2. It’s Only Human: Philosophy in Prehistoric Africa

Posted on 15 April 2018

Might philosophy be as old as humankind as we know it? We investigate the implications of findings concerning the origins of humankind in Africa.

Further Reading
• G.N. Bailey and P. Callow (eds), Stone Age Prehistory (Cambridge: 1986).
• A. Barnard, Genesis of Symbolic Thought (Cambridge: 2012).
• J.D. Clark (ed.), The Cambridge History of Africa, vol.1: From the Earliest Times to c. 500 BC (Cambridge: 1982).
• C.S. Henshilwood et al., “Emergence of Modern Human Behavior: Middle Stone Age Engravings from South Africa,” Science 295 (2002), 1278-80.
• J.D. Lewis-Williams, The Rock Art of Southern Africa (Cambridge: 1983).
• J. McDonald and P. Veth (eds), A Companion to Rock Art (Oxford: 2012).
• S. McBrearty, “Down with the Revolution,” in P. Mellars et al. (eds.), Rethinking the Human Revolution (Cambridge: 2007), 133-51.
• S. McBrearty and A.S. Brooks, “The Revolution That Wasn’t: A New Interpretation of the Origin of Modern Human Behavior,” Journal of Human Evolution 39 (2000), 453-563.
• P. Mellars (ed.), The Emergence of Modern Humans: An Archaeological Perspective (Edinburgh: 1990).
• P. Mellars and C. Stringer (eds), The Human Revolution: Behavioural and Biological Perspectives on the Origins of Modern Humans (Edinburgh: 1989).
• S. Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind: a Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science (London: 1996).
• C. Renfrew and I. Morley (eds), Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture (New York: 2009).
• M. Ruse, “Philosophy and Paleoanthropology: Some Shared Interests?” in G.A. Clark and C.M. Willermet (eds.), Conceptual Issues in Modern Human Origins Research (New York: 1997), 423-45.
• K. Sterelny, "From Hominins to Humans: How Sapiens Became Behaviourally Modern," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 366 (2011), 809-822.
• E. Trinkaus (ed.), The Emergence of Modern Humans: Biocultural Adaptations in the Later Pleistocene (Cambridge: 1989).


Jim Young 15 April 2018

Regarding early African cave art as a possible first glimmer of philosophy, I'm struck by the similarity to Croce's view of Art (intuitive grasp of the individual) as one side of the theoretical; the other side being logical knowledge of the unversal. Is this a grasp too far on my part? 

Chike Jeffers 16 April 2018

In reply to by Jim Young

The question I would have about making this link is what it means for appreciating the importance of the attestation of symbolic thinking in cave art. Could Croce help us see how philosophy is possible and almost certainly going on by the time we are making art, in light of how the use of symbols gives evidence of an ability to make conceptual connections and distinctions and to utilize these connections and distinctions to pursue the truth about what is real and what is not, about how things fit together or contrast with each other, about what we can be more sure of and how we can be so sure, and about what really matters and how it matters? Or does he lead us to see art and logic as different in a way that renders it hard to treat the doing of art as evidence of the doing of philosophy?

Jim Young 19 April 2018

In reply to by Chike Jeffers

First, the more I read Croce the less I understand him. That said, I will go with what he gets me thinking about. And it is that intuition is not conceptual or rational or reflective--hence, not philosophic. But intuition is also not raw perception, something passive. Rather, it is an active process, a necessary precondition of the concept. We can only guess at what role art played in the lives of early humans. Who knows, the cave paintings of animals might have been part of lessons for young hunters. But I suspect something less utilitarian; something more in line with Huizinga's notion of  play as the central element of culture. As such, art is simply humans acting human. One direction from this might be the development of writen language. And it might well be that the preservation and propagation of texts is the necessary condition for the emergence of philosophy. Indeed, a degree of playful riffing on texts may have been the first stage. Certainly an awfully long period of material and social development preceeds the emergence in Greece of what starts calling itself philosophy. To come back to Croce, he is surely correct that the inuition is a made thing, just as is the work of art that expresses the intuition. But so are concepts made things. And even philosophical systems.  Where Croce may fail is in not seeing that the cave artist is not only expressing her intuiton of an antelope, but also constructing Antelope as a concept, defining the characteristics that make it distinct from other animals. But I must yield to those who understand Croce.

P.S. It is interesting that Croce said that Hegel must be read as a poet in order to be understood.   

Well, the book we had looked at was this: B. Gräslund, Early Humans and Their World (London: 2005), and the author Bo Gräslund seems to be a serious anthropologist, no? Obviously little or nothing turns on it for our purposes, I just put that in there because I thought it was so surprising that some scientists think this. but perhaps we should remove it from the book version if it is a tiny minority view.

Erik Helgesen 23 April 2018

In reply to by Peter Adamson

It's possible that Gräslund find it a plausable idea to the point he believes it. It is also possible he just find the idea interesting enough to give it time in his book as an example one of those quirky things other people believe. I don't know as I haven't read it. There's been plenty of experts who buy into pseudoscinitific ideas because they like the consept. Lot of scientists are great at their field and brilliant at what they do, but never bothered to understrand the scientific method and the way it focuses on skepticism before you accept any claim. My point is just that the thing is not based on science, is not an accepted theory and that scientists makes mistake just like the rest of us. 

Peter Lührs 11 July 2018

In reply to by Erik Helgesen

Just because the 'aquatic ape theory' is not accepted by the majority of anthropologists it doesn't mean that it's not a scientific theory. There are multiple strands of evidence (as Dunning himself mentions in the linked article) that support the theory, which connects multiple hypothesis in regrard to the origin of Homo sapiens. The aquatic ape theory can be tested just as much as the standard model 'savannah theory'. I don't see anything 'pseudoscientific' about it.

The 'aquatic ape theory' differs in two points from the standard model: First, it's not as well supported by evidence and doesn't hold up to scrutiny as much as the latter. And second, kind of following from the first point: It's by far not as widely accepted as the latter.

To call it pseudoscience for those reasons, is going too far: If we only accept those theories as scientific that are already accepted and have proven themselves against scrutiny as scientific, that would in my opinion hurt the ability of science to evolve new theories to be tested. Because before being tested, they'd by necessity be pseudo-scientific. It is a somewhat understandable, but dangerous move, that downplays the fallability of science.

Just because something is bad science or failed science or simply less convincing science it doesn't follow that one should discard it as 'pseudoscience'. What makes science great is that it is a story of trial and error, which allows for bold moves, that can either fail - or lead to great and unexpected breakthroughs.

Tamil 18 April 2018

Hey, how many episodes of this Africana series will you  make? and how many will you post a month? etc. Thanks


Peter Adamson 19 April 2018

In reply to by Tamil

Probably 60-70 episodes total and they will appear every other Sunday, alternating with the forthcoming series on Byzantium and Renaissance in the original feed.

DM 10 February 2020

In reply to by Peter Adamson


will you be releasing the Africana series as a book? Really struggling to find a decent overview of African philosophy in book form.



Peter Adamson 11 February 2020

In reply to by DM

Yes indeed, in fact as two books; probably with the cut off between them at 1900.

Evan Hadkins 19 April 2018

It may be that the first Australians did rock art many millennia earlier than the places mentioned on the podcast.  But dating rock art is very difficult.

Chike Jeffers 19 April 2018

In reply to by Evan Hadkins

We mention arrival in Australia during our discussion of the old view that art and "behavioural modernity" in general first emerges in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic but we don't come back to discuss Australia after discussing the reasons to reject that view, so the importance of rock art in Australia seemingly all throughout the time during which it has been inhabited is definitely (and wrongfully) obscured!

air 16 December 2018

they prolly used the space to brew pychadelic fruit wines. and drew what they saw on what they saw while high. birth of religion and trade.

Drilou 10 March 2019

First it's very wrong to say humans evolved in Africa starting 6 million years ago, and only left 100 000 years ago. It's homo sapiens (anatomically modern humans) who left Africa relatively recently - although earlier than 100 000 years ago: there is evidence of homo sapiens already living in Asia 270 000 years ago. But sapiens is only one species of human, which appeared about 350 000 years ago. Other humans had left Africa long before that. Homo habilis, who lived about 2 million years ago, is already found in West Asia. His descendant homo erectus may actually have appeared not in Africa but in Eurasia, and its earliest fossils were found in the Caucasus at 1.8 million years old. And in fact, most scholars nowadays believe homo habilis should instead be classified as australopithecus, and that homo erectus is the first species to display what can be called human anatomy and behaviour. By that definition, it's therefore possible that humans appeared not in Africa but in Eurasia. In any case, homo erectus then returned to Africa, which is where he developed into homo sapiens, while he developed into other now extinct human branches in other continents, like Neanderthal in Europe, or Denisovan in Asia (which both left some minor admixture in part of the modern human population).

The other major point in this episode seems to be that African cave painting predates European cave painting, as evidenced by the Apollo 11 Cave. This is false. As correctly stated, the oldest paintings in the Apollo 11 Cave are dated at 25 000 to 27 000 years old. That is indeed older than Lascaux, which is about 17 000 years old. Except Lascaux is by no means the oldest cave art in Europe, it is in fact comparatively very recent. The art of the Chauvet Cave for example, also in Southern France, is dated at 32 000 years old, and is significantly more advanced than what was found in the Apollo 11 Cave. At 25 000 years ago, Europeans, or more specifically the inhabitants of Southern France, were already making representations of human faces (see the Venus of Brassempouy), which is evidence of a highly advanced prehistoric culture. More worryingly to me, Peter Adamson's careful phrasing here makes it seem like he actually knows this, but is deliberately trying to obscure it, hoping we won't notice he said the Apollo 11 art is the oldest in Africa but only "some of the oldest in the world", which completely invalidates his conclusions.

I've been very much enjoying the Greece podcasts I've listened to so far, as well as the few about Egypt and Mesopotamia. But this one seems to be more concerned with justifying its own inclusion within the Africa section rather than actually saying anything, or at least anything accurate. It seems like a missed opportunity to explore the nature (rather than just the geographic location) of the emergence of human consciousness and how it relates to early human culture, society, thought, and ultimately philosophy. René Girard did some extremely interesting work on the subject, right at the crossroads between philosophy and anthropology, which I highly recommend.

Thanks for the corrections and suggestions. It was a while ago that I did the reading for this episode but my main takeaway from it is that it is almost impossible to say anything uncontroversial about human evolution and your remarks confirm that! I guess that the sentence you point out, "Humans began to evolve from apes about six million years ago and only left Africa about one hundred thousand years ago" is potentially misleading because "human" is ambiguous (we don't introduce the idea of the different stages, with all the Latin names, until the next paragraph) and I will try to fix this for the book version though I think this is more a matter of how fast to deliver all the detail than actually being accurate or not.

I am not sure I take your point about the cave art, though: as we explicitly say in the episode there is a healthy debate about the relative dating of prehistoric culture in Africa vs Europe and we don't say anything to suggest that Apollo 11 is the world's oldest cave art, rather we only refer to the findings of beads etc as significant for their age in terms of worldwide comparison (and even there we only say "among the oldest in the world" - I just checked the script). To be honest though my interest in the priority question is pretty minimal, since from a philosophical point of view, who cares whether prehistoric people were more advanced in place A or place B at a given time? (Not to say that I don't care whether the facts are correct, just that chronological priority wasn't the main point, in my mind at least.) What I thought was interesting about the episode was to think about the philosophical relevance of prehistoric materials in general, and kicking off this Africana series was a chance to do that; as we mention it also introduces us to a running theme which is the philosophical relevance of archeology.

I will make a note to check out Girard's work, again we might be able to draw on that for the book version.

Drilou 12 March 2019

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thank you for the reply!

About the caves, while everything you said in specifics is factually accurate, I had the impression that the larger point you were trying to make was about African precedence, and I still think that this is the impression an even slightly inattentive listener would retain. But perhaps it was I who misunderstood. I absolutely agree with you that the question of the "how" is more interesting here than the "where", and that's precisely what I was missing in this episode. Especially since it doesn't make much sense to focus the study of prehistoric human development on one single continent. I think the trouble is the series-to-books format, where subjects that are important but don't warrant a full series don't really have a place; the same applies to Mesopotamia and Egypt. I'm still glad you took this opportunity to talk about them, but it does turn the Africa series into a bit of a miscellaneous section. And while the Mesopotamia and Egypt episodes didn't suffer from it, I think prehistory could have benefited from a more global approach.

That's not to say these aren't perhaps my favourite podcasts overall from what I've listened to so far. It's especially nice to see that you've dedicated a rather large portion to medieval philosophy, and I'm quite excited to get to that part, which really is a massive gap at least for most people. And if you do get around to checking out Girard that would be brilliant. Ironically, the subject of prehistoric human thought is one that is at once so fundamental and mysterious that here the history of philosophy becomes philosophy in itself.

Hello. I'll jump in here to say that, from my perspective, precedence is a significant theme in the episode because we suggest that - based on our reading of the available literature - Africa is almost certainly where philosophical thought first occurred as it is almost certainly where we first developed the capacities of language and thought that make philosophy possible. I disagree, however, that we made the claim you perceived us as making about African precedence with respect to cave art.

Now, as a matter of fact, Genevieve von Petzinger - one of the most foremost scholars of European cave art - believes that the very nature of the oldest European cave art itself, when combined with the evidence of similarities in art from around the same time in Indonesia and Australia, gives us reason to think that the techniques used in all of these places first developed in Africa. She is even optimistic that we will succeed in finding African cave art older than anything anywhere else some time over the next decade. You can hear her speak about all this in her CBC Ideas interview.

But we didn't mention Petzinger's suspicions and predictions in the episode, so that is where I agree with Peter that cave art figured into our episode more for the "how" than the "where." It's unfortunate that you felt we had nothing to say in that regard - we certainly, obviously, found much of interest in the various sources we drew upon in order to speculate on the development and character of early thinking of a philosophical nature. In any case, though, given that our goal was not to provide a thorough discussion of all aspects of prehistoric human development but rather to get the Africana series going in a way that acknowledges the importance of Africa in the story of prehistoric human development, I disagree that this episode pointed toward the series being a miscellany.      

Drilou 12 March 2019

In reply to by Chike Jeffers

Even the claim about language and symbolic thought first appearing in Africa is highly speculative. These capacities are generally believed to have appeared with homo erectus, and as I mentioned earlier there is debate on whether erectus appeared in Africa or in Eurasia. The oldest erectus findings are in the Caucasus, and there is significant evidence to the point of divergence between habilis and erectus being located in West Asia. So a Eurasian origin for language is in fact quite likely. But this just highlights how difficult it is to isolate one region of the world when it comes to studying prehistory, with human populations migrating back and forth over thousands of years.

About pointing to a miscellany, I meant to say that this episode precisely tried to avoid that by focusing on Africa, which I don't think is the right approach to take when looking at prehistory. However I take your point about it being meant more as an introduction to the Africa series rather than a thorough examination of prehistoric thought, I was indeed looking at it more as the latter.

Just to throw in another two cents, it's certainly right that this was not a general look at the philosophical significance of prehistoric human remains, and we focused on Africa given the context of the series. I am toying with the idea of eventually doing a series of episodes called something like "Indigenous philosophies" and covering Native American, Mezoamerican, Inuit, Aboriginal etc traditions; so that could be an occasion for a more general look at the topic.

Regarding the problem of whether this whole series (or rather, the first part on precolonial traditions) is something of a miscellaneous grab-bag, as I've said elsewhere here on the site I am not really moved by that objection, for the simple reason that other domains of the history of philosophy have the same degree of (dis)unity: like, how much does Anaxagoras really have to do with Hume? Not more than ancient Egypt has to do with West African Islamic philosophy, I'd say, because in both cases you have a very indirect but still causally continuous series of cultural events (in the African case: ancient Egypt... Coptic Christian... Ethiopian Christian... clash with African Islam...broader developments in Islam across the continent). By its very nature prehistory is harder to link up, but I think putting this here was, similarly, no more or less legitimate than it would be if someone wanted to tell just the story of philosophy in Europe and started with cave paintings in France, which I think would be legitimate and interesting.

I'm not sure I understand your parallel with Anaxagoras and Hume. You haven't put them in the same series here, have you? I would have found that equally strange if you had!

If you mean that ancient Greece is often conflated with the West, especially in philosophy... well I'll trust your judgement on whether this makes sense in terms of the history of philosophy, but it doesn't make much sense in the broader history of civilisations. The West, etymologically and historically, began in medieval Western Europe, and while it was of course immensely influenced by what was by then the long-gone world of the Greeks, it was no more so than for example the civilisation of Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam. Considering our Western civilisation and the ancient Greeks to be a single entity to the exclusion of others is in fact a very eurocentric (or more precisely Western-centric, occicentric?) view, which I believe appeared in the Renaissance, and one which you don't appear to have taken, at least based on how your podcasts are organised.

About me calling the Africana series "miscellaneous" earlier, I realise now that this isn't really due to these podcasts in particular but rather the entire concept of "Africana", which, if I may be brutally honest, I find intellectually disastrous, and which seems to be built on American neo-colonialist and racialist attitudes.

My point about them was just that people don't hesitate to think that "European" philosophy is a thing (and one "unified" thing) but it has no more, or less, unity than what we have been covering in Africa.

Re "Africana" we had quite a few exchanges about this in comments on the first episode, so you could have a look at our justification for the term there.

Matjaž Horvat 13 October 2019

I've listened to most of your Western Philosophy section, and part of the Indian one, and I really love them. Great stuff, and I only have a handful of complaints, mostly minor ones. Now that I have started listening to the African one, I have to say there is an extremely big problem here. Namely, you wrongly assume that humans are the product of evolution. This despite the increasing amount of evidence in all the relevant fields that this is not the case. Obviously, this is not just your problem, but the problem of contemporary mainstream academia in general. But someone has to say it. I will still keep listening to the podcast and hope to learn some interesting things. It's just off to a very bad start. But no one is perfect, so that's that. It is (mostly) for this reason that, if I were to rate your project as a whole, I would give it 9 stars out of 10 instead of 10 out of 10.

Peter Adamson 14 October 2019

In reply to by Matjaž Horvat

Wow, I have to admit that that is not a criticism I would ever have expected! I take it to be certainly established that humans did evolve from apes, and don't think any serious scientist would question that. But if you don't like believing in this particular part of scientific orthodoxy don't worry, it won't come up in any subsequent episodes of the series as far as I can remember. And we'll settle for the nine stars!

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