The recent African origin of modern humans with its short timeframe for the emergence of symbolic culture has not encouraged social anthropologists to engage with human origins research. Why not? What can we learn from debates on these issues over the past half-century?
In his book 'The Genesis of Symbolic Thought' (2012), Alan Barnard claims that it was not possible to address the origin of symbolism in the mid-century when Lévi-Strauss wrote, or at the turn of the 19th-20th century, when Durkheim attempted it. But today, with developments in evolutionary theory, palaeontology, primatology, population genetics, archaeology and hunter-gatherer anthropology, it is. 'Symbolism is our subject matter,' he declares, '…So too is the anthropology of art, the anthropology of religion…We must, of course, rely on archaeology, on genetics, on neuroscience, on linguistics…to provide data…but it is up to social anthropology to complete the picture' (2012: 4). Despite the relative recency of modern human origins and the archaeological record of symbolism, social anthropologists have been conspicuous by their absence from debates on what made us human. Why is that? How could social anthropology contribute to these questions? Has social anthropology anything to say on early kinship, gender, ritual, cosmology, or the evolution of language? The panel invites papers with historic perspectives on social anthropology's relationship to the problem of our origins, and on how this relationship has been theoretically constituted.