|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.
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.
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.
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|
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