The phrase “assign symbolic significance to” demonstrates the imprisonment of academics by the academic phrase. Some academic’s intellectual apparatus must have at some point elided three concepts, symbol [as in a ping that stands for a non-contingent concept, like fish for Jesus], mind [as in the fatuous quasi-Cartesian concept “fully modern mind”] and significance [as in, in semiotic terms, the complex referent of a sign] and without further analysis the phrase “assign symbolic significance to” became not only a fixture in academic output, but a putative scientific concept, a proxy for what happened when Homo sapiens “achieved full modernity”. However, “assign symbolic significance to” suggests that there was something, a concept, symbolic significance, already at hand which early humans, including Neanderthals, might assign to things. This is clearly bollocks. Just to get things straight, symbolic significance is a relationship dependent on both the sign, a fish, and the signified, Jesus. Both components are necessary. If a neanderthal woman hung a pair of eagle claws round her neck, that is assumed by academics, I guess, to be the sign. But where’s the signified. By what process can the existence of a signified even be deduced? When a girl today goes out on the town, does she put a necklace round her neck as an act of attribution of symbolic significance? No, to put it politely. Likewise, the neanderthal girl put a couple of eagle claws round her neck because she thought they looked good and that made her feel good. Like her modern counterpart it is fatuous to assume that she did it in order to attribute symbolic significance to something unknown.
However it is possible that the process to which this vacuous trope refers is one not of adornment or decoration but the act of recognition that occurred when an Australopithecus saw and picked up the Makapansgat Pebble and carried it to where it was found by archaeologists three million years later [if this purported manuport proves not to have been one at all, the following also applies to when you yourself see a face in a damp patch on a wall]. That proto-person did not have a category symbolic significance in its head which it “assigned” to this pebble. That is patently absurd. What it did have is a category face within the wider category my conspecific. Face was and is a ping constantly on the alert—my digital camera has got it, which suggests how widely distributed it is across the metaverse.
The logical, direction-of-time sensitive point is that if the australopithecus did that (“assigned symbolic significance to” the stone) it must before it did it have had the ability to do it, otherwise it couldn’t have done it. It already had that ability not because it had previously somehow thought out in its australopithicene brain what it would do if it ever found a stone with a human face on it [it would “assign symbolic significance” to it]. It had that ability before the action because all the components of that ability were already distributed about the zone of the metaverse of which its ideoverse was a node, ready to contribute to the act of recognition.
All animals are alert to things they do not immediately recognise, because each might be a danger. Is that a shadow of a bush or the shadow of a lion? We are all, all mammals, particularly alert to eyes fixed on us, eyes of a conspecific, eyes of a jaguar, eyes of a spider; eyes of a pebble, so what? This early hominin saw this pebble and recognised in it the ping, human face, as rendered by the visual cortex and fusiform gyrus. “But”, retorts the academic, “a pebble cannot have eyes. All academics know that. Therefore this early hominin must have known that too, and reasoned, ‘this pebble cannot actually have eyes, but it looks as if it has. It is significant to me, not because I saw and still see a human face in its surface, but because in doing so, while in fact I know it is just a pebble, it in some way represents a human face, it is a symbol with “the human face” as its referent, and on this basis, the attribution of symbolic significance, and this basis alone, I am going to pick it up and take it home.’”
What actually happened, I suggest, was more along these lines. Since by this time the extended proto-human phenotype was already emergent and diversified well beyond that of any ape [the putative first worked stone tools are of a similar date] and dependent on its symbiosis with an alert organism-centred emerging intellectual apparatus, we can assume that this intellectual apparatus would go through the same information exchange with the object as happened when it was searching for stones that might be good tools, worked or merely found. It saw a pebble and recognised within its surface a human face. It would, did, then pick it up and take it home with the rest of its found stones, as a recognised object, therefore worth further attention.
From there one can improvise; this was not a unique experience, over the millions of years people and animals were seen in the surface of rocks, and in time amplified with pigment. The interest was shared, huge questions arose, how did the face get into the stone, is the rest of the person in there somehow? Is that all of them, and if not in what form do they extend from the stone (how is their existence distributed? ). There might even have been a sceptic, no, it’s just a stone, it has marks on it, a lot of stones have marks on them, if you look at it one way it looks like a human face, if you look at it the other way up it looks like a small megalith being rolled on two logs. It’s called representation, when one thing looks like another. Happens all the time mate. Tell you one thing mate. If ever, thousands and thousands of years hence some idiot calls it “attribution of symbolic significance” they’ll be as half-arsed as you are. Person inside a stone indeed!