In my view, language is deep in nature, its expressive forms evolving from highly complex forms of chemical and electrical communication within a single organism, between any organism and the environment with which it must communicate to survive, and between organisms, of the same or of cooperating or competing species.
Psychedelic use has been connected with our earliest symbolic artifacts, especially in the rock art of Paleolithic cultures on all continents by way of the resemblance of the abstract signs to Heinrich Kluver’s “form constants.” Genevieve von Petzinger’s anthropological study of these abstract signs in French parietal art suggests that these abstract signs represent early symbolic communication.1
Six categories of entoptic phenomena compared with San and Coso rock art and Paleolithic rock art. From Lewis-Williams article, "Signs of All Times." (Lewis-Williams 1988)
Terence McKenna’s Shaggy Primate Story
“My contention is that mutation-causing, psychoactive chemical compounds in the early human diet directly influenced the rapid reorganization of the brain’s information-processing capacities. Alkaloids in plants, specifically the hallucinogenic compounds such as psilocybin, dimethyltriptamine (DMT), and harmaline, could be the chemical factors in the protohuman diet that catalyzed the emergence of human self-reflection.
The action of hallucinogens present in many common plants enhanced our information-processing activity, or environmental sensitivity, and thus contributed to the sudden expansion of the human brain size. At a later stage in this same process, hallucinogens acted as catalysts in the development of imagination, fueling the creation of internal stratagems and hopes that may well have synergized the emergence of language and religion.”2
A beautifully rendered comic book by Electricsheep Comix, “The First Word,” tells the “Shaggy Primate Story” in pictures.
Mammoth Bone Inscription
Robert Bednarik’s exhaustively researched rock art studies around the world propose a theory of the origins of symbol making and language that push the date for our symbolizing back to the one million year BP61 mark. He posits a long gradual history of language and symbol using (cultural) development and sharply critiques the “leap into language” hypothesis which has been the “standard model” in archeology, tying the development of language to the development of iconic art in the caves of Europe beginning 35,000 BP. His critique is based on evidence from the development of technologies, culture, genetic research, and physical anthropology.
As he sees it, In anthropocentric and humanistic disciplines, the definitions of what indicates characteristics such as culture or language are routinely revised in response to the threat that such characteristics might be attributed to non-human interloper species. In this case, that practice is extended to “pre-modern” homonids that need to be excluded from some perceived exalted status of modern humans. In reality, there can be no doubt that humans do not possess one single definable, measurable or observable characteristic that is not shared by another species. The humanist inclination of maintaining, perhaps subconsciously, a qualitative separation between humans and non-human animals (or between “Moderns” and archaic H. sapiens) is ultimately attributable to the religio-cultural individual reality scholars exist in.3
Rock art, Nvi, Columbia. From Schultes, Plants of the Gods.
Bednarik acknowledges a connection between the rock art symbols and entoptic phenomena, but sees those marks as early symbolizing activity (of which we can only guess the meanings) rather than “just” an expression of an altered state of consciousness.
Anasazi rock art, Cedar Mesa area, Utah. Photograph by Diana Slattery, 2009.
Rock Art, India.
Cupules—dot-like excavations in rock faces—are prevalent the world over, and, because they take a long time to deteriorate, are some of our oldest surviving symbolic remnants. Research in archeoastronomy attempts to map the presence and placement of cupules as markers of astronomical events such as solstices, indicating a high level of symbolic processes very early in our cultural evolution.
Cupules on the northern wall of Dariki-Chattan Cave, India, 200,000 to 500,000 BP.
von Petzinger, Genevieve. Making the Abstract Concrete: The Place of Geometric Signs in French Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art, Master’s Thesis, University of Victoria, 2005. [↩]
McKenna, T. (1992b). Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge. New York, Bantam Books. [↩]
Bednarik, R. (2006). Semiotix Course 2006: Cognition and Symbolism in
Human Evolution. [↩]