Spirituality Magazine

Actual & Imagined Agency

By Cris

As serendipity would have it, during the past few weeks I have been immersed in arguments about the Upper Paleolithic transition some 45,000 years ago. Something critical and different seems to have occurred about this time, but what that something was is the subject of considerable dispute. Because clear indicators of supernatural belief and ritual activity appear during this transition, this is a matter of considerable interest for deep historians of religion.

Although some argue there was no Upper Paleolithic “revolution” and there is no real boundary or difference between the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, it is difficult to ignore the relatively rapid appearance (and spread) of new kinds of art, adornment, tools, technologies, and techniques. What were the causes? The arguments vary from biological mutations to demographic factors. The former arguments are saltational, whereas the latter are gradualist.

Paradoxical though it may seem, these arguments may not be mutually exclusive. Gradual biological and cultural changes accumulating over the course of 2 million years (i.e., since the appearance of the genus Homo) might easily have resulted in something like a Eureka event. At some point, the combined effect of biological and cultural co-evolution reached critical mass, with the result being what Marvin Harris called “cultural liftoff.”

In “The Human Adaptation for Culture,” Michael Tomasello makes a persuasive argument for something along these lines:

Human beings are biologically adapted for culture in ways that other primates are not, as evidenced most clearly by the fact that only human cultural traditions accumulate modifications over historical time (the ratchet effect). The key adaptation is one that enables individuals to understand other individuals as intentional agents like the self….These novel forms of cultural learning allow human beings to, in effect, pool their cognitive resources both contemporaneously and over historical time in ways that are unique in the animal kingdom.

Although Tomasello rightly focuses on the unique human attributes involving agency and intentionality — cognitive abilities that play an essential role in generating supernatural concepts — I find most interesting his idea that language acquisition is made possible by a long preceding period of language development:

One of the most interesting things about the process of language acquisition is that…today’s child is learning the whole historically derived conglomeration. Consequently, when the child learns the conventional use of these well-traveled symbols, what she is learning is the ways her forbears in the culture found useful for manipulating the attention of others in the past.

We probably do not need a mutation of the FOXP2 or other genes to explain the Upper Paleolithic transition. It surely took a great deal of time to develop language, not in a biological sense, but in a cultural one. Nouns, verbs, predicates, subjects, objects, and everything else that makes language fully recursive and grammatical did not suddenly appear. But at some point and in some populations, language flowered into something like modern fluency.

This may account for what Ofer Bar-Josef and others insist was a “revolution” during the Upper Paleolithic. It also probably marks the beginning of fully developed forms of supernaturalism and early shamanisms.

Update: In a recent post, John Hawks agrees with the suggestion that language depends less on genes and more on environment:

Language development is developmentally robust because it can rely on a rich language environment, not because of genetic standardization. The basic problems of language evolution must be explained by showing how robust language communities emerged.

I don’t preclude genetics, far from it — weaker language environments may have become stronger because of evolutionary change. But that evolution must have been substantially domain-general, because language processing is not specifically canalized by genetics.

I like this scenario because it means we shouldn’t be looking for lots of language-specific genetic changes in the last few hundred thousand years.

If this is indeed the case, we may never know which ancestral populations achieved the critical mass of language fluency that surely played a prominent role in the most recent Out of Africa event and the subsequent peopling of the world. Language communities do not fossilize, and if genes were not the ultimate catalyst, identifying this population or group will be impossible.


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