It is important to point out that symbolism is not merely an augmentation of nonsymbolic capabilities. Instead, it is something entirely different. Schwartz and Tattersall continue, “Symbolic and nonsymbolic cognitive states are clearly separated by a qualitative gulf: the former is not simply an extension of the latter, a little bit more of the same.2
So, although animals communicate, they don’t possess the open-ended ability to communicate through the use of symbols, a capacity that defines human language.
As a Christian, I see the symbolic capacity of human beings as an outworking of the image of God. If symbolism is intertwined with the image of God, then this capacity should be unique to modern humans. Evidence for symbolism in the archaeological record should coincide with the first appearance of modern humans. In fact, these two expectations are key predictions of the RTB human origins model. (For more details, see Who Was Adam?)
There is good evidence that symbolism (in the form of art and spoken language) coincides with the origin of modern humans. There is also good evidence that human beings alone possess the capacity for symbolism. Claims that Neanderthals made art don’t stand up to scrutiny. (For details, see the list of resources below.)
So, if symbolism coincides with the origin of modern humans, why does written language take so long to appear? The scientific data indicates that modern humans emerged around 100,000 to 150,000 years ago—yet the oldest written language, Sumer, didn’t emerge in Mesopotamia until around 3200 BC.
It is important to emphasize that the symbolic capacity that makes written language possible was in place well before then. Human beings already employed spoken words as ephemeral symbols; written language is merely representing these transient symbols in a more permanent manner. In this sense, it appears as if written language is a late human invention. It is probably best to view the emergence of written language as a technical innovation that grew out of cultural evolution, not as a manifestation of a new human capability.
Even though we are far advanced technologically, we are no different from our recent ancestors in terms of our cognitive capacity. The same is true when we compare our capabilities today with those of the first modern humans. For example, they used needles made from ivory to sew hides together; we use computer-programmed sewing machines to create clothing and synthetic fabrics. Both technologies reflect the human capacity for symbolism. The only difference is millennia of cultural evolution (powered by our symbolic capabilities, by the way). The same could be said for written language.
In regards to the origin of written language, a number of archaeologists point out that the precursors to written language were in place even before humans began to migrate around the world (around 60,000 years ago). Anthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has argued that there are 32 geometric signs that appear in cave walls throughout Europe and Southeast Asia, dating between 40,000 and 10,000 years in age. (See the list of resources.) These geometric markings occur more frequently on cave walls than do artistic depictions of animals. They also remain largely unchanged over geography and time. Von Petzinger posits that this consistency indicates that these symbols were likely used as a form of graphic communication, a proto-writing. The fact that these symbols appear in cave sites in Europe and Southeast Asia means that the first modern humans possessed proto-writing prior to 60,000 years ago.
To my knowledge, there is no evidence for painted geometric shapes in cave sites in Africa, but archaeologists have unearthed red ochre with engravings in the Blombos Cave of South Africa that evinces symbolism. Could it be that these engravings were examples of proto-writing?
In short, the late appearance of written language shouldn’t be a problem for the traditional biblical understanding of human origins (or the RTB human origins model). There is no discrepancy between the biblical account of human origins and the archaeological record if written language is rightly viewed as a technical innovation that was developed out of the use of geometric symbols, which may very well trace back to humanity’s origin. Both written language and pre-writing symbolism are manifestations of human symbolic capacity and reflect the image of God in humanity.