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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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Could you explain the logical link between red ochre and symbolic thinking? It would seem to me that we could reliably conclude decorative use of red ochre, but unless we had actual imagery made in red ochre, we don't have a strong basis for deducing symbolic thinking from the presence of red ochre. What am I missing?
BLOGGER: It is a mistake to think that symbols must be images, especially in the case of red ochre which is often used symbolically to represent blood. Many other symbols, especially religious symbols, are shapes rather than images. We live in a world where plenty of decoration is meaningless, but anthropologists and archaeologists maintain that our state of affairs is highly idiosyncratic. There are many societies that have symbols without having meaningless decorations, but there are no societies that have meaningless decorations while having no symbols. In traditional societies, decorations, especially body decorations, always have meaning. Thus, although it may be possible to find Americans with decorative tattoos, it is just about impossible to find a Polynesian whose tattoos do not carry some meaning about the wearer. Red ochre has been used throughout history as a body smear symbolizing blood. Red ochre mines of very great age (hundreds of thousands of years) have been found. Does this prove that the red ochre found near Pinnacle Point was used symbolically? No, but I think it is up to the “big bang” theorists to prove their point. They hold that language is a recent development and ALL the body organs that support language, like the vocal cords, are exaptations that developed for some other purpose and were co-opted for linguistic purposes. Their evidence for this unlikely scenario has been the very late appearance of symbolic uses, so, if they want to maintain their story, it’s up to them to show that despite the ancient use of red ochre symbols were still unknown to the species.


Thanks for the explanation; I remain confused on the core argument, which I take to be this:

We know that the use of red ochre in hunter-gatherer societies is always symbolic in some fashion. Therefore we extrapolate this backwards in time to conclude that the use of red ochre in hunter-gatherer societies 160,000 years ago was also symbolic in some fashion.

What bothers me about this is the assumption that it's safe to extrapolate this evidence from modern times. Now, I realize that we do a lot of this kind of extrapolation for a great many behaviors. But this particular extrapolation bothers me because it is being used in a different fashion: we're not extrapolating a single behavior, but an association between behaviors (use of red ochre and symbolic use of red ochre). That extrapolation is a longer stretch, it seems to me.

The question in my mind is, what is the likelihood that early humans used red ochre solely as decoration? I would expect that red ochre would have been first used in the simplest manner possible -- pure decoration -- and then, at some later point, it was used in more elaborate (and presumably symbolic fashion). But if this reasoning be true, then the presence of red ochre at any site does not imply symbolic thinking.

Now, you seem to be saying that the burden of proof here is on those who deny a necessary relationship between use of red ochre and symbolic thinking. I'd suggest that we rely on Occam's Razor here. The simpler hypothesis is that there is no relationship between use of red ochre and symbolic thinking. I'd therefore expect that the burden of proof would fall on those who maintain that the current relationship between use of red ochre and symbolic thinking can be applied to all past uses of red ochre.
BLOGGER: I don't think it is simpler to assume that decoration precedes symbolic activity. Decorative activity is not known in the animal or traditional world. It might have come in and gone out, but that complicates the story rather than simplifies it.

I'm also not sure that pure decoration, that is decoration that serves only the eye, is even possible. I have a feeling that it always tries to make something be other than what it is and therefore always serves some implicitly symbolic purpose; however, that idea is for a much longer essay.


Now I understand. My mistake was in the unrecognized assumption that decoration is cognitively distinguishable from symbolic thinking. What revealed the mistake was my attempt to come up with an example of a decoration that doesn't have any symbolic significance. I went first to the Islamic visual arts, which eschew all forms of representation, yet remain strongly symbolic. After trying and rejecting some other examples, I concluded that the only example I could think of for purely decorative, non-symbolic behavior was the bowerbird. And even then we can't be sure that there isn't some sort of symbolism involved.

Thanks for straightening me out.


Kinda nicely written actually. :)

Al de Leon

Symbolism has always been a tricky issue for me. It is sometimes powerful that it makes you ponder on things deeply. When you fail to discover what something symbolizes, it makes you want to dig into its core even deeper. I am the type of person who believes in the purposes of things, so I find this article a good eye-opener. I like the “body decorations always have meaning” idea. For me, it is a perfectly nice thought. I also find the topic suited for someone who aims to further his or her education. Since the theory leaves everyone skeptical, it can be an excellent admissions essay topic for someone who is into a scholarship finder.

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