Design and Language
You might say that we wandered out of Eden some 80,000 years ago. Our Homo Sapiens ancestors lived in small bands in caves along the coast of southern Africa where they had been pushed by a warming trend. Mega-drought in Africa drove them almost to extinction, leaving, some researchers say, just a few thousand people surviving. It may be that stress triggered a dramatic shift in human capacity – for at some point our already powerful brains took the leap to symbolic thinking. Language and design followed closely. Not that humans hadn’t communicated before or created remarkable artifacts. Our new capacity for symbolic thinking allowed us to create connections between objects and constructs of our own invention, ideas, laws and stories that we organize our social life around. Symbolic thinking opened the door to the ultimate tool in the human tool-chest – our fertile, restless and limitless imaginations. Not just any old imagination, but one that is constantly seeking to organize the world into new forms and structures that fit the contours of the human mind.
Language is perhaps the greatest of our designs, with common meaning in the form of words and a structure we call grammar. The word c-a-t refers to that ball of fur purring at your feet. “The cat sat on the mat” is a structure we call a grammatical sentence that allows us to use the word “cat” to convey useful information about that creature purring at your feet – where it is located, and what it is doing. “The cat sitting on the mat is Sekhmet, the divine being with power over war and healing,” is a story that if you were an ancient Egyptian would invoke powerful beliefs and set you in your place within the social structures that frame your life.
Linguists suggest that symbolic thinking is the essential ability that led to the co-evolution of language with the human mind. It is likely that it also fueled an explosion in the kind and complexity of artifacts we are able to create – our ability to design. Words are the building blocks of language that we carefully build into structures we call sentences that obey the laws of grammar. With sentences we create meanings that regulate the complexity of our social lives through artifacts we call stories. Designed objects are the building blocks of the world we create for ourselves to live in. Objects are carefully composed into structures that make sense to us. When woven into our stories they help us make sense of our lives. Through these stories we know our place within the environment and how to relate to it. Through it’s form, a chair lets us know to sit in a particular way. Through the shape and placement of the door, we know where to enter a room. In design we call these stories affordances. It is the designer’s task to create forms that tell clear, concise and compelling stories about the lives we wish to live.
For over two and a half million years, hominins made tools that evolved from crude stone flakes to the beautiful Acheulian hand axes and the finely crafted flint spears of the Middle Stone Age. These were simple tools – used for cutting, cracking, scraping, stabbing. They are beautifully utilitarian – simple extensions of the human hands that made them. Needing little interpretation of their purpose or function. Words, not sentences.
Little has been known about the point at which our ancestors began making artifacts suited to a more complex way of life. The earliest recognized material expression of a symbolic nature were the cave paintings that date back to around 35,000 years ago. The most famous of these are at Chauvet in France prednisone 20mg. There are also lesser known paintings from around the same time at Maros in Sulawesi, an Indonesian island. By 35,000 years ago language was well developed.
But in 2008 archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood and his team made a remarkable discovery dating to 100,000 years ago at Blombos Cave on the southern coast of Africa. In the sandy clay of the deepest level of the archaeological site at Blombos, Henshilwood dug out an ochre processing workshop consisting of two toolkits used to mix ochre paint. Each kit consisted of an abalone shell, ochre rich stone, bones from which fat had been extracted as binding for the paint, charcoal, grindstones and hammer-stones. The sands of time have erased any designs that were painted with them – on Adam and Eve’s bodies to signify social position, or on the walls of caves, glimmering in the light of the fires they lit. But we do know that marks were made with the ochre paint with symbolic intention. We can’t know what they were or what they meant. Each tool-kit, made up of a number of components used in sequence, was the embodiment of a process; words elaborated into a story through their structure. The essence of the process we call design.
Blombos Cave is in South Africa’s Eden District Municipality of Western Cape Province. The people who lived there starting around 100,000 years ago may have been the proto-Adam and the proto-Eve, and this was their Eden. Their determination to survive the harsh drought that ravaged the lands of the African continent that they walked on the serpent that provoked their imagination; it prompted them to find a place where they could use their newfound ingenuity and skills with contextual meaning to thrive where the land met the ocean, where water was abundant and the fruit of the sea and land provided all they needed for many thousands of years. There they gathered their strength and developed their skills until they were ready to strike out on the next stage of the odyssey that eventually took them to every corner of the globe. With the tools of language and design they set out on the long journey north, out of Africa, across Asia, into Europe and Australasia, across the land-bridge to the Americas. Over just 75,000 years they firmly established themselves as top predator, conquered and colonized the entire planet and sent daring exploratory expeditions into deep space, bringing human design to the heavens that were created by Elohim on just the second day.