Icon to Symbol: A Change in Homo sapiens

            Over 100,000 years ago, Home sapiens were an iconic culture (Barham, 2002). For this paper, an iconic culture is one that uses conventional interpretations for images. For example, a picture of the sun can only represent the sun, and a statue of a man can only represent the man in the statue. Due to a change in social and cognitive development of human beings, the need for a symbolic culture grew and allowed for modern language to develop (Rossano, 2010). Those cognitive and social changes will be looked at to get an idea of why symbols developed and why language evolved as it did.

            Neanderthals’ social development took a much different path than Homo sapiens’ (Rossano, 2010) and these social differences were large factors in Homo sapiens dominance and eventual symbolic development. Both male and female Neanderthals were typically the same physical stature as each other where as male Homo sapiens were typically physically larger than females. Since hunting was the most important aspect for survival, naturally the strongest individuals were the hunters. Hunting was dangerous, and as such, male and female Neanderthals were responsible for it. Male Homo sapiens were strictly responsible for their societies hunting based on their physical size and therefore females were able to create a home environment where they could safely interact with each other and raise their children. According to Rossano, this interaction was integral in the development of symbols and language. They were now able to hold their babies more often and were safe to interact with them in ways that Neanderthals were not.

Bar-Yosef (2002) suggests that the more complex social life of Homo sapiens led to their development of symbols, and language, while the Neanderthals were not able to. The biggest reason being that the extra interaction Homo sapiens women had with their infants, allowed the infants’ brains to develop more. Symbol creation is hard for a fully developed, adult brain to conceive of because of the relationships a fully developed brain has made with icons (Elman, 1993). However, the immature brain of a child can make symbolic connections easier because they do not have the hindrance of knowing that symbols do not exactly represent what they are symbolizing.  For example, it is easier for a child to accept that the image of a plant sprouting of the ground represents life if they have never seen a plant sprouting out of the ground before. Whereas a developed adult brain would have a harder time making that connection because a sprouting plant to them represents a sprouting plant. The extra socialization that infants were being introduced to allowed for more advanced brain development and a propensity to fathom symbols.

With this understanding, it can be said that birth of symbols came from a new, safer social structure where infants and children could interact with adults like no other children had before. This interaction allowed their brains to develop faster which, in turn, allowed for the creation of symbols, and language. Language and writing are obviously important social aspects in our lives, but a social culture appears to have been equally important in language’s and writing’s development.

The use of symbols drastically changed the way humans think, but in order for symbols to become common use, humans had to drastically change their way of thinking. Because of this, symbols did not develop overnight. Humans developed indexical signs after iconic ones, but before symbolic ones (Peirce, 1931). An indexical sign does not exactly signify what they are indicating like an icon does, but there is a very close connection. For example, smoke would be an indexical signal for fire. While it is not fire itself, you would have had to have seen fire in order to make the connection between smoke and fire. Symbolic signs have no connection to the object they are representing. The letters ‘f-i-r-e’ represent fire to us, but only because we have accepted that they do.

Indexical signs are a not as complicated as symbolic ones. However, the thought process for understanding them is similar. It might be necessary to understand icons first before understanding indexes, and then understand indexes before understanding symbols (Peirce, 1931; Nelson, 1973). Reading symbols is hierarchical then. In order for a symbolic culture to emerge from an iconic one there had to be increased social interaction first of all, and then an increased capacity to comprehend a complex symbolic communication system. The increased social interaction just happened to be the catalyst for this increased capacity.

Understanding how we developed as a species gives a glimpse as to how we developed a symbol based communication system. Humans are a social species. Language and writing allow us to be social, but our need to be social is what created a need for language and writing in the first place. Transportation has allowed us to travel hundreds or thousands of kilometres from people that we care about and communicate with. Our desire to be social, as demonstrated by Homo sapiens, has created ways to continue to communicate with each other over those long distances. Telegraph, radio, telephone, and now internet are all ways of using language to communicate with each other. This social desire today, and therefore language, can be traced back to early humans emerging social culture.


Barham, L. (2002). Systemic pigment use in the Middle Pleistocene of south-central Africa. Current Anthropology 43. 181-190. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/ca.2002.43.issue-1

Bar-Yosef, O. (2002). The Upper Palaeolithic revolution. Annual Review of Anthropology 31. 363-393. doi: 10.1146

Elman, J. (1993). Learning and development in neural networks: the importance of starting small. Cognition 48.: 71-99. doi: 10.1016/0010-0277(93)90058-4

Nelson, K. (1973). Structure and strategy in learning to talk. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 38. Chicago: University of Chicago Press for the Society for Research in Child Development

Peirce, C.S. (1978). The collected papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol. 2. C. Hartshorne, P. Weiss, and A. W. Burks, eds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rossano, M. J. (2010). Making Friends, Making Tools, and Making Symbols. Current Anthropology, 51(1). 89-98. doi: 10.1086/650481

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