The Origins of Knowledge

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To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark. ― Victor Hugo


Knowledge is an ephemeral yet essential component of life. The acquisition of knowledge is an innate desire of all humans from the time of birth. The success of humanity as the arguably dominant sentient species on Earth is due to our ability to accumulate knowledge and utilize it individually and collectively to meet the challenges that our world puts before us. Perlovsky (2006) argues that animals must have an inborn need, a drive, an instinct to improve knowledge, that he calls a knowledge instinct.

Knowledge becomes alive when it is part of our conscious existence. New knowledge can only be gained through the senses be it observation, listening, tasting, smelling or touching. Those stimuli need to be recorded within the organism for it to be able to experience that gained knowledge content again. Some knowledge may never pass beyond the consciousness of one individual and if not voluntarily passed on, to stimulate another’s senses through a multitude of increasingly sophisticated mechanisms as diverse as song and tweets, then with death that knowledge will cease to exist.

“And like the baseless fabric of a vision, Leave not a track behind.” (Thomas Reid)

The origins of knowledge are misty and clouded along with our humanities own origins. When did our ancestors become aware they were the possessors and potential distributors of knowledge? Do other life forms utilize knowledge? Is knowing that you know something a uniquely human characteristic?

We all know that we know things about the world around us as well as the world of ideas, feelings and emotions within us. Its been said that we sometimes don’t know what we know.

Does a cat know how to manipulate its master into getting a treat? Does an ape know that children need caring? What is the difference between a human’s ability to contemplate knowledge before undertaking a task and an animal acting on instinct? What is the relationship between instinct and knowledge? Can it be argued that all living species maintain a store of knowledge? What knowledge is found within plants and how can you describe or define it. Daniel Chamovitz examines this in "What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses."

So where did our knowledge begin …


What would constitute evidence of humanity possessing knowledge and passing it on explicitly? Is a language essential? What would be the characteristics of a language that represents the passing of knowledge between individuals? Does whale song allow the passing of knowledge over time and place and between organisms?

While all that is exciting and demanding of our attention let’s start at the very beginning – though I am not certain it is the best place to start. It is a dark and uncertain beginning fraught with compromise and more questions than can be answered but it might give us some grounding to the scope and immensity of this challenge.

When did humans actually begin to possess knowledge and can we ever know? I doubt we can know the exact answer but let’s narrow down the field a little.

There are a range of areas where we can seek information but the only evidence that seems to last over time are ‘things’ and ‘marks on things – that last’.

The earliest recorded evidence of mankind recording material to stimulate another's senses dates back 42,000 years ago.

New dating tests have shown that drawings from the Caves of Nerja, in Málaga, Spain, are currently the oldest paintings in the world made by humans. The pictures apparently depict seals and were painted more than 42,000 years ago, making them the first known cave paintings created by Neanderthals. [1]

Let’s consider Europe and the arrival of the modern humans (Homo sapiens) around 40,000 years ago. Prior to that time their alleged evolutionary ancestors, the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) appear to have been have been the residents of interest.

The El Castillo Cave in Spain has cave art consisting of numerous red discs on its walls. One was dated to 40,800 years ago.

The results demonstrate that the tradition of decorating caves extends back at least to the Early Aurignacian period, with minimum ages of 40.8 thousand years for a red disk, 37.3 thousand years for a hand stencil, and 35.6 thousand years for a claviform-like symbol. These minimum ages reveal either that cave art was a part of the cultural repertoire of the first anatomically modern humans in Europe or that perhaps Neanderthals also engaged in painting caves. Science 15 June 2012: Vol. 336 no. 6087 pp. 1409-1413

One can only assume that the red dots were a conscious decision by someone to leave a mark or message for another (or possibly a deity) and as such is a representation of some form of possessed knowledge to be recorded and made available to another. Much of the whole world of drawing, with few exceptions in the animal kingdom (which we will explore later), is about humans making significant marks.

Human made marks are of intense interest. The written recording of human language has as a precursor a need to make marks. The passage of the meaning associated with the mark constitutes evidence of knowledge. The written language of humankind has emerged from the making of such marks.

In observing children, Lev Vygotsky in his The Prehistory of Writing, an essay, c. 1930 in The Mind in Society, 1978. commented:

Only one thing is certain – that written language of children develops in this fashion, shifting from drawings of things to drawings of words. The entire secret of teaching written language is to prepare and organize this natural transition appropriately…Make believe play, drawing and writing can be viewed as different moments in an essentially unified program of development of written language…

The making of marks then is at least 40 thousand years old.

Paul Rincon of the BBC News Online science staff reported that a series of parallel lines engraved in an animal bone between 1.4 and 1.2 million years ago may be the earliest example of human symbolic behaviour. University of Bordeaux expert (Dr Jean-Luc Guadellis) say no practical process, such as butchering a carcass, can explain the markings.The 8cm-long bone was unearthed at the Kozarnika cave in north-west Bulgaria. Refer to Early human marks are symbols on the BBC website.

Mark making may therefore go back over 1 million years.

Is it only humans who make marks? Clearly animals make and leave marks. Is this intentional or is it an indicator of communication or knowledge transfer. This raises another topic for us to explore. The world of Semiotics.

Semiotics includes Semantics ( the relation between signs and the things to which they refer) Syntactics (the formal relationship between signs) and Pragmatics (the relationship between signs and the effects they have on the people who use them.) We will spend a lot more time exploring these subjects but for moment the I would like to explore Zoosemiotics that is a term first used by Thomas A. Sebeok in 1963 to designate the study of animal communication. It can be defined today as the study of semiosis within and across animal species.


Perlovsky, Leonid I.(2006), Toward Physics of the Mind: Concepts, Emotions, Consciousness, and Symbols. Phys. Life Rev. 3(1), pp.22-55.

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