• Aboriginal Art

From Words to Worldviews: The Human Superorganism and the Origins of Language, Culture and the Self

Sociobiologist E.O Wilson has long drawn comparisons between human civilisations and the insect superorganisms that dominate the macroscopic realm. These ‘eusocial’ organisms, such as ants and termites, “belong to multiple generations. They divide labor in what outwardly at least appears to be an altruistic manner. Some take labor roles that shorten their life spans or reduce the number of their personal offspring, or both. Their sacrifice allows others who fill reproductive roles to live longer and produce proportionately more offspring.” Ants build cities, farm aphids, fungus and even plants. They operate in massive societies, one of which has been discovered stretching 4000 miles across Eurasia. In terms of sheer biomass, ants are by far the most numerous organism on earth, with some estimates in the region of 9000 million tonnes, vastly dwarfing other insect species [18]. It is the ability to act towards collective group goals, facilitated by complex communication, that gives them this immense power.

While ants have had millions of years to assert themselves over nature, humans have surpassed their dominance in just over 50,000. While ants and termites are capable of communication and coordination with a combination of postures and pheromones, humans evolved an increasingly complex system of symbols and language that increased in vocabulary and complexity as time progressed, and expanded our repertoire of tools to reorder the environment. In the words of Wilson, “we invent symbols that are intended to be understood among ourselves, and we thereby generate networks of communication many orders of magnitude greater than that of any animal. We have conquered the biosphere and laid waste to it like no other species in the history of life. We are unique in what we have wrought”.

Following the Toba catastrophe, genetic analysis of mitochondrial DNA shows that a relatively small group of humans – denoted by the L3 haplotypes – left Africa and went on to colonise Eurasia, Australia and, ultimately, the Americas, while others – identified by the L1 and L2 haplotypes, seemingly retreated back to Southern Africa [1][13]. But it is in Europe that we see the most immediate and dramatic explosion of human culture and symbolic thought; evidenced by the sudden appearance and exponential growth of technology and art from around 35,000 years ago – what is called the dawn of ‘behaviourally modern’ humans.

We see evidence appear of much more deliberate, planned actions and continuity of thought. Anthropologist Randall White shows that in Europe, there was widespread use of beads; items that would have been very time intensive to fashion out of materials such as amber, lignite and ivory – the latter of which would have taken several days to carve. From the stunning cave paintings strewn across southern Europe, to strange carved ‘Venuses’ that some have attributed to primeval, matriarchal cultures, it is clear that something fundamental had changed in the prehistoric mind and its relationship with the world. It is argued by paleoanthropologists Richard Klein, Ian Tattersall and theoretical neurophysiologist William Calvin amongst others, that language, as we understand it today, first emerged during this period.

The humans that survived this turbulent period did so because they had developed a new way of routing information through the brain, which, in turn, led to new ways to navigate and make best use of the degraded environment. The evolution of a brain region called the angular cyrus was a crucial part of the equation. This region takes sensory information from both sight and hearing and relates them together; it is no coincidence that this region is proportionately far larger in humans than in other anthropoid apes. Modern humans also have a more evolved auditory cortex than anthropoid apes and, from this, developed a region of the brain called Wernicke’s area, which draws information from the angular gyrus and associates it with ‘meaning’, essentially displaying it in context with other information. The other neural component of language developed from the motor cortex is Broca’s area, which is involved in the processing of words back into vocalisations. Thus existing cognitive structures were adapted through selection and put to use in the manufacture of words.

Sensory information, on its journey through the nervous systems, also needed somewhere to float while we decided what to do with it. Cognitive archaeologists Thomas Wynn and Fredrick Coolidge believe another crucial development during this period was the emergence of episodic working memory, or ‘autobiographical’ memory. Psychologist Randall Engle has shown there is a strong correlation between working memory and problem solving ability [26], so it stands to reason that ‘problem solving’ our way through the Toba catastrophe and its aftermath would have acted as a selection pressure. Working memory acts as a workbench that enables us to reassemble facts about the world to make best use of them. It also became the locus of personal identity, rooted in facts about our personal existence – what Heidegger would call ‘Facticity’ – that could be used to explore past events or project them into the future. In other worlds, thinking and personal identity came to be at the same time.

The Escape from Proximity

If we consider the two modes of communication in pre-humans, we have one whose strength lies in long distance transmission (vocal/aural), and another that is much more high fidelity, but limited to direct experience (visual).  One specialised in gathering and sharing environmental data for the group, especially in regard to danger; and the other in spreading tool-making behaviour patterns and social ’mind reading’. Humanity’s great leap was to mentally combine the two modes by linking aural signals to visual representations of things in the world. Archaeologist Clive Gamble calls this the “release from proximity” [14]; the ability to transmit visual information via aural means, freeing them from the bonds of pure imitation. Transmitting  ‘sight’ through sound. The result was the increasing ability to transmit high fidelity information over longer and longer distances and, more importantly, down through time.

In the ruined Africa of the Toba aftermath, the ability to transmit information about the locations of food sources and retain them in memory would have meant the difference between life and death. Having vocal labels to associate with places, things and even inner states would allow such data to be spread horizontally through the group, then afterwards, vertically through time, long after the death of the one who saw the original event.  From these first oral cultures and blossoming of symbolic thought would have come longer strings of statements. Compound words would have, over time, allowed more granular understanding of the world; words, combined together as one might build a spear from wood, rock and ochre. As primatologist Jane Goodall states, “they could discuss what happened in the past and make complex contingency plans for both the near and the distant future… [t]he interaction of mind with mind broadening ideas sharpened concepts’. Language, combined with problem solving and cultural memory, began the culminate process of the intentional, ordered altering of the physical composition of the environment. This slow accumulation of information about the world would, in time, lead to its profound transformation.

Along with the accumulation of environmental and cultural data, new methods were developed to preserve and transmit it to new generations, and new frameworks were devised from these fragments of fact. The incredible cave paintings that characterise the Upper Palaeolithic, at first, posed something of a puzzle. Located deep within the Earth and in places difficult to get to, even with modern technology, they at first appear hugely inconvenient locations to practice any sort of craft.  However it is now thought the caves were chosen, in part, for potential as canvases, but also for their acoustic properties. If that is the case, it is possible they were used for some form of ritual behaviour.

Rituals are not only common amongst modern tribal cultures, but ubiquitous in modern religions, in many forms. One of the most ubiquitous cultural traditions are ‘coming of age’ ceremonies that introduce children to the world of adults, often accompanying new responsibilities and revelations. We know that common ritual behaviours such as music, dancing and rhythmic drumming can induct trance states, open up areas of the brain associated with memory and language, as well as releasing endorphins and inducing feelings of wellbeing [13]. In other words, rituals form the ideas and circumstances to transmit information between minds and commit them to long term memory.

With this in mind, we can imagine how these caves may have looked to the Palaeolithic children being inducted into the tribe, taken from a world of relative silence to subterranean temples, decorated with primeval infographics of bison and deer, illuminated by the ethereal glow of torches. To rhythmic chants reverberating around the underworld, stories would be told of quasi-mystical creatures; perhaps explaining where they lived, how they behaved, where they fit in the worldview of the tribe, and, ultimately, how to track and kill them. These were ancient rituals that forged distinct neurological pathways of how to perceive the world and react to it, repeated over the generations and transmitted down through time – in some cases, over ten thousand years.

Living Information Systems

Australian Aborigines Songlines

Slowly, a shared imagination of the world, based on this rich, environmental data, emerged to cover all knowledge in the immediate environment; all the best hunting grounds and safe caves; methods of carving wood and tanning hides; ways of creating glues and sewing clothes; the best places to forage, and the safest ways to avoid predators and stalk prey. Just as these cognitive transformations formed the seeds of personal identity, collectively, a group identity also emerged from this shared understanding. Just as facts about the world constituted the narrative mythology of the individual, so stories were built to explain the past and future of the group itself, as a tool to make sense of who they are, that also acted as a framework with which to manoeuvre, predict and exploit the natural world.

Once language took hold, technological evolution was ‘autocatalytic’, with each new invention making others likelier. We see evidence of a technological explosion including flint tools, needles, and pits in human camps to store food. There was also an exponential increase in the variety of ‘composite’ tools, and the emergence of sophisticated projectile weapons such as spears and, eventually, bows and arrows, gave the newborn human super-organism an almost unfair advantage over prey. A wave of extinctions followed this technological renaissance as we moved throughout Europe, Asia and Australia. But the technology that empowered us the most was not the physical tools we fashioned from rock and beast, but the cognitive technology of shared ideology that enabled these physical transformations to begin with.

Unlike tribal societies the world over, the Aborigines of Australia never developed bow and arrow technology, leading us to think they migrated extremely early in the Upper Palaeolithic, perhaps as long ago as 46,000 years ago, after which they remained relatively isolated from cultural evolution elsewhere. Their culture is the nearest we get to a fossilised worldview, and it offers a unique look into how our remote ancestors may have organised both their society and environmental data

It is built on what one might call social information technology that took the form of narratives that wove together the metadata of the phenomenal world built on a framework easy to understand for any human; genealogy. In his research into these societies a century ago, sociologist Émile Durkheim was fascinated to see how aboriginal tribes divided into “moieties”; social units which were further subdivided into smaller units or “clans”. Each of these were associated with a natural element – such as a type of animal, plant or star – and remained experts on it. In essence they became specialised nodes in a networked information system that covered all knowledge of the local environment. “In fact the moiety is the Genus… the marriage class is the species… we are no longer dealing with a simple dichotomy of things… but with hierarchised concepts” In essence, the society itself was a living information system.

The philosopher Hilary Putnam called this the “linguistic division of labour”; analogous to Adam Smith’s economic division of labour, in which nested networks and hierarchies of experts act as repositories of information within a society. Known as the ‘Causal theory of reference’, this model views all knowledge as fundamentally networked and relational in nature, and in which each mind is a node that both stores and processes environmental data. This form of highly detailed, distributed information system is common amongst tribal cultures. Anthropologist Cecil Brown conducted extensive research into how pre-literate humans understood their environment. He concluded there is an extensive overlap in how tribal groups from across the globe organise information, using hierarchical categories around five or six levels deep, modelled on a genealogical tree [6]. (Something akin to this may well have began to develop during the Middle Palaeolithic before being cut short by the volcanic catastrophe.) It is from similar ‘folk taxonomies’ that Aristotle ultimately derived his influential work; an influence on Western thought to this day.

Just as Aboriginal society mirrored its understanding of the local environment, ‘songlines’ made it possible to link these local databases together into what amounts to a vast data repository of the entire Australian continent. Via these recitations, learned by each new generation at coming of age ceremonies, a single individual could, in theory, travel across the unforgiving outback by singing verses that outlined mountains, watering holes, honey ants and their relationships to one another. The way-finders on these journey of ‘the Dreaming’ also took the form of rock paintings, some of which are still maintained and repainted by aboriginal communities, in a tradition that may go back forty thousand years. These oral roadmaps were part mythology, part world history, part survival guide [8]. But taken together, they were a networked method of how to navigate and make use of the environment to aid our survival.

Such social information systems, while elaborate, were only scratching the surface of what networked humans were capable of. And, on the other side of the world, were about to move to a whole new level of complexity.


1. Wilson, Edward O, The Social Conquest of Earth, Liveright, 2012

2. Quoted from Calvin, William H, A Brief History Of The Mind: From Apes To Intellect And Beyond, Oxford University Press, 2005

3. Morley, Ian, Evolution of the Physiological and Neurological Capacities for Music, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 2002

4. National Geographic, “Hot Tub Monkeys” Offer Eye on Nonhuman “Culture”, 2004

5. Ramachandran, Vilayanur, Mirror neurones and imitation learning as the driving force behind “the great leap forward” in human evolution, Edge.org, 2000

6. Wright, Alex. Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages. National Academies Press, 2007

7. Linden, David J, The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008

8. Morville, Peter, Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become, O’Reilly Media, 2005

9. Quoted from Shields, David, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, Knopf, 2010

10. McCrone, John, The Myth of Irrationality: The Science of the Mind from Plato to Star Trek, Carroll & Graf Pub, 1994

11. Hawking, Stephen, The Grand Design, 2010

12. Rogers, Connie, Revealing Behavior in ‘Orangutan Heaven and Human Hell’, 2005

13. Stringer, Chris, The Origin of our Species, Penguin, 2011

14. Gamble, Clive, Palaeolithic Society and the Release from Proximity: A Network Approach to Intimate Relations, World Archaeology, 1998

15.  Himelfarb, Elizabeth J., Prehistoric Body Painting, Archaeology Magazine Volume 53 Number 4, July/August 2000

16. King, Barbara, Roots of Human Behavior, The Teaching Company

17. Adam Powell, Stephen Shennan, Mark G. Thomas, Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behavior, Science, 2009

18. Biomass (Wikipedia)

19. Bronowski, Jacob, The Ascent of Man, 1973

20. Fukuyama, Francis, The Origins of Political Order, 2011 

21. Yong, Ed, Boom-boom-krak-oo – Campbell’s monkeys combine just six ‘words’ into rich vocabulary

22. Everett, Daniel: Language; The Cultural Tool.

23.  Penn, Derek C. and Povinelli, Daniel J., Causal Cognition in Human and Nonhuman Animals: A Comparative, Critical Review, Annual Review of Psychology, 2007

24. Arthur, Brian W., The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, 2012

25. Blaisdell, Aaron, Rational Behaviour in Rats, 2010

26. Klingberg, Torkel, The Overflowing Brain, Oxford University Press, 2009


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