The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man's First Art, Symbol and Notation

by Alexander Marshack

Hardcover, 1991



Call number

GN772 .M29


Moyer Bell Ltd (1991), Edition: Revised, Expanded, Subsequent, 445 pages



User reviews

LibraryThing member keylawk
{Re-write. Great ideas drawn largely from the cordage found at Lascaux, weaving the fabric of "cognitive" evolution.)

Marshack presents new ways of interpreting the origins of thought, symbolic notation, and language. He is not directly interested in origins so much as the ongoing and broadening nature of humanity.

He "reads" the pre-script record for what it reveals about human cognition. For example, the incised bone which is repeatedly over-engraved, to the extent of destroying the initial realistic image of a deer, suggesting the use of the art in some ritual.[19] Brilliant at drawing out "the story" -- which intercedes with and leads to the future, posterity. Understands the art as "notation" and its meaning in the evolution of consciousness.

Still, although the book is essentially written around the implication of the cordage found in the cave of Lascaux, he misses the drugs. Why is pharmacology so difficult? Cats go crazy over catnip. What do we do with mushrooms?

How much influence did the hallucinogenic experience have on opening the "cognitive" door? By the time hemp was used for twine, its other uses as an herb would have been well-explored.

THE FOSSIL CORD OF LASCAUX. The fossilized and carbonized cordage in Lascaux could not be botanically identified [367], but it is a clue. [375ff] The cord may have been a guide or used to descend into a ceremonial area. Other plant images. Relation in the symbolic realm with the stone oil-wick-lamp [399a - found at nearby LaMouthe, products of the same Franco-Cantabrian Ice Age culture which had broad cultural uniformity 371b].

NEANDERTHAL comparison. Larger brain than Homo sapiens. Exquisite toolmaker, user of symbols. Ritual burial, maker of red ocher and beads. Clothing made of skins, tied with thongs. Hafted tools. Still, not tied to any depictive "art".

The author begins by summarizing the 19th century concepts that influence our present ideas: The articulation of the dynamic of Evolution, Systematic Archaelogy, Comparative Anthropology, and computer-enhanced brain-imaging.

This book is an analytical attempt to describe the way in which early modern humans saw, abstracted, symbolized, and imaged their world.[Intro] The human imagery is taken as a form of reference, an inquiry into the human capacity to create models, metaphors and symbols of perceived or imagined objects in cultural time and space.

This work is now a part of the discipline of "cognitive archeology". He explores such things as the "hole" in objects as one of the most important of tools [380] along with the awl and cutting edge.

Marshack is also notable for addressing the "cognitive problem" of the extensive use of female images produced in the Ice Age. He has researched the Art in the context of notational systems for non-literate societies.

The first known therianthropic figure is from the Aurignacian, c. 30,000 BC found at Hohlenstein, Germany: a lion-headed human. Marshack refers to it as a dancing (presumably costumed) man. Yet, it is NOT dancing. It is precisely what one sees under hallucination.

"How and why did the manufacture of image and symbol begin? It language itself began, to mark and refer to the relevant, the meaningful and the recognized--and often also to the unexplained and unexplainable--to those processes, objects and relations that were recognized in the increasingly complex phenomenological and cultural realms of human observation." [408]

"A few years after Darwin published his epochal The Origins of the Species (1857)...the French neuro-anatomist Paul Broca autopsied the brain of an adult who, when he lived, had lost the capacity to speak....Broca discovered a major lesion in the frontal area of the left hemisphere and announced that the production of speech resided in that ...area." [the Author's "Backward-looking Forward"]

In the mid-19th century "art" was discovered in caves which dated back to the Ice Age of Europe. When the climate changed, the Ice Age culture collapsed, but there were new adaptations that did not.

Marshack approaches the question of origins by trying to understand the brain -- "human capacity" -- itself. Marshack rejects the argument that the Franco-Cantabrian "explosion" of creativity (animal images, venus', notation, library of signs) represented the rise of a new species. He extends back the evolution from the hominid -- the hominization.[409] The images tell a "story", an unfolding persistent and variable drama. It is not a single extraordinary event, but an expression of capacity in a particular time.
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Original language


Physical description

11.5 inches


1559210419 / 9781559210416



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