Symbolism, symbolically mediated culture and the production of symbolically charged artefacts are today almost unanimously accepted in palaeoanthropology as the defining hallmarks of cognitively and behaviourally modern human beings. This orthodoxy, however, suffers from a number of serious problems, including pervasive dualisms, an internally contradictory methodology and an unwillingness to grapple critically with the symbolism concept. It is suggested that the symbolism paradigm originated in the ideas of Leslie White in the 1940s and 1950s, but did not become a serious presence in palaeoanthropology until the 1980s. This is explained in terms of the adoption of cladistic phylogenetics in that period, and by reference to new evidence that removed Neanderthals from the ancestry of living peoples. The implications of the growing body of evidence for Neanderthal symbolism are discussed. It is concluded that the symbolism paradigm is essentialist and ahistorical, and has acquired the character of an origins myth.