The oldest prehistoric art is especially unimpressive, consisting of a few geometric patterns on shells. However, what they lack in artistic flair they make up for in persistence. These engravings were the most common form of art for almost half a million years; predating modern humans1.

So why did ancient hominins start making these engravings? And, perhaps more interestingly, why did they stay so consistent for so long? Here are the three most popular hypotheses.

One of the oldest examples of prehistoric art: engravings on a shell made by Homo erectus

#1: Prehistoric art is just art

Arguably the most interesting thing about these early engravings is how consistent they remain for so long. Here’s a good cross section of engravings made during the past half a million years.

In chronological order from left to right, starting at the top left1.

Sure, there’s some variation within them; but the parallel lines, crosshatches and W shapes keep making an appearance. Something else tends to be fairly consistent: reality.

After all, images tend to be similar if they’re depicting the same thing. A practical upshot of this is that there’s a lot of similarities between ancient art from around the world. This led some to suspect that, like classic cave art, these geometric shapes are depicting the same thing too2.

So Mellet et al. set out to test this possibility. They plopped a bunch of people in an MRI machine and showed them various images, ranging from writing to pots. Sure enough, the brain lit up in a similar way when shown actual real things and these ancient engravings, suggesting they are actually representational images2.

The brain bits that light up in response to natural scenes, like those Mellet et al. tested1.

In other words, this might be art like any other; we just don’t recognise the images being drawn. Thus, people were making this prehistoric art for all the reasons people typically make art.

#2: The dawn of writing

However, the implications of Mellet et al’s. work doesn’t stop there. Many of those brain bits that light up in response to representational images can also be triggered by writing. Specifically, the T, L, and X shapes that can be seen in both words and the real world2.

This is made possible by the “Visual Word Form Area” (VWFA), a part of the brain that can detect these stimuli in both situations. Our multi-purpose use of the VWFA may not be a coincidence. Some suggest we may use those shapes in words because we evolved to detect them so well; given their prevalence in the real world. The VWFA is thus basically our brain co-opting some existing visual processing skills to facilitate reading3,4.

There are 36 letter “categories” that can be made with ≤ 3 straight lines. Many of them incorporate L, T, or X shapes4.

All of this neuroscience and linguistics might seem far removed from half a million-year-old prehistoric art, but I promise you there’s a relevance.

Our brain had this VWFA capable of spotting patterns that would eventually be co-opted for writing. But before that could happen, we actually needed to develop the skills to be able to write something down. There’s some debate over why, how, and what, happened, but at some point, our dexterity needed to catch up with the VWFA.

Could that moment be captured in this early prehistoric art. For the first time, not only are people able to recognise patterns but jot them down to create more abstract drawings. The result is these engravings, possibly representing the dawn of the cognitive abilities that would ultimatley lead to writing5.

Engraved ochre from Blombos Cave, carrying those same geometric scratches

#3: A little bit of both

All of this puts us in a bit of a bind. We have some evidence this prehistoric art might be pretty pictures, some evidence they might be symbolic. All of this led Derek Hodgson to go “why not both”. Of course, he phrased it in more technical terms, developing the “Neuronal Resonance Theory” (NRT). Whilst this sounds fancy, it’s actually quite a simple blending of these ideas6.

The gist of it is that our ancestors had this VWFA capable of recognising L, T, and X shapes (or at least, the VWFA in a more primitive form). Because of this, things that have those shapes appeal to us, resonating nicely with those neurons in the VWFA. This drove us to make prehistoric art with those patterns thousands of years ago1.

Thus, these early engravings are ultimately patterns our ancestors found nice to look at. But they found them nice to look at because our brain was evolving towards symbolism1.

Of course, back then symbolism wasn’t the goal. Rather, being able to spot and recognise patterns would be helpful in other situations. Perhaps it would make us better tool makers; capable of creating the beautiful symmetrical tools seen in the Palaeolithic1.

Officially the world’s sexiest handaxe

As such, this evolution may also have been tied up in changes in our dexterity, like better fine motor control and the mirror neurons that help us copy each other as we learn.

In the end, these engravings may be “just” art, but they hint at much more dramatic cognitive changes crucial to life as we know it. As Hodgson notes in a nice summary of his idea on The Conversation.

This can therefore produce a sense of identification with a pattern – whether accidental or natural – in a way that inspires us to replicate it. And these marks were the first steps to writing and reading.

References

  1. Hodgson, D., 2019. The origin, significance, and development of the earliest geometric patterns in the archaeological record. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports24, pp.588-592.
  2. Mellet, E., Salagnon, M., Majkic, A., Cremona, S., Joliot, M., Jobard, G., Mazoyer, B., Tzourio-Mazoyer, N. and d’Errico, F., 2018. Neuroimaging supports the representational nature of the earliest human engravings. BioRxiv, p.464784.
  3. Chang, C.H., Pallier, C., Wu, D.H., Nakamura, K., Jobert, A., Kuo, W.J. and Dehaene, S., 2015. Adaptation of the human visual system to the statistics of letters and line configurations. Neuroimage120, pp.428-440.
  4. Changizi, M.A., Zhang, Q., Ye, H. and Shimojo, S., 2006. The structures of letters and symbols throughout human history are selected to match those found in objects in natural scenes. The American Naturalist167(5), pp.E117-E139.
  5. Henshilwood, C.S., d’Errico, F., van Niekerk, K.L., Dayet, L., Queffelec, A. and Pollarolo, L., 2018. An abstract drawing from the 73,000-year-old levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Nature562(7725), p.115.
  6. Hodgson, D., 2006. Understanding the origins of paleoart: the neurovisual resonance theory and brain functioning. PaleoAnthropology2006, pp.54-67.

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