my talk I will argue that a similar stand can be taken when examining the record from other regions of the world. The origin of symbolic material culture, long associated with a rapid cognitive change in Europe 40 ka, is now considered by many to have gradually emerged in Africa, in conjunction with the origin of our species. Others associate symbolic artefacts and burial practices with Neanderthals, suggesting symbolic behaviour is not peculiar to our species.

While a number of innovations documented in Africa may reasonably be seen as reflecting the emergence of symbolically mediated behaviour, the archaeological record suggests that this tells only part of the story. Many key innovations are restricted to a small number of African sites. More importantly, many instances of symbolic material culture recorded in Africa, the Near East, disappear abruptly between 70 ka and 50 ka. In which case were these integral features of those cultural systems or just the expressions of isolated, discontinuous traditions? The aim of this presentation is to reassess what we know and don’t know about the origin of symbolic material cultures in Africa and Eurasia. This paper models the origins of innovations, their maintenance and transmission.

Professor Francesco d’Errico is widely accredited as the foremost, active scholar on the emergence of symbolically mediated behaviour. Currently d’Errico is director of the Sub-Department of Prehistory, Paleoenvironment and Cultural Heritage at the University of Bordeaux and a Professor in the Department of Archaeology, University of Bergen. D’Errico is author of two internationally significant books, editor of four monographs and has published 250 articles. Most of these are in peer reviewed journals, with multiple submissions published in Science, Nature, PNAS, Journal of Human Evolution, Quaternary Science Reviews and Current Anthropology. He has been ranked by Thomson Reuters among the top 1% most cited and active researchers on the planet. Prof. d’Errico has been plenary speaker at conferences around the world, and this is the first time presenting his research in Australia.

This lecture is part of The Archaeology of Portable Art: South East Asian, Pacific, and Australian Perspectives. For more information about the conference visit: