Saturday, 13 December 2008

Paleolithic art, part 1: The road towards art

Art is one of humanity’s most fundamental activities — the earliest works of art predate some of our most basic skills, such as pottery and weaving — and there is good reason to suppose that it was only created in full-blown form, with some possible exceptions, by behaviourally modern Homo sapiens.

When we discuss prehistoric art, we need to be clear what we mean. ‘Prehistory’ does not have fixed dates. It refers to the vast body of human experience that predates the keeping of records, which depend upon written language and are acquired at different times in different cultures, if at all — for some societies ‘prehistory’ in the literal sense extends well into the industrial era. It is worth noting that until very recently, religious notions of where humans came from obscured our awareness of our ancient past. As Colin Renfrew put it, “Two centuries ago, prehistory did not exist... the very notion of ‘prehistory’, in the sense of a broad stretch of time going back before the dawn of written history, had not been formulated.”[1]

The era populated by our early human ancestors and ourselves up until the agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago is known as the Old Stone Age or Paleolithic (from the Greek paleos ‘old’ and lithos ‘stone’). No precise dividing line exists between true art and the activities that preceded it, but the first unequivocal works of art appear somewhere in the transition from Middle to Upper Paleolithic, the latter dating roughly from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. Writing, and with it history, arose in the wake of the agricultural revolution, which I will discuss in later articles. We should not let such labels disguise how real trends overlap and develop unevenly. But the labels are useful because, based upon our current knowledge, they refer to distinct stages in social development.

Around 50,000 years ago, there was a migration of modern humans out of Africa. By 30,000 years ago they had replaced every other human species, and by 20,000 years ago they had spread to every continent except Antarctica. This period coincides with an explosion of cultural activity, which included all the principal creative skills — painting, engraving, sculpture, jewellery, music, even ceramics and textiles. This flowering was accompanied by important technological innovations too, suggesting that these advances were connected.

The earliest alleged art objects and Neanderthal culture

The oldest ever object relevant to our topic is the three million year-old Makapansgat pebble from South Africa, a stone whose natural wearing has given it the resemblance of a crude human face — it was found far from any natural source, which has suggested to some that it may have been carried off by an australopithecine who appreciated its symbolic force. An alleged sculpture found near Tan-Tan in Morocco, made of quartzite and painted with red ochre, has been dated as between 300,000 to 500,000 years old. A similar artifact made of volcanic tuff was found at the Golan Heights in Syria. Both bear a very vague resemblance to female figures, and marks left by carving mean they have been claimed to be art objects. If it were true, they would be the oldest known works of art in the world.

The artifact found at the Berekhat RamThe artifact found at the Berekhat Ram site on the Golan Heights, claimed by some to be a crude female figurine

A fragment of elephant tibia found at Bilzingsleben in Germany, and dated to around 350–400,000 years ago, bears two sets of incised parallel lines, which have been alleged to be symbolic in purpose. In 1999 a team excavating in a cave in South Africa found a piece of ochre, carved with a criss-cross pattern, and some beads that seem to have been pierced to be worn as jewellery. These finds date to about 77,000 years ago.

To investigate further, let us take an example from relatively recent history.

From our first appearance to 28,000 years ago, Homo sapiens shared the world with Homo neanderthalensis, or the Neanderthals, who occupied an area from northern Europe to Iran. (There were also populations of Homo erectus in Asia.) Despite their apeish popular image, Neanderthals were an accomplished people who made tools and even buried their dead. Their brain was slightly larger than ours, and their use of the Levallois method to create stone flakes — which even modern archaeology students find hard to master — proves that they were able tool-makers. They were very well adapted to the brutal environment of ice age Europe.

Some prehistorians, for example Desmond Collins in his 1976 book The Human Revolution, suggested that Neanderthals simply evolved into modern humans, through interbreeding or neoteny. Only from 1997 did the study of mitochondrial DNA prove that we were separate species that had diverged around 5–600,000 years ago. Rather than representing a new evolutionary future, the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe about 40,000 years ago — the last time different human species shared the Earth — meant the Neanderthals’ doom. This was probably not down to violence: the two species seem to have co-existed for 10,000 years. Nor was it due to the Neanderthals’ lack of success as a species, given that their span of existence of at least 200,000 years exceeds our own so far. A popular traditional view is that they were less well adapted than the competition, who could think, communicate and organise better than they could.[2] This may be mere self-flattery by our species — diseases introduced to the isolated Neanderthal groups by extensive new Homo sapiens populations might be all the explanation we need.

Neanderthals were less developed than ourselves in key respects (the successful extraction of their DNA locates them somewhere between chimps and Homo sapiens). There is no evidence of ritual attached to their burials, such as the placing of items with the bodies, which calls into question their capacity for symbolism; they seem only to have used stone and wood for their tools, although bone was abundantly available and their tool-making skill is beyond question; and there is no unequivocal evidence that they used body ornamentation. For many years it was assumed they were completely without art.

The latter issue was complicated in 2003 with the discovery of an apparent piece of sculpture. Known as the Mask of la Roche-Cotard, it is an estimated 35,000 years old. Other possible art objects include a flute, carved from the bone of a cave bear, and items of jewellery, not to mention other items that seem to have been collected because of unusual colour or form. Was this another instance of the traditional barrier between Homo sapiens and other species being torn down?

Alleged Neanderthal fluteAlleged Neanderthal flute, found at the Divje Babe site in Slovenia

There is no reason in principle why Neanderthals should not have developed some degree of aesthetic consciousness. It is possible that Neanderthals had language, which like art requires the grasp of symbolic communication. Even chimpanzees show graphical intelligence, and Neanderthals were much more advanced than chimpanzees. But as we have seen with our study of ape painting, there is a difference between this and true artistic sensibility. The ‘Mask’ is a highly contentious object. It is a 10cm piece of flint with a second piece of flint pushed through it, with signs of carving that seems to create a very crude impression of a face. Some very extravagant claims have been made for this object. Paul Bahn was probably premature when he declared that the Mask “should finally nail the lie that Neanderthals had no art”. Created when Homo sapiens was already co-existing in Europe, the Mask might have been created by them, and acquired by a curious Neanderthal. The item may have had some other purpose, or be part of another object, or be a piece of experimentation that did not resemble a face at all in its maker’s eyes. The facial resemblance may be entirely in our minds — another example of our irrepressible anthropomorphising. We don’t know, and for that reason should err on the side of caution. Likewise, the existence of a ‘flute’ is disputed — the holes in the bone may just be tooth marks; the ornaments seem only to have been made after contact with the culture of Homo sapiens.

Even if Neanderthals did produce symbolic, aesthetic objects without the intervention of their more cognitively advanced cousins, such objects are rare at Neanderthal sites. This is probably down to various causes. One of the most significant may be that Neanderthals lived in lower population densities and had much less communication between groups, depriving them of the social networks that made symbolic communication advantageous. At best, Neanderthal art was sporadic, never as widespread and consistent as our own. “The great problem with all the Neanderthal art,” said archaeologist Clive Gamble, “is that they are one-offs.”[3]

In his book The Prehistory of the Mind, the archaeologist Steven Mithen draws upon evolutionary psychology [4] to propose that the mind is divided into several broad areas of intelligence: social, natural history, technological, and linguistic. Each is a specialised domain handling a particular aspect of behaviour. There is little reason to doubt that Neanderthals had social behaviours comparable to our own, and they clearly did not lack technological skills. This makes their paucity of art more puzzling:

We have seen that Early Humans were regularly imposing form on to their stone artifacts. Handaxes and Levallois flakes required the extraction of objects of a preconceived form from nodules of stone. In view of such technical intelligence, the failure to make three-dimensional objects of art cannot reflect difficulties in conceiving of objects ‘within’ a block of stone or ivory, or the mental planning and dexterity to ‘extract’ them. The cognitive processes located in the domain of technical intelligence used for making stone artifacts appear to have been sufficient to produce a figurine from an ivory tusk. But they were not used for such ends.[5]

Mithen argues that the difference in Neanderthals’ achievements and ours lies in the architecture of the mind. Drawing an analogy with a cathedral, he suggests that for Neanderthals, as for all early humans, each area of intelligence was a separate chapel. A nave of general intelligence connected to each, but the individual chapels were barred from the others (we shall return to this idea in the next post). Mithen’s theory could explain why Neanderthals seem to have lacked the imaginative thinking required for works of true art. Over 200,000 years of existence, their technology, known as the Mousterian, showed no advances whatsoever.

An exception came about 35–30,000 years ago in the period known as the Châtelperronian, which sees an overlap between Neanderthal objects and those of Homo sapiens in the form of jewellery and more advanced tools. Such finds may be seen as the emergence of a more advanced sensibility in the Neanderthals, right at the end of their existence. But that this new technology should appear at the same time as the Cro-Magnons (early Homo sapiens) [6] are spreading into the same habitat is perhaps no coincidence. It is possible that Neanderthals’ alleged aesthetic objects were copied or acquired through their contacts with Homo sapiens and that they did not fully understand the symbolic nature of these objects. There is no escaping the poverty of claimed Neanderthal art objects compared to the magnificence of modern humans’ painting and sculpture: on current evidence, even if we accept objects like the Mask as authentic pieces of art, the Neanderthals became extinct without having developed a culture remotely comparable to Homo sapiens’. Well-preserved Neanderthal sites have been excavated which offer thousands of artifacts and yet nothing in the way of art.

Fresh evidence may one day prove that early humans did in fact produce true art. I should point out that this would pose no problem to Marxist theory. There is no ‘official’ Marxist position upon whether they did so (my own scepticism is based upon the inadequacy of the evidence, not upon the demands of a dogma). It would simply mean that another human species had succeeded, to whatever extent, in following the same path as ourselves. The early humans’ extinction implies however that they were at some disadvantage compared to their competitors. It is very likely they had not made the same leap to full imaginative intelligence (‘cognitive fluidity’, in Mithen’s language) that enabled Homo sapiens to colonise the world.

It is not unreasonable to believe that early human minds were significantly different to, and less advanced than, our own: the gaps in their production suggest they did not have our imagination or inventiveness. The Makapansgat pebble is clearly just a found object, and the Bilzingsleben markings might not be aesthetic or symbolic in intent. There is not enough contextual evidence that these objects are more than just anomalies whose resemblance to art is coincidental. The supposed figurines of Berekhat Ram and Tan-Tan are pieces of rock with evidence of having been modified by tools — to claim them as pieces of sculpture is extremely questionable. The most we can say of these or or the Mask of La Roche-Cotard is that they are proto-art — crude, early strivings at art, which their makers perhaps barely understood themselves — and true art remains the preserve of Homo sapiens.

Engraved piece of ochre found in Blombos caveThe engraved piece of ochre found in Blombos cave. Photo: Henning

The Blombos ochre is an intriguing find because, although we can only speculate on the meaning of its engraved pattern, it is clearly a pattern and thus a symbolic object — beads, and other forms of bodily adornment, are also signs of symbolic behaviour. Bone tools and pierced shells from other African sites (e.g. Ethiopia and the Congo) date back to a similar time. What this evidence implies is that modern human beings may have developed earlier than was previously believed. The Cro-Magnons for example, who occupied Europe around 40,000 years ago, may have already formed their modern human skills — hut-building, cave painting, weaving — before they arrived in Europe. This timescale does not seem inconsistent with the date of migration to Australia 50,000 years ago, which itself will have required skills beyond the ability of early humans.

This brings us to the dawn of art — and to the possibility of a ‘human revolution’.



[1] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007). The study of prehistory experienced two great forward leaps in the 20th century: radiometric dating, of which radiocarbon dating is the best-known method, and the analysis of DNA.
[2] There are various theories to explain Neanderthals’ demise, including the effect of climate change.
[3] Cited in Jonathan Amos, ‘Neanderthal “face” found in Loire’, BBC website (December 2003).
[4] Mithen draws for example upon the work of Jerry Fodor, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, who propose ‘modules’ for specific areas of intelligence. Evolutionary psychology contends that the mind must have evolved through adaptation, just like other species characteristics. It is sometimes accused of genetic determinism and has been used to justify reactionary ideas, but whether or not it is taken down this path depends, like many fields of inquiry, upon its practitioners — any theory, including Marxism, may be made reductive. As Stephen Jay Gould, who has been critical of evolutionary psychology, noted: “Humans are animals and the mind evolved; therefore, all curious people must support the quest for an evolutionary psychology” (from his article ‘Darwinian Fundamentalism’, 1997).
[5] Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind (1996).
[6] The term ‘Cro-Magnon’ is a general term used to describe the earliest modern Homo sapiens population in Europe. The name derives from the Cro-Magnon rock shelter site at Les Eyzies in France, where the first fossil remains were found in 1868.

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