A&O READING – On the Origin of Art and Symbolism. Michael Balter (2009)


On the Origin of Art and Symbolism.  Michael Balter   Science  06 Feb 2009:   Vol. 323, Issue 5915, pp. 709-711   DOI:  10.1126/science.323.5915.709


Since their discovery by French spelunkers in 1994, the magnificent lions, horses, and rhinos that seem to leap from the walls of Chauvet Cave in southern France have reigned as the world’s oldest cave paintings. Expertly composed in red ochre and black charcoal, the vivid drawings demonstrate that the artistic gift stretches back more than 30,000 years. These paintings are almost sure to be mentioned in any article or paper about the earliest art. But what do they really tell us about the origins of artistic expression?  [the question is really, “when did cognitive processes that enable artistic expression emerge?” The motives of artists creating, the motives of the observer appreciating?]

The prehistoric humans who decorated Chauvet’s walls by torchlight arrived at the cave with their artistic genius already in full flower. And so, most researchers agree that the origins of art cannot simply be pegged to the latest discovery of ancient paintings or sculpture. Some of the earliest art likely perished over the ages; much remains to be found; and archaeologists don’t always agree on how to interpret what is unearthed. As a result, instead of chasing after art’s first appearance, many researchers seek to understand its symbolic roots. After all, art is an aesthetic expression of something more fundamental: the cognitive ability to construct symbols that communicate meaning, whether they be the words that make up our languages, the musical sounds that convey emotion, or the dramatic paintings that, 30,000 years after their creation, caused the discoverers of the Chauvet Cave to break down in tears.

While sites like Chauvet might be vivid examples of what some researchers still consider a “creative explosion” that began when modern humans colonized Europe about 40,000 years ago, an increasing number of prehistorians are tracing our symbolic roots much further back in time—and in some cases, to species ancestral to Homo sapiens. Like modern humans themselves, symbolic behavior seems to have its origins in Africa. Recent excavations have turned up elaborate stone tools, beads, and ochre dating back 100,000 or more years ago, although researchers are still debating which of these finds really demonstrate symbolic expression. But there’s widespread agreement that the building blocks of symbolism preceded full-blown art. “When we talk about beads and art, we are actually talking about material technologies for symbolic expression that certainly postdate the origins of symbolic thought and communication, potentially by a very wide margin,” says archaeologist Dietrich Stout of University College London.

The evolution of symbolism was once thought to have been as rapid as “flicking on a light switch,” as archaeologist Clive Gamble of the Royal Holloway, University of London, put it some years ago. But given new evidence that symbolic behavior appears long before cave paintings, Gamble now says that his much-cited comment needs to be modified: “It’s a dimmer switch now, a stuttering candle.”

As they more precisely pinpoint when symbolic behavior began, scientists are hoping they might one day crack the toughest question of all: What was its evolutionary advantage to humans? Did symbols, as many researchers suspect, serve as a social glue that helped tribes of early humans to survive and reproduce?

Venus, phallus, or pebble?

“I don’t know much about Art, but I know what I like,” quipped the humorist and art critic Gelett Burgess back in 1906. For archaeologists, distinguishing art from nonart is still quite a challenge. Take the 6-centimeter-long piece of quartzite known as the Venus of Tan-Tan. Found in Morocco in 1999 next to a rich trove of stone tools estimated to be between 300,000 and 500,000 years old, it resembles a human figure with stubby arms and legs. Robert Bednarik, an independent archaeologist based in Caulfield South, Australia, insists that an ancient human deliberately modified the stone to make it look more like a person. If so, this objet d’art is so old that it was created not by our own species, which first appears in Africa nearly 200,000 years ago, but by one of our ancestors, perhaps the large-brained H. heidelbergensis, thought by some anthropologists to be the common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals. That would mean that art is an extremely ancient part of the Homo repertoire. “Ignoring the few specimens we have of very early paleoart, explaining them away, or rejecting them out of hand does not serve this discipline well,” Bednarik wrote in a 2003 analysis of the Venus of Tan-Tan in Current Anthropology.

  Some stone tools require a mental image to create.  CREDIT: THE BOXGROVE PROJECT

Symmetry in stone.   Yet many archaeologists are skeptical, arguing that the stone’s resemblance to a human figure might be coincidence. Indeed, the debate over the Tan-Tan “figurine” is reminiscent of a similar controversy over a smaller stone discovered in 1981 at the site of Berekhat Ram in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. To some archaeologists, this 250,000-year-old object resembles a woman, but others argue that it was shaped by natural forces, and, in any case, looks more like a penguin or a phallus. Even after an exhaustive microscopic study concluded that the Berekhat Ram object had indeed been etched with a tool to emphasize what some consider its “head” and “arms,” many researchers have rejected it as a work of art. For some, proof of symbolic behavior requires evidence that the symbols had a commonly understood meaning and were shared within groups of people. For example, the hundreds of bone and stone “Venus figurines” found at sites across Eurasia beginning about 30,000 years ago were skillfully carved and follow a common motif. They are widely regarded not only as symbolic expression, but full-fledged art.

   Researchers agree that Chauvet Cave’s magnificent paintings, including these lions, are full-blown art.   CREDIT: FRENCH MINISTRY OF CULTURE AND COMMUNICATION/DRAC RHONE-ALPES/DEPARTMENT OF ARCHAEOLOGY


A roaring start.  Thus many researchers are reluctant to accept rare, one-off discoveries like the Tan- Tan or Berekhat Ram objects as signs of symbolic behavior. “You can imagine [an ancient human] recognizing a resemblance but [the object] still hav[ing] no symbolic meaning at all,” says Philip Chase, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Thomas Wynn, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, agrees: “If it’s a one-off, I don’t think it counts. It’s not sending a message to anyone.”


Tools of the imagination

Given how difficult it is to detect the earliest symbolic messages in the archaeological record, some researchers look instead for proxy behaviors that might have required similar cognitive abilities, such as toolmaking. Charles Darwin himself saw an evolutionary parallel between toolmaking and language, probably the most sophisticated form of symbolic behavior. “To chip a flint into the rudest tool,” Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, demands a “perfect hand” as well adapted to that task as the “vocal organs” are to speaking.

To many researchers, making sophisticated tools and using symbols both require the capacity to hold an abstract concept in one’s head—and, in the case of the tool, to “impose” a predetermined form on raw material based on an abstract mental template. That kind of ability was probably not needed to make the earliest known tools, say Wynn and other researchers. These implements, which date back 2.6 million years, consist mostly of rocks that have been split in two and then sharpened to make simple chopping and scraping implements.

Then, about 1.7 million years ago, large, teardrop-shaped tools called Acheulean hand axes appeared in Africa. Likely created by H. erectusand probably used to cut plants and butcher animals, these hand-held tools vary greatly in shape, and archaeologists have debated whether creating the earliest ones required an abstract mental template. But by about 500,000 years ago, ancient humans were creating more symmetrical Late Acheulean tools, which Wynn and many others argue are clear examples of an imposed form based on a mental template. Some have even argued that these skillfully crafted hand axes had symbolic meanings, for example to display prestige or even attract members of the opposite sex.

  Some scientists argue that this 77,000-year-old engraved ochre shows symbolic capacity.  CREDIT: CHRIS HENSHILWOOD AND FRANCESCO D’ERRICO



Symbolic start.

The half-million-year mark also heralded the arrival of H. heidelbergensis, which had a much larger brain than H. erectus. Not long afterward, our African ancestors began to create a wide variety of finely crafted blades and projectile points, which allowed them to exploit their environment in more sophisticated ways, and so presumably enhance their survival and reproduction. Archaeologists refer to these tools as Middle Stone Age technology and agree that they did require mental templates. “The tools tell us that the hominid world was changing,” says Wynn.

As one moves forward in time, humans appear able to imagine and create even more elaborate tools, sharpening their evolutionary edge in the battle for survival. By 260,000 years ago, for example, ancient humans at Twin Rivers in what is now Zambia could envision a complex finished tool and put it together in steps from different components. They left behind finely made blades and other tools that had been modified—usually by blunting or “backing” one edge—to be hafted onto handles, presumably made of wood. These so-called backed tools have been widely regarded as evidence of symbolic behavior when found at much younger sites. “This flexibility in stone tool manufacture [indicates] symbolic capabilities,” says archaeologist Sarah Wurz of the Iziko Museums of Cape Town in South Africa.

Similar cognitive abilities were possibly required to make the famous 400,000-year-old wooden spears from Schöningen, Germany. One recent study concludes that these spears’ creators—probably members of H. heidelbergensis—carried out at least eight preplanned steps spanning several days, including chopping tree branches with hand axes and shaping the spears with stone flakes.

The idea that sophisticated toolmaking and symbolic thought require similar cognitive skills also gets some support from a surprising quarter: brain-imaging studies. Stout’s team ran positron emission tomography scans on three archaeologists—all skillful stone knappers—as they made pre-Acheulean and Late Acheulean tools. Both methods turned on visual and motor areas of the brain. But only Late Acheulean knapping turned on circuits also linked to language, the team reported last year.

Color me red

At Twin Rivers, it’s not just the tools that hint at incipient symbolic behavior. Early humans there also left behind at least 300 lumps of ochre and other pigments in a rainbow of colors: yellow, red, pink, brown, purple, and blue-black, some of which were gathered far from the site. Excavator Lawrence Barham of the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom thinks they used the ochre to paint their bodies, though there’s little hard evidence for this. Most archaeologists agree that body painting, as well as the wearing of personal ornaments such as bead necklaces, was a key way that early humans symbolically communicated social identity such as membership in a particular group, much as people today declare social allegiances and individual personalities by their clothing and jewelry.

Yet while the Twin Rivers evidence is suggestive, it’s hard to be sure how the ochre was actually used. There’s little sign that it was ground into powder, as needed for decoration, says Ian Watts, an independent ochre expert in Athens. And even ground ochre could have had utilitarian uses, says archaeologist Lyn Wadley of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Modern-day experiments have shown that ground ochre can be used to tan animal hides, help stone tools adhere to bone or wooden handles, and even protect skin against mosquito bites.

“We simply don’t know how ancient people used ochre 300,000 years ago,” Wadley says. And since at that date the ochre users were not modern humans but our archaic ancestors, some experts are leery of assigning them symbolic savvy.

Yet many archaeologists are willing to grant that our species, H. sapiens, was creating and using certain kinds of symbols by 75,000 years ago and perhaps much earlier. At sites such as Blombos Cave on South Africa’s southern Cape, people left sophisticated tools, including elaborately crafted bone points, as well as perforated beads made from snail shells and pieces of red ochre engraved with what appear to be abstract designs. At this single site, a number of what many archaeologists consider diagnostic elements of symbolic behavior came together. And in work now in press, the Blombos team reports finding engraved ochre in levels dating back to 100,000 years ago (Science, 30 January, p. 569).

    Archaeologists debate whether this modified stone was meant to represent a woman.   CREDIT: FRANCESCO D’ERRICO AND APRIL NOWELL

Eye of the beholder.

There are other hints that the modern humans who ventured out of Africa around this time might also have engaged in symbolic behavior. At the Skhul rock shelter in Israel, humans left 100,000-year-old shell beads considered by some to be personal ornaments (Science, 23 June 2006, p. 1731). At the 92,000-year-old Qafzeh Cave site nearby, modern humans apparently strongly preferred the color red: Excavators have studied 71 pieces of bright red ochre associated with human burials. Some researchers argue that this represents an early case of “color symbolism,” citing the universal importance of red in historical cultures worldwide and the apparently great lengths to which early humans went to gather red ochre. “There is very strong circumstantial evidence for the very great antiquity of the color red as a symbolic category,” says anthropologist Sally McBrearty of the University of Connecticut, Storrs.

These finds of colorful ochre, fancy tools, and beads have convinced many researchers that the building blocks of symbolism had emerged by at least 100,000 years ago and possibly much earlier. But why? What selective advantages did using symbols confer on our ancestors? To some scientists, the question is a no-brainer, especially when it is focused on the most sophisticated form of symbolic communication: language. The ability to communicate detailed, concrete information as well as abstract concepts allowed early humans to cooperate and plan for the future in ways unique to our species, thus enhancing their survival during rough times and boosting their reproductive success in good times. “What aspects of human social organization and adaptation wouldn’t benefit from the evolution of language?” asked Terrence Deacon, a biological anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, in his influential book The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain. Deacon went on to list just some of the advantages: organizing hunts, sharing food, teaching toolmaking, sharing past experiences, and raising children. Indeed, many researchers have argued that symbolic communication is what held groups of early humans together as they explored new environments and endured climatic shifts.

As for art and other nonlinguistic forms of symbolic behavior, they may also have been key to cementing these bonds, by expressing meanings that are difficult or impossible to put into words. In that way, artistic expression, including music, may have helped ensure the survival of the fittest. This may also explain why great art has such emotional force, because the most effective symbols are those that convey their messages the most powerfully—something the artists at Chauvet Cave seem to have understood very well.

Additional links:

The Blombos Cave Project

Chauvet Cave, French Government Site in English

Homo heidelbergensis

Robert Bednarik’s Web site


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