The Spiral Archetype
In the scientific portal we look at how spirals are created in the natural world. Spiral seashells have been on the planet for millions of years. Throughout primate evolution our ancestors have eaten shellfish, gathered spiral shaped plants, and waded through spiral eddies and whirlpools. Spirals have always been part of our experience.
Fifty thousand years ago, human ancestors began to see spirals in a new and powerful way. What happened?
Spirals and Symbolic Meaning
Somewhere around fifty thousand years ago, after five million years of evolution, human progenitors suddenly developed the ability and inclination to carve spiral shapes on rocks and to connect this shape to the concept spiral.
Around the same time, after five million years of eating shellfish and discarding the shells, we began collecting them and turning them into beads. Seashells became beads, and beads became currency—and the world as we know it was born.
Spirals and Human Creativity
The recognition of the spiral’s symbolism and practicality lies at the core of many human inventions. For example, spirals are the foundation of basket weaving and pottery, and they continue to provide inspiration to contemporary inventors and engineers.
Spirals and the Drive to Understand the Universe
It has been determined that some prehistoric rock carvings were linked to early solar calendars. These calendars followed the movement of the sun over the course of the year. They helped early people understand solar patterns. From the very being of human culture, people have experienced a strong drive to understand the patterns of the natural world.
The Tower of Babel: Spirals of Doom
The spiral can be symbol of creation, however it is also a potent symbol of dissolution into chaos. The spiral spins both ways. Downward spirals represent the forces of entropy that are constantly working to instigate chaotic collapse.
Inevitably, these two spirals—the generative and the destructive—turn out to be one continuous cycle. Fiddlehead ferns dry up, fold in on themselves, and collapse back into the earth. The dandelion puff explodes outward into disorder on the wind. Seashell, long abandoned by their original builders, are gradually ground down into sand. Spiral galaxies spin out into oblivion.
But in the spring, new ferns spring up from the ground. The sand made from old shells is used to build the new, and the gas and dust of expired stars and galaxies reconverge and spin themselves into new galactic bodies.
75,000 year old beads made from Nassarius shells
Five Million Years of Primate-Human Evolution
Human evolution is the lengthy process of change by which people developed from apelike ancestors. Archeological and anthropological evidence shows that the physical and behavioral traits shared by all humans originated with these ancestors and underwent a period of transformation that lasted at least five million years.
One Hundred Thousand Years of "Modern" Human Evolution
Many advanced traits—including complex symbolic expression, art, and elaborate cultural diversity—emerged mainly during the past hundred thousand years.
Fifty Thousand Years Ago: The Artistic Explosion
The complex use of symbols and art started to become very common about fifty thousand years ago. In particular, there was a tremendous blossoming of these behaviors in the archeological record between thirty thousand and fifteen thousand years ago. During this period, people adorned themselves with intricate jewelry of ivory, bone, and stone. They began to carve beautiful figurines representing animals and human forms.
Read more at:
"Beads" Discovered in African Cave
for National Geographic News
April 15, 2004
Humans may have been wearing jewelry as far back as 75,000 years ago, about 30,000 years earlier than previously thought, if 41 shells found at Blombos Cave in South Africa prove to have been used as beads.
The shells are from a tiny mollusk, Nassarius kraussianus, that lived in a nearby estuary. They have perforations and wear marks consistent with being used as beads, according to scientists excavating the middle Stone Age site.
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Spirals and Awareness of Mortality
What sets humans apart from other animals? To name a few things, sophisticated language, the use of tools, and the ability to walk on two legs. And the central difference: awareness of our own impending doom—mortality.
Perhaps the most definitive aspect of human consciousness is the awareness that all things are in constant flux between life and death. Around the time people started to create more complex ornaments and tools they also started burying their dead. Many ancient tombs are decorated with spiral carvings. The spiral is frequently used as a symbol of life, death, and rebirth.
The development of ornament indicates the inception of human recognition of beauty. The appreciation of the aesthetic creates powerful feelings of joy, awe, and ecstasy, and beauty is often perceived pattern and symmetry. So what is the connection between pattern recognition, the development of symbolic language and the decorative arts, and the rise of human consciousness, and how does all of that relate to the awareness of mortality and the birth of religion and symbol systems?
Part of human existence is constantly encountering the fundamental laws of nature, then interpreting and engaging with them. Through this process, disparate peoples and succeeding generations develop their own cultural mythologies that seek to answers the time-old questions of humanity: what kind of creature am I? where do I come from? what am I made of? what happens when I die? Human ancestors asked these same questions as they gazed at the sky, and they scratched their visions and conjectures into stone. Whatever story they wove, all across the globe, our ancestors carved the spiral.
How are beads different from tools?
There are examples of tool use among primates and other animals. Some animals have been shown to collect "beautiful" objects. However, no animal besides humans have been found to create ornamentation and other beautiful things. Beads, a type of decorative creation, are an example of "symbolic thought," a process, as we have seen, that developed later than other skills.