Beyond Material Culture: Reconstructing the Contents of Paleolithic Philosophies

AppEEL is organizing an Invited Symposium for Protolang 6 on Beyond Material Culture, Reconstructing the Contents of Paleolithic Cosmologies. Speakers include Vera da Silva Sinha, Chris Sinha, Michael Rappenglück, Harald Gropp, and Nathalie Gontier.

September 10th, 2019

Beyond material culture: Reconstructing the contents of paleolithic philosophies

Organized by Nathalie Gontier and chaired by Chris Sinha


There presently exists an explanatory gap between archaeological data on material culture that lends insight into the rise of behavioral and cognitive modernity on the one hand, and on the other, the first written documents that detail the earliest forms of philosophical, religious, and scientific thought. In this session, we look for bridges and analyze what sources are available to us when we want to investigate the origin and content of cosmologies in human and hominin cultures, and we analyze how cosmologies -that are transmitted via linguistic narratives, rituals, and practices- exemplify and facilitate our general niche construction abilities.

Vera da Silva Sinha & Chris Sinha - What can anthropological linguistic research tell us about the cultural evolution of concepts of time?

The study of ancient cosmologies often addresses the question of what archaeological investigations tell us about the evolution of concepts of time. Ancient artifacts from Inca quipu to Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt prompt fascinating speculation about the cultural evolution of calendric systems, and their use in measuring time and predicting astronomical events. However, we have compelling evidence that numerically based metric time (“calendar time” and “clock time”) is not universal in extant human cultures. We report on our research on four Amazonian languages and cultures in which temporal landmarks and intervals are exclusively event-based. We present evidence of the employment of event-based time concepts, and of cognitive artifacts for event-based time reckoning, in everyday life. Event-based time concepts, we hypothesize, are universal in human cultures, and almost certainly antedate the emergence of metric time systems.

Nathalie Gontier - Element thinking in early cosmologies

Early philosophies, religions and sciences all refer to major “elements”: air/wind, water, fire, earth, void/space/ether, wood, metal. These are concepts that also underlie some of the most beautiful artworks our species have ever developed. Beyond associating with the natural phenomena they denote, these elements furthermore are designated with qualia such as colors and temperature, and they are associated with body parts and personality traits, seasons and time keeping, planets and their motions. We will demonstrate how element thinking can lend insight into human diaspora in general and in particular in the genealogy of philosophical thought.

Michael Rappenglück - The cosmic tree of life and worlds: Symbols, myths, and rituals explain an archaic concept of cosmologies in cultures

With the emergence of self-consciousness, based on reasoning, language, and counting, humans developed models for understanding functionality of the ecosphere as well as the human position in it and the interaction with it. Among them, partially traced into the Paleolithic, are the cave, tree, mountain, and housing of the world. This talk focuses on the World Tree, appearing in symbols, myths, rituals, and archaeological records worldwide. It served as an impressive mnemonic, well-suited to illustrate an archaic cosmology. As Tree of Life / Death and of Illumination the concept is extended beyond the astronomical code and delivers ideas about the human realm of experience. Systems of power, jurisdiction, and social order were based on the cosmological model of the World Tree, too. The study applies an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary methodology.

Harald Gropp - Protogeometry between words and numbers

Geometry in the last 2300 years has been dominated, at least in the West, by so-called Euclidean geometry. This means that for prehistory we have to discuss different concepts of geometry. On the other hand, it is not only words (of spoken and written) language and numbers (written in numerical notation or implicitly in counting) but also geometry (such as diagrams, graphs, and schemes and perhaps also symbols) in which human and also animal “thoughts” are expressed. In this talk it will be discussed how cycles and circles in prehistory can be studied. Circles in time derive from the movements of the sun, the moon, and other celestial objects in the sky. Cycles in space may occur in nature or may be “constructed” by humans, such as round buildings or objects on the Nebra disc.

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