Understanding the origins of human symbolic behavior is an enduring quest. Little direct evidence addresses questions of how and why symbolic behavior originated, although lines of indirect evidence exist and numerous models and approaches have been offered (Lock & Peters, 1996). Among these has emerged a perspective that links our understanding of human origins with child cognitive development (Bruner, 1972; Gould, 1977; Parker & Gibson, 1979). This perspective, coupled with a focus on the evolution of cognition, has generated much recent research and scholarly attention (Bruner, Jolly & Sylva, 1976; Parker & Gibson, 1990; Mitchell, 1994a; Parker, Mitchell & Boccia, 1994; Parker & McKinney, 1999). This chapter addresses the evolution of child development with an emphasis on how its ecological contexts illuminate the evolution of a primary human symbolic domain – pretense. Further, we seek to map out connections between environmental influences on pretense and the role of pretense in the origin and persistent “reinvention” (Lock, 1980) of human symbolic culture.
Connections among play, children, the modern human mind, and culture are well appreciated. The primary adaptive aspects of our species are born within childhood, normally rich with opportunities for play and learning (Bruner, 1972), and symbolic play shares structural similarities with cultural phenomena such as myth and ritual (Bateson, 1955/1972; Turner, 1974; Geertz, 1976; Schwartzmann, 1978; Johnson, 1988). Often through pretend play (Goldman, 1998), children are transformative agents in symbolic culture (Valsiner, 1988), transforming even language (Bickerton, 1990, 1998).