Recently I have encountered a not surprising but still disappointing continuing definition of rhetoric as limited to symbolic action and humans. Undoubtedly, such experts (ahem) are not quite ready to consider the idea of an object-oriented rhetoric. Today, I was thinking about this position in relation to a recent study published in Science and discussed in the NY Times that offers some evidence that human languages all originated in the same area of West Africa, probably somewhere on the order of 50-100K years ago. That timeline corresponds with the archaeological record, which suggests evidence of symbolic behavior, in the form of shell jewelry for example, dating back 70,000 years or so. A firmer date might be 40-50,000 years ago, when there's evidence of human burial, cave painting, etc. There's actually some discussion this matter in The Two Virtuals.
However, what I was thinking about today is the 100,000 years or so prior to that time in which homo sapiens are believed to have lived, seemingly without "symbolic action." So it's something of a conundrum, I suppose. There is fairly clear evidence that "anatomically modern humans" were alive 200,000 years ago. It's possible they had symbolic action or language. Obviously there would be no physical evidence of a spoken language, but the argument seems to be that a language would come with some corresponding evidence of material symbolic action. Of course there is evidence of tool use dating back prior to homo sapiens but not of symbolic action, so it's not as if there is not material record.
So, what do you think? Where these early modern humans, apparently bereft of "symbolic action," also arhetorical beings? They had relations, obviously, and not just in the sexual sense. They lived in groups. Did they persuade one another? Did they learn, work together, laugh? It seems obvious that many animals do such things. No doubt, such communication was/is limited. Perhaps it was the pressures of those limitations that led to symbolic behavior later on, but these humans had the genetic and anatomical capacities for symbolic behavior and were, arguably, engaged in some proto- or paleorhetorical activity.
IF we think of these early humans as engaged in rhetoric, then we have shed the correlationist bonds of a rhetoric limited to symbolic representation. IF we do this, then we have a new question to ask regarding where the boundaries of rhetoric ought to line.