Archaeologists have been naive to expect that symbolic behaviour can be inferred more or less directly from the characteristics of an archaeological record. This article examines various construals of symbolism and its relationship to signs, indexes and style that are derived from more fully axiomatized theories of cognition in psychology, anthropology, linguistics and primatology. The authors' intent is to develop a more adequate operational definition of symbolism, and to determine whether our more stringent criteria for inferring symbolic behaviour can be met in ‘pre-modern’ contexts. A review of the archaeopalaeontological record suggests that the roots of symbolism can be traced to the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic, but that evidence for a robust pattern documenting its presence is not found until the Upper Palaeolithic. It is argued that symbolism had adaptive significance, but that it probably developed in contexts distinct from those in which it is manifest today.