Taking shape: Prehistoric art and us

What prehistoric art and artifacts can tell us about the emergence of modern human behavior

by Victoria James

In the 19th century, scientists finally junked the Biblical idea of a seven-day divine Creation — with man, at the pinnacle of the process, being fashioned from clay on the sixth day.

Ever since, it seems, we haven’t stopped searching for our secular version of the “sixth day”: the dawn of modern humans.

But how to recognize the scientific equivalent of that moment “In the beginning” when humankind came into being?

The discussion about the emergence of modern humans has been going on for close to 100 years, and early in the debate critera were proposed that might indicate “modern” behavior. Though today regarded as “gross generalizations” by leading scholars such as Hilary J. Deacon of the University of Stellenbosch (an archaeologist who has published widely on the subject of modern human emergence), those suggested hallmarks of modernity included toolmaking, the development of trade and social organization — and the creation of art.

The final category, that of “art,” is the most subjective — and, as such, the least easily identified. (Is a stone disc stained red with ocher around its rim a medallion or merely a tool for mixing the pigment?) Nonetheless while other archaeological discoveries often go unreported, it’s “artistic” finds that grab the headlines.

How else to explain the media excitement of early 2002 over a piece of engraved ocher found in the Blombos Cave, South Africa, that was dated as 77,000 years old?

Pushing back the boundary

That ocher bore geometric markings made deliberately, and therefore believed to be symbolic. Its significance was described by its discoverer, Christopher Henshilwood, and his team from the Cape Field School, South Africa, in a February 2002 paper in the journal Science. “Abstract or depictional images,” they wrote, “. . . provide evidence for cognitive abilities considered integral to modern human behavior.”

The press greeted Henshilwood’s find as evidence that modern human behavior began 35,000 years earlier than previously believed. And the archaeologist’s ongoing research looks set to confirm this revised dating. “New info is appearing all the time as more sites are excavated,” Henshilwood said by e-mail from the field. “For example, we have decorated ostrich eggshell from the Howiesons Poort Period circa 65,000 years ago in the Cape, South Africa, that is about to be published.”

Earlier generations of scholars had drawn the line marking off artistic evidence of modernity at circa 35,000-40,000 years ago, in large part due to a seemingly sudden proliferation of representational and abstract art in Western Europe at that time, known as the Upper Paleolithic Period.

“There is a tendency to think in terms of markers that separate the Neanderthals from the Upper Paleolithic people as those that define modern behavior,” Deacon commented by e-mail. “This explains the prominence given to the Blombos ocher [found in Africa] — it is seen as art, and art is what sets the [European] Upper Paleolithic apart.”

Pre-eminent Europe

It is easy to understand why the art of Western Europe’s Upper Paleolithic Period has long held us in thrall. “Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind” by Randall White of New York University, published last month, is a visually stunning account of the art and artifacts of early humans around the globe. Most familiar among its lavish illustrations are the cave paintings at sites such as France’s Grotte Chauvet and the caves of Lascaux. (Chauvet, in the Ardeche, and Lascaux, in the Dordogne, contain wall paintings from 33,000 and 17,000 years ago respectively.)

Picasso, on visiting Lascaux, reportedly remarked that “we have discovered nothing new in art in 17,000 years.” As White comments in his book, “all of the major representational techniques were known at least by the Magdalenian [Period, beginning about 18,000 years ago]; oil- and water-based polychrome painting, engraving, bas-relief sculpture, sculpture in the round, charcoal and manganese crayon drawing, molded clay, fired ceramic figurines, shading, perspective drawing, false relief, brush painting, stamping and stenciling.” The Grotte Chauvet even contains the image of a bison colored by dots of paint applied by hand, a technique that White describes as “pointillism — 300 centuries before Seurat.”

Forget homo faber, craftsman and toolmaker. How can we look upon the work of homo pictor, the painters of Lascaux and Chauvet, and not recognize in these artist-ancestors our modern, human selves?

But is it art?

For contemporary scientists, such thinking is deeply flawed. All we would actually be doing is failing to recognize the preconceptions governing our idea of “art” — not to mention our notions of “modernity” and “humanity.”

“For me, one of the key contributions of my book,” said White via e-mail, “is a critical examination of the concept of ‘art’ as applied to the prehistoric past.”

Traditional art-historical prejudice has tended to equate “art” exclusively with works produced using those major representational techniques known to the Magdalenians of Western Europe some 18,000 years ago, principally painting and sculpture.

It is not a definition that archaeologists find useful. The word “art” may feature in the title of his book, but White favors the term “representational systems” and intends his study to “get around the usual bias in favor of wall representations” — i.e. the cave paintings that conform most closely to conventional notions of art.

Some experts say the net should be cast wide in the search for symbolic behavior. “It was argued that Middle Stone Age people had no art and no ornaments,” observes Deacon. “[But] certainly they were using ocher. There is a lot of ocher in Middle Stone Age sites of this period and minimally that indicates an appreciation of color-coded symbols. The ability to communicate with symbols . . . is what the presence of ocher indicates.

“We are still learning how to recognize symbolism in the archaeological record.”

However we define “art” — as painting, representation, symbolic behavior, or simply as activity with no obvious utilitarian purpose — we cannot attempt to understand it without reference to its cultural context. It is necessary, cautions White, that “we get away from the 19th- and 20th-century notion that somehow art exists as a universal urge on the part of humans, independent of social, cultural and environmental factors.”

This mistaken notion bedevilled the archaeological evaluation of modern human behavior as recently as a few decades ago.

“In the 1980s,” Deacon commented, “I was a lone voice questioning the accepted wisdom that modern cognition/behavior began with the Upper Paleolithic in Europe.”

Out of Africa

The received wisdom as late as the 1980s yoked profoundly conventional notions of art to the definition of human modernity. If the capacity to produce representational or symbolic art is a characteristic of modernity, the argument went, and if such “art” is confined to the Upper Paleolithic of Western Europe, then that was when and where modern humanity began.

Wrong. “No serious scholar in the field would today disagree that the history of the study of human evolution was Eurocentric,” Robert Bedarnik, president of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations, explained by e-mail. “Europe was always peripheral to human evolution, a cul-de-sac, an unimportant appendage of Asia. Most of the ‘real action’ occurred in the central regions, such as Southern Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa.”

That these regions have not yet been shown to possess artistic expression equivalent to that found in Upper Paleolithic Europe in no way rules them out as the home of modern humanity.

Symbols aside

“There are other aspects of being human apart from symbolic ones,” commented White. “There are windows into the process provided by technological organization, landscape use, etc. We tend to focus on the symbolic aspects for reasons that are perhaps our own cultural ones.”

Indeed, some of the most powerful evidence for human cognitive sophistication found in White’s book lies not in the “artistic” quality of such objects as cave wall paintings, figurines or items of personal adornment, but in what such works reveal about the technological skill and complex organization of the societies that made them.

The caves of Lascaux may be a magnificent painterly feat, if we choose to regard them as such, but they are also a minor miracle of chemistry. Paint recipes, White’s study explains, “included binders such as calcium-rich cave water, blood, animal and vegetable oils, and egg white, and extenders such as talc and biotite, often acquired at some distance specifically for the task. . . . Natural mineral pigments, primarily hematite and manganese, were thermally treated at temperatures up to 1,000 degrees Celsius.”

From grave goods found at Ice Age burial sites in Sungir, Russia, archaeologists can infer that the settlement possessed a complex social system. A fragment of fired loess dug up in Pavlov, in the Czech Republic, bore the impress of woven fabric. Never mind the art of the potter — these people, living 26,000 years ago, had developed loom weaving.

In the beginning . . .

As much as they may touch us, wall paintings and figurines are not definitive proof of the presence of a modern human sensibility. Instead, they belong to an array of social and economic developments that collectively signpost our ancestors’ progress along the path toward behavioral and cognitive sophistication.

And that path stretches back into the mists of prehistory.

“Hominids have been becoming human, or more like us, for 2 million years,” says Deacon.

The debate about artifacts that may or may not offer concrete evidence of human symbolic behavior allows us to see only a short way back down that path. While some argue over whether the signpost for “art” should be erected at 40,000 or at 77,000 years ago, biologists have set up markers for human modernity far earlier down the line.

Behavioral evolution “is probably a process that started prior to modern humans,” proposes Henshilwood, who notes that anatomically modern human remains found in Ethiopia have recently been dated to 160,000 years ago.

The brain, that most perishable organ, holds the key to our evolutionary development.

“Perhaps the process [of becoming human] was given a boost by absolute increases in brain size in the last 600,000 years, and there followed many generations in reorganization of the neural networks,” Deacon says. “A guesstimate that we have considered is that this process may have been completed as much as some 300,000 years ago. That may be the depth of the modern mind.”

Those six days of Biblical lore, it seems, may have been 60 millennia in the making.