:: Notes On The Origins Of Art ::

:: towards a clearer understanding of the evolution ::
:: of symbolic and creative behaviour in humans ::

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This essay was produced to accompany my recent exhibition Modern Palaeolithic held in November 2009, and essentially forms a summary of the current archaeological theories on the origins of cultural and symbolic expression among human primates who originally lacked such functions in their societies. Contrary to the popular belief that art and culture emerged quite suddenly in the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution 30,000 years ago in Europe and the Middle East, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that symbolism first evolved in the Middle Palaeolithic at least 50,000 years previously, and by adopting a polyvalently logical viewpoint, in which 'Maybe' plays a significant part, there exists the possibility that primitive notions of symbolism and iconicity are visible much earlier than even anatomically-modern humans, leading to the suggestion that 'culture' and 'art' may have evolved much more slowly and steadily than the 'Revolution' theory posits.

:: introduction ::

“We do not know how art began any more than we know how language started...”(1)

The above quote, taken from the opening lines of Ernst Gombrich’s seminal work The Story Of Art, essentially outlines in brief the current mainstream view of contemporary artists, art critics and historians concerning the origins of artistic expression among human beings. The motif of the unknown origins of art is perhaps an attractive one, making discourse on later art developments and movements easier to frame, but it subtly implies that a kind of magic has taken place: among historians and archaeologists alike is spoken the notion of the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution(2), a sudden appearance of creative expression starting around 35,000 years ago across much of Europe and the Middle East.

We may pass over the inherent Eurocentric nature of this alleged revolution, since numerous archaeological discoveries even before the publication of Gombrich’s book in 1950 called his statement into question. By the early twentieth century, it was known that certain Aboriginal rock art sites in Arnhem Land and the Kimberley Range had a history of continuous use going back some 50,000 years, and the uncovering of increasingly difficult to classify non-functional objects of a vast age (c. 300,000 years) throughout Europe and Africa called into question the notion that cognitively modern behaviour was a sudden and recent development. Recent finds dating to 80,000 years ago from Blombos Cave in South Africa also throw sharp light onto the state of human culture (if it may so be called) in the Middle Palaeolithic.

It must also be pointed out that any useful answer to the issue cannot really come from the field of history or criticism, or even from artists themselves, partly because of the acceptance of the idea of unknown origins, but also for the reason that we should not properly speak of a beginning of artistic expression in a specific place, or even of multiple beginnings across various places: it is more appropriate to speak of the evolution of a set of behaviours. From this standpoint, we find that greater insights come from the fields of archaeology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology and even neurology. It is the purpose of this brief essay, then, not to posit a theory of the origins of art and creative expression, but to clarify the nature of the question, and to provide avenues into thinking about the problem in a more appropriate manner.

:: anatomically modern and cognitively modern ::

We need to first make an important distinction between two ideas of modernity when it comes to the evolution of humanity. There is a large disparity in time between the evolution of anatomically modern human creatures and the cognitively modern (or behaviourally modern) behaviour that is visible across all contemporary human cultures without exception. Findings from archaeology and mitochondrial DNA chronologies suggest that anatomically modern humans evolved from archaic populations such as Homo heidelbergensis and Homo erectus across eastern and southern Africa between 250,000 and 140,000 years ago. Anatomically modern is usually taken to refer to a suite of newly-evolved features such as a larger, more domed brain case, a lack of brow ridges, a more gracile and taller body form, and the appearance of a defined jaw line and chin. Such features are found universally across modern populations today.

However, evidence for cognitively modern behaviour, by which is often meant abstract thought processes and perhaps the appearance of practices which may be termed ‘cultural’, does not appear until at least forty to sixty thousand years later, in burial sites such as Qafzeh in Israel and habitation sites throughout South Africa. Here, then, we have the suggestion that anatomical modernity did not evolve hand-in-hand with cognitive processes: for some fifty millennia, though our ancestors’ body forms were recognisably the same as our own, technologically and culturally there was nothing to separate them from their contemporary heidelbergensis and neaderthalensis populations in Eurasia.

Recent human family tree

In seeking then to explore the evolution of creative expression, it is important for us to realise that our body forms did not evolve for the purpose of, or in response to, the evolution of cognitively modern behaviour. The latter was a much later development, a process most likely borne out of evolutionary responses to entirely different factors which brought about the gracile body form we humans currently possess.

:: what is art? ::

Perhaps a useful first step in coming to understand the evolution of creative expression is to ask the question: what do we mean by ‘art’? This is a question that has confounded artists and critics alike since the early twentieth century, and in the words of one contemporary artist: ‘It is pointless to try and define art these days, it goes nowhere…’(3)

It is most certainly outside the scope of this short essay to attempt something so grand as a definition of art, and in order to have a clear view of the problem under discussion, such a definition is not entirely relevant. It is enough to glean a single insight from the contemporary debate of the nature of art: that the boundaries between the domains of what might be logically termed ‘Art’ and ‘Non-Art’ are decidedly fuzzy, such that we may posit a distinct domain ‘Maybe-Art’ existing as a gradation between the two(4). Indeed, we might consider the former two domains as two extremes on a continuum the majority of which consists of the latter ‘Maybe-Art’ domain:


As we shall see, the notion of a vast domain of ‘Maybe-Art’ will be useful in surveying the vast grey area of possible art objects which stretches from approximately 3 million years ago to Blombos Cave in South Africa 80,000 years ago, where objects appear which are generally (but not unanimously) accepted by archaeologists as demonstrating some form of creative expression. This enormous stretch of time hugely outstrips the 40,000 or so years that art criticism and history accepts as the period in which humans have created art.

Further insight may also come from attempting to define art and creative expression not as a process of making, or in terms of the psychologies of the artists, but by the object evidences that such processes leave, particularly with reference to the Palaeolithic modes of living. Following David Lewis-Williams and C.S. Henshilwood(5), we might offer the following extremely tentative working definition of what may constitute evidence for human artistic expression by stating that we may consider an object as the result of a creative or symbolic expressive process if it suggests or displays evidence of the following three criteria:

  • Abstract or symbolic modes of thought and expression involved in its making,
  • Containing marks which have been made intentionally and not as the by-product of some other functional process (such as blade-sharpening, scraping flesh from bone, etc),
  • The surface of the object has been prepared before the intentional marks have been made.(6)

These criteria are not precise and in addition do not limit our focus to purely artistic or creative objects. Evidence is copious, for example, in the Middle Palaeolithic at sites such as Qafzeh in Israel for the ritual preparation of dead bodies by covering them with red ochre before burial. This cognitively modern behaviour displays evidence of all three criteria above – preparation of the surface (human skin), intentional mark-making (applying the ochre) and abstract or symbolic thinking (burial of the dead as a non-functional process) – yet such a ritual is not likely to be considered creative expression in the truest sense. These criteria thus function as a baseline standard from which discourse regarding creative expression can take place, but other aspects of cognitively modern human behaviour can also make use of them for the purposes of analysis and debate.

: evolution, not origins ::

A key reason, not explained above, why the fields of criticism and history cannot provide adequate insight into the evolution of art is that the questions and debates current in these fields essentially pre-suppose the existence of ‘art’ or consider it a pre-determined conclusion within certain aspects of human behaviour and evolution. Of course such assumptions are absolutely necessary for contemporary debates, however when surveying the origins of such behaviour, they become a hindrance and the common thinking patterns of evolutionary psychologists become more relevant. Here we must become accustomed to thinking of evolution not as a set of pre-determined behaviours and features, but as a set of selective pressures which act upon an organism (in this case, the anatomically-modern but cognitively-archaic homo sapiens) and which contribute to the emergence of new behaviours and features in response to those pressures.

In this way of thinking, behaviour is not pre-determined. As C.S. Henshilwood has remarked when considering the artefacts, dating to approximately 80,000 years ago, recovered from Blombos cave and the surrounding Southern Cape areas of South Africa: “In the Southern Cape it is possible that the emergence of symbolically mediated behaviour was driven by population growth during mild climatic periods… During the later stages of [habitation in the area]… dessication and environmental degradation in the interior [of Southern Africa] may have forced population movement towards the more benign Southern Cape coast. At the same time a rapidly retreating coastline… must also have resulted in increased competition for dwindling coastal resources. We can speculate this was a time when exchange and mediation mechanisms were important to maintain good social relations, leading to a growth in material artefacts with symbolic meaning.”(7)

Here, then, is the type of language useful for the problem at hand: we see environmental and social factors contributing towards, but not necessarily causing in a pre-determined way, the emergence of symbolic expressions in response to those factors. We are speaking here, not of a headlong rush to art, nor of a sudden revolution, but a slow, environmentally- and socially-driven evolution of the rudiments of culture among hominids who previously lacked such notions in their social and functional lives. Cause-and-effect logic is here not as relevant as the logic of the incremental process.

:: the clouding effects of symbolic cognition ::

That said, it must be categorically stated that we humans are now completely symbolic creatures, and as we have evolved these past 100,000 years, the complexity and sophistication of human symbolic cultures and cognition has vastly increased. Symbolic cognitions have come to dominate our thought processes to the point where it is extremely difficult for a modern human to have an experience which is not somehow reinterpreted into symbolic form, or even to generate a thought which is non-symbolic in nature.

Mapping this symbolic nature onto ancient humans who may have lacked such symbolic thinking will lead us astray when considering the evolution of creative expression. An important point to make here is that ancient art objects most likely would not have been purely for aesthetic reasons, but may have had specific functions. Much text has been written on the putative functions of later parietal and painted art of the Upper Palaeolithic caves of Europe: the friezes of bison and ibex have been interpreted variously as forms of hunting magic (following Abbe Breuil(8)), as expressions of totemic relationships in a given clan who inhabit the cave (an idea which Delporte(9), among others, explored), as art for art’s sake (posited by a variety(10) of early authors but which is now wholly discredited) or as the exploration and results of shamanic trance and altered consciousness states(11).

But in the earlier Middle Palaeolithic period, such complex abstract functions are less likely: Henshilwood touches on simpler functionality in the quote above, inferring that some of the artistic and adornment objects found at Blombos my have been involved in cementing social relationships between individuals. This practical, and less religiously-oriented, viewpoint is useful practice for considering the problem of creative origins free of the clouding effects of our own symbolic cognition.

:: drawing a line - 80,000 years::

As stated above, it is customary to begin commentaries of art histories in the Upper Palaeolithic, and the impression is given of artistic expression emerging instantaneously and fully-formed, which is rather misleading. Since the results of the findings at Blombos Cave were published, the majority of archaeological thinking has pushed back the limits of artistic expression to approximately 80,000 years ago, and it is this standard date that I have chosen to separate the time periods in two large format digital pieces which accompanied my Modern Palaeolithic exhibition at Leeds College of Art in November 2009.

Middle & Upper Palaeolithic Timeline

But we should not forget the foregoing points made in reference to ‘Maybe-Art’ and the notions of incremental gradations of the appearance of possible creative expressions implied by models of human evolution; in view of these, the accepted standard of 80,000 years is little more than a line in the sand. The actual picture evident from the archaeological record is more ambiguous, and not just because some specialists in various fields hesitate to accept that the Blombos Cave artefacts represent bona fide creative expression(12).

The paucity of archaeological evidence from the Middle Palaeolithic is a major problem for theorists and archaeologists alike, for we do not have a clear or continuous picture of humans during this time period; most notably the thirty thousand year period immediately preceding the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution is scanty enough that some, such as McBrearty(13), consider the revolution to be an illusion based upon the greater availability of evidence from the Upper compared to the late Middle Palaeolithic. Diamond(14), on the other hand, believes the available evidence from the Middle Palaeolithic suggests a kind of technological stasis at odds with the evolution of new cultural features such as symbolic expression.

If the artefacts from Blombos Cave are to be considered as art then these would be the earliest evidence for such a phenomenon, assuming the mainstream interpretation is correct, but if the available evidence is so full of holes as McBrearty suggests, and Diamond’s technological stasis has no real bearing on the social culture of pre-modern humans, then it is virtually impossible to be sure when cognitive modernity actually evolved and we must essentially await further archaeological discoveries to throw light on the problem.

:: heuristic, not progressive ::

The situation is further complicated by findings from mitochondrial DNA studies(15) which suggest a possible population bottleneck (implying a dramatic drop in numbers of homo sapiens individuals) at around 72,000 years ago which appears to coincide with a cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Toba on Sumatra (the Toba event) that is known to have caused considerable climate change across the globe for up to a thousand years after the event(16). This event is theorised to have reduced human populations to perhaps ten thousand or even a mere thousand breeding pairs(17).

Such catastrophic changes may have contributed to an evolutionary selection that favoured more practical and functional behaviours for survival in an environment that was considerably more difficult to thrive in than previously, and this may account for why fewer objects of symbolic value are found in later periods of the Middle Palaeolithic. Alternatively as Henshilwood states: “Culture complexity and innovation is a heuristic strategy. The evolution of complex traditions does not necessarily drive the evolution of still more sophisticated imitations or traditions. The fitness of the innovations [of symbolic expression] at Blombos Cave may not have been selected for during, say, the Howiesons Poort [a later Middle Palaeolithic site]. The [Howiesons Poort human groups] by around 65,000 years ago had converged on novel ideas that, for them, had maximal fitness.”(18)

The implication here is that in the early days of creative expression, the phenomenon was selected or de-selected for cultural appearance and transmission with the varying evolutionary fitness factors anciently current among disparate human groups across a range of both time and space. Development from simpler symbolic expressions to more complex ones need not have occurred in a progressive manner, but in a hit-and-miss approach in response to the changing factors of Middle Palaeolithic life. Henshilwood also suggests later that if much of early human creative expression took place not on durable materials like ochre and rock but on organic materials such as wood and bone, these perishable materials may not have survived from the Middle Palaeolithic, though later works from the Upper Palaeolithic had a greater chance of survival to the present day, and indeed we have evidence of wood, bone and ivory art objects from this period.

So the picture is extremely complex: artistic expression may have had multiple emergences through time and among disparate groups, while the paucity and survivability of evidence from the Middle Palaeolithic makes any theory at best tentative and liable to change based on subsequent archaeological discoveries. In addition, the clouding effects of our own native symbolic cognition has a bearing on how we might perceive the object evidences themselves.

With all the foregoing in mind, it is useful to begin a survey of the variety of objects uncovered from before the Blombos Cave-inspired 80,000 year watershed, encompassing the full extent of the historical ‘Maybe-Art’ domain with a view to suggesting that the evolution of cognitively-modern behaviours was by no means a sudden emergence, but a long and painstaking heuristic process that may have begun at the very dawn of humanity’s tool use.

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