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Code hidden in Stone Age art may be the root of human writing (2016) (newscientist.com)
90 points by longdefeat 13 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 38 comments

> Our ability to represent a concept with an abstract sign is something no other animal, not even our closest cousins the chimpanzees, can do. It is arguably also the foundation for our advanced, global culture.

Human chauvinisms.

Until we can objectively test the likelihood of humans that have never been taught a language, like "feral children" [0], to spontaneously develop a coding system on their own, can we really compare innate intelligence in these areas across species?

For all we know, the trigger for such developments may be watching others of your own kind doing something odd, that is interesting or beneficial enough to catch on for long enough to be passed on to offspring.

In the Blue Planet 2 series, there is a segment about an octopus and a grouper fish, entirely different species, communicating with each other via gestures and changing their skin colors, to work together in trapping prey.

Ants etc. use "abstract signs" of pheromones. Bees use 3-dimensional dances to communicate. Are we dumber than them because of our inability to do that?

Intelligence certainly isn't a linear 1D scale with discrete steps.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feral_child

> Until we can objectively test the likelihood of humans that have never been taught a language, like "feral children" [0], to spontaneously develop a coding system on their own, can we really compare innate intelligence in these areas across species?

Nicaraguan Sign Language[1] developed spontaneously among a group of deaf children.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicaraguan_Sign_Language

That's interesting, but those children were already exposed to civilization and in contact with language-using humans.

How likely is a human to develop any of our abilities that we take for granted, in the wild?

> those children were already exposed to civilization and in contact with language-using humans.

Exposure to civilization is obviously not important, as all uncivilized people also speak. (Exposure to other people is important.)

Contact with language-using humans doesn't help in developing sign language either; deaf children exposed to speaking humans do not develop spoken language or sign language.

It is generally felt that what prompted the development of NSL was the fact that the children were put into a group. Children in a group want to communicate with each other. A hearing child in the same group would also have learned/participated in developing the language.

We tried to teach various animals language and mostly failed.

Thus there is indeed a class difference between humans and the rest of animals.

The rest of animals seem incapable of this ability, even when we try our best to teach them.

Parent is arguing that they need to witness language use between members of their own species, and then not learn, in order to show they are incapable of language use.

The first human language user managed without this. (Though, if used for communication, it takes two... so there couldn't have been a first. OTOH there's an argument that language is primarily for thought, not communication, so it only takes one person. Secondly, evolution doesn't usually build a complete perfect system, but iterates, gradually improving. A puzzle here is that abstraction seems to be all or nothing, you can't have part abstraction. One resolution is that the necessary neuro-machinary was built up for other purposes, and abstraction emerged when some crucial capstone happened to be put into place. Or... maybe you can have some kind of "partial" abstraction...?)

I think you could have partial abstraction. People move around physical objects which represent other things, all the time.

Maybe representation is more important than grammar? e.g. representational art

The bee-dance "represents" direction and distance, but only that.

For all we know, animals could have been trying to teach us their languages for centuries

AFAIK it's only very recently that we began to try and learn the languages of animals rather than teach them

I wonder if it's a matter of skill or desire

Or, evolutionary advantage (primarily in the meme sense, but also genetically, for improving physiological and neurological support for language).

In what contexts does abstract language confer a survival or reproductive advantage, beyond simple communication, which is a commonplace, e.g. predator warning, food location, mate-seeking.

That’s our failure. Not theirs.

One huge failure is thinking that animals should care to learn anything we teach them.

If animals are unable to direct their attention towards learning to do something, that's functionally identitical to them not being able to do it. Even in an alternate universe where the only reason dogs can't speak English is that they can't work up the focus to sit down with a copy of Strunk and White, it would still be correct to say that animals lack the capacity for language.

You're assuming that not doing something implies an inability.

Does the fact that I have not adopted your position imply that I am unable to do so?

Why can't I be unwilling?

I think you're conflating direct communication with abstract representation. We know that (AFAIK) all primates, and many other animals signal each other, but have failed to find any sign of them creating abstract representations or being capable of learning them despite many concerted efforts to teach them, particularly with primates but other animals too. I think it's clear that these are distinct skills.

Regarding your speculation that it has to involve members of the same species, I don't see any evidence based reason to suspect that and plenty not to. It's looks a lot like special pleading. We've had great success teaching animals to do all sorts of complex tasks. You yourself cite an example of sophisticated inter-species communications and co-operation that argues pretty strongly against the expectation for any requirement for intra-special specificity to communications or learning in general. So given that there don't seem to be any other tasks, skills or communications facilities that require same-species specificity, I'd need to see an argument as to why this one skill is special and might not be communicable across species, when we've not come across such a barrier before.

> any sign of them creating abstract representations

Using pheromones to mark "food is here" vs. using an object to deface another object.

Or moving your body in space to communicate somewhat-abstract concepts like distance. [0][1]

Why would they need to "resort" to writing, yet?

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bee_learning_and_communication

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waggle_dance

You can argue for their intelligence, but they can't argue for yours.

I have always speculated that animal tracking was the origin of human reading and writing and that the interpretation of an animal's path is a storyline. But I am not alone in this: the idea was put much better by the Kickapoo tracker Famous Shoes in the Larry McMurtry novel "Streets of Laredo" (part of the "Lonesome Dove" series):

"Famous Shoes was given a Bible, in lieu of the little white girl. He would have rather had the girl but he took the Bible and he pored over it for years, in his spare time. He had never seen tracks as strange as the tracks in his Bible. After much study he could see that the tracks were individual, as were the tracks of all animals. Even worms and snails made tracks that were unlike those of other creatures."

Famous Shoes strong desire to learn to follow the tracks in books surfaces a number of times in McMurtry's novels.

There is no Wikipedia link for Famous Shoes, my favorite character from the "Lonesome Dove" series.

It always amazes me how close to this sort of thing Szukalski was, with his "Behold! The Protong!!" .. I mean, he was an artist who saw all these ancient signs and signals as a porto-tongue throughout all human culture.

Does anyone know if Szukalski has any credence among these researchers? He is definitely in the lunatic-fringe/crazy-guy sector - but maybe he was right that there is a common human language throughout all ancient art?

So crazy to see his claims being investigated now and confirmed by mainstream archeologists ..

To save others a search: Stanisław Szukalski

"Zermatism, Szukalski's concept of world history, postulated that all human culture derived from post-deluge Easter Island and that in all human languages one can find traces of the original, ancient mother-tongue of mankind. In his view, humanity was locked in an eternal struggle with the Sons of Yeti ("Yetinsyny"), the offspring of Yeti and humans, who had enslaved humanity from time immemorial."


Apparently there's a Netflix documentary (Dec 2018) about him called, Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski.

The Zermatism stuff is whack .. but the Protong stuff is great!

>Beginning in 1940, Szukalski devoted most of his time examining the mysteries of prehistoric ancient history of mankind, the formation and shaping of languages, faiths, customs, arts, and migration of peoples. He tried to unravel the origin of geographical names, gods, and symbols that have survived in various forms in various cultures. This work, called "Protong" (in Polish, "Macimową"), continued uninterruptedly for over 40 years. He wrote a manuscript of 42 volumes, totaling more than 25,000 pages, and including 14,000 illustrations.[3] The volumes covered a variety of issues; his pen drawings of artifacts, which he considered "witnesses", were done to confirm his theories.

Crackpots are only fun when very few people take them seriously.

Another idea that I find fun to think about, especially for fiction: What if those ancient humans weren't primitive creatures newly learning things, but remnants of a civilization making do with whatever they had left?

e.g. If everyone in the future uses always-connected AR glasses and personal AI assistants, would anyone bother to write much, "in the wild"?

Someone discovering a cool sightseeing/hiding spot may Instagram a few photos, saying "follow the arrows.", and we kind of already do that with geocaching etc. [0]

In the farther future, someone may only find the crudely-etched arrows, with no reason to assume that anything like the internet existed back now. :)

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geocaching

> It is worth noting that many of the earlier scholars studying cave art were men, which may have led to gender biases in their interpretations.

It's sad we cannot have a post on an interesting topic not spoiled by the gender war anymore. Moreover this remark is totally stupid: women are as much likely to formulate a biased opinion than men.

> Moreover this remark is totally stupid: women are as much likely to formulate a biased opinion than men.

Test, everyone 8s biased by their own experiences, but those biases are very _useful_, especially when coupled with the biases of those who has a rather different background. They allow others to see ideas they wouldn't have thought of leading to true synergy.

That's the point being made: not that another group of researchers would have been better, but that a diverse group would be preferred to a not diverse one.

Why would diversity by sex be very important here? Wouldn't diversity by field of study, expertise, accomplishment, etc by far more relevant?

I'd totally buy that diversity was a problem because "all the people who looked at this were from a few schools studying the same degree, and came up in the same academic circles and so had the same idea.". But the fact that the people studying the issue had similar genitals seems irrelevant.

This is just a guess, but my guess is that although gender differences are not so important in today’s world, even back as early as the 80s I as a child saw gender roles in my parents. Dad went to work mom stayed home. Go farther back and those things become stronger yet I believe. I think gender had a much stronger influence on ones mindset then it does today. Now people are okay when other gender identify as the opposite sex. Back then I have no doubt there would have been gender biases.

> Now regressive left activists are okay when other gender identify as the opposite sex.

FTFY. Coming from a progressive socialist who doesn't like to stick his head in the sand

> women are as much likely to formulate a biased opinion than men.

The point isn't that the researchers were biased, the point is that there was a monoculture of bias.

There was a monoculture which may have been biased. I saw nothing in this article to indicate that the researcher was seeing something different because she was female - merely that she was following a different evidence trail.

How aware are you of the very long, and often sordid history of gender bias in science?

The post is not spoiled.

New Scientist website may be the worst I've ever seen. Unreadable.

I read almost everything through outline.com these days.

I love Outline too.

Interesting to see the hashtag was already around in the stone age.

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