A brief (pre)history of art

The facts of this post are currently disputed


An appreciation of aesthetics seems to be an old trait in hominins. Ironically perhaps it seems to be older than the production of these aesthetics themselves. As early as Australopithecus it seems our ancestors had an appreciation for the look of certain objects since a face-shaped rock has been found has been found with them.

This rock wasn’t the product of Australopithecus setting out to make such a rock, instead being formed by natural forces. However, they did carry it a long distance back to their “camp” suggesting they did have an appreciation for its appearance.

Facerock - a precursor to facebook?

The first actual manufactured art are small grooves found in Indian caves. Made by Australopithecus’s descendants,  Homo erectus/ergaster,and dating to some point between 150,000 and 1,000,000 years ago, these “cupules” stand in stark contrast to the diet of European cave art most of us have been fed.

But then, the study of prehistory has always had a Eurocentric view that still has its claws into some areas of popular culture. In reality Africa, Asia, the Middle East and (arguably) Australia all have examples of art dating to earlier than the famous European finds.

However, that’s something of an aside. We have nearly 1 million years of art history to cover and focusing on how the awfulness that is the Daily Fail Mail isn’t really that interesting in the scheme of things. Back to those cupules.

Yes, 1-0.15 mya is a rather large age range but then dating grooves in rock is rather difficult

They bare a striking resemblance to other formations, both natural and man-made. For example, some cupules may be used in a mortar-and-pestle style manner to grind various foods or other products. This naturally raises some interesting questions.

Are the artistic cupules a result of people spotting the more utilitarian (or natural) ones and going “that looks cool, I’ll make more” or does the behaviour associated with the other cupules have some symbolic meaning that is experessed in the art. It also raises the possibility that these cupules are made for other reasons and have simply been misidentified as art.

These various interpretations each allow for different inferences regarding the cognition of the hominins making them. Homo erectus/ergaster may have simply had the ability to view a shape as likeable, or it might be they had a deeper culture. Or archaeologists mucked up.

I personally prefer the first explanation (and associated interpretation) because if we look elsewhere around the world we find hominins making art in a way that suggests they’re just playing around with what they think are cool shapes.

This is actually from ~150 kya but is similar to engravings from ~420 kya when the cupules were made.

420,000 year old engravings have been found in Africa. They appear to have little symbolic or functional meaning, instead looking like someone just noticed they could scratch the rock and started making cool patterns.

But of course, the fact that I nor anybody else has been able to identify a symbolic meaning doesn’t mean they don’t have one. After all, it’s difficult enough identifying what another culture thinks and we aren’t just looking at another culture here but another species as well!

Certainly the idea that there is some symbolism behind this art isn’t impossible. Throughout the cupule and engraving period (~1 mya – ~200 kya) is evidence of ochre use. Ochre is a material that requires extensive processing before it can be used, meaning these hominins were not “dumb.”

Indeed, ochre can even be used as a pigment for painting. However, we don’t have any examples of anything made with ochre so we can’t say if it was used to improve their hides or paint their bodies.

There is some evidence that they viewed the body as important, with a human shaped rock being altered to look even more human. Whilst this hardly proves they were symbolic, merely being an extension of the shape recognition Australopithecines had. But it is still art, making it a pre-human ability.

Those handful of cutmarks on a vaguely human shaped rock start the period of art making proper, when a range of seemingly symbolic artefacts and practices became common place throughout human culture. This shall be discussed on Monday in part 2 since I don’t have the time tonight to discuss so much art. I hope you come back for that.

Robert G. Bednarik (2003). THE EARLIEST EVIDENCE OF PALAEOART Rock Art Research, 20 (2), 89-135

It’s question Friday and there are no questions! You let me down followers, you let me down…

8 thoughts on “A brief (pre)history of art

  1. Art in pre anatomically modern humans has been a fascination of mine since university. I’ve been slowly piecing together a similar article on Neanderthal art and ritual burial after a creationist I had a run in with once told me that art was unique to H. sapiens.

    I’d never seen that criss-crossed engraving before, that’s quite impressive.

    • The criss cross is actually from an AMH (anatomically modern human) site but I am assured it is very similar to pre-human engravings and since no picture of those pre-human engravings was included in the paper I had little choice but to use that one instead.

      Sorry if that got your hopes up

  2. Bednarik’s claims in this article are accepted by almost no one. He published this article in his own journal without peer review.

    I can’t think of any scientists who accept his claims for australopith curation of a curious rock, his assertion that H. ergaster/erectus was doing something similar, or that rocks/cupules can be dated to 1 mya or even 420 kya. No one accepts his dating claims on these items.

    The oldest reliably dated piece or wall of rock that may have been grooved or incised by human ancestors is the Berekhat Ram at about 240 kya. There is a big gap after this, which is the Blombos ochre at 77 kya.

    • This paper was recommended to me by a lecturer, so there are some people who accept it. That said I wouldn’t be surprised if the examples of art mentioned above are dated to the lower end of the age range when other examples of art are more commonplace. However, the simplistic nature of simply repeating cupules means that even if it were dated to the earlier periods it wouldn’t be anything revolutionary.

      If you can recommend an alternate source for information on this subject I’d be happy to look into it, I just picked this paper because it provided a rather handy overview of the field.

  3. There is an unfortunate gap in the literature on this subject, which may explain why everyone looking for something on the world’s oldest rock art always ends up reading Bednarik’s (bad) paper. I’ve done it myself, unfortunately! Someone really needs to write synopsis or survey article on the topic, hint hint.

    This means we have to read individual papers on each claim for the oldest rock art. There isn’t any really good paper on the Tan-Tan figurine from Morocco, which is claimed to be 400 kya but this dating is on the basis of sediments and typology so it’s uncertain. There is a very good paper (http://uvic.academia.edu/AprilNowell/Papers/240568/A_New_Look_at_the_Berekhat_Ram_Figurine_Implications_for_the_Origins_of_Symbolism) on the Berekhat Ram. These are the two oldest contenders, though the Tan-Tan is only anthropomorphic and no one claims it was modified by homs.

    After these two, there is a recently discovered piece of ochre from South Africa that is claimed to be 100 kya but no paper on it yet. After that, it’s the Blombos ochre on which there are several good papers, including those by Henshilwood.

    Bednarik is a very problematic figure in archaeology; he has some good ideas and even some good papers, but the paper you reviewed isn’t one of them. Most of the claims he makes in the article you reviewed are accepted only by him and people who just want to believe, X-Files like.

  4. The evolution of art begins at least with the Makapansgat figurine 2.6+ million years ago and has been differentiating and developing ever since then. Various comments about Bednarik’s work on early paleoart are ignorant of the field; he has published many hundreds of research articles in peer-reviewed journals, more than most scientists. Among his many major accomplishments, he produced the first scientifically dated early rock art in Australia. For an overview of the massive amount of Lower Paleolithic and Middle Paleolithic art prior to Homo sapiens sapiens see my website originsnet.org. In a recent survey of the four stages of art evo over last two million years, presented at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, I reviewed thousands of archeology sites around the world, distilling the ‘Four Memes’ of art of evolution. In the process of producing that synthesis I was surprised that in my review during the Middle Paleolithic Neanderthals produced a greater variety of symbolic behavior than Homo sapiens sapiens; it took a while for our species to become as artistically creative.

    • After having the chance to examine the field more closely, I think there may be a grain of truth to what Bednarik says and critiques are in the process of throwing the baby out with the bath water. However, many of his interpretations of early “art” appears to be a bit iffy; although that doesn’t mean that the “art” itself is non-existent.

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