Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Evolution of Art

The Evolution of Art

What exactly is an art object? The definition can pretty much encapsulate anything, based on the intellectual preferences of the definer. For the moment, let's take a step back from such a grand interpretation and go with a simpler one, an art object is anything used or kept for an aesthetic purpose instead of (or in addition to) an utilitarian purpose. With this definition, Neanderthals certainly had art objects, “Neanderthals collected strange objects, things with a special color, special shape, fossils for example, special minerals, but then all these objects are not hand made they are just found and collected.” -Jean-Jacques Hublin. Strewn about early human habitations are hundreds of miniature ivory carved animals, we love to create art objects. Neanderthals did not share this propensity to create, but still mentally (and behaviorally) distinguished objects found in the world into categories such as utilitarian or aesthetic. Certain shells are found at Neanderthal sites which were neither used as tools or eaten, but were nevertheless collected. Neanderthals were not forced to separate objects into one of two categories: symmetrical hand axes (especially those with fossil inserts) may have been treated as both utilitarian and aesthetic.


Symmetrical hand axes require less force to cut meat, evolutionarily it is in their advantage: using symmetrical hand axes increased the rate of reproduction of one group over another. This answers the evolutionary question why did such a trait proliferate among the Neanderthal population? Disregarding the aesthetic context, clans either met for multi-familial butchery or for trading. A clan which did not use symmetrical hand axes met one which did, the ignorant clan would have been shown or told about its effectiveness and adopted the technique. Introducing the aesthetic context, Neanderthals did make objects which included symmetry for symmetry's sake. Neanderthals at times made parallel incisions in bones, although these are possibly accidental. A clearer example is the Tata Pebble, a small stone found at a Neanderthal site which is incised with a cross hatch mark. The design on this object is useless yet intentional, showing “an attraction for symmetry.” -Jean-Jacques Hublin. A recent (2012) discovery at Gorham's cave in Gibraltar also sheds light on the Neanderthal aesthetic. A crosshatch was cut into the rock, requiring 200-300 cuts to carve out. It has been dated to before 39 kya by the Mousterian layer above it. While it is not associated with remains, there were Mousterian Neanderthals living on Gibraltar at the time. If it is a Neanderthal carving, it is more evidence that Neanderthals understood symmetry. The context of the crosshatch is very different copmared to the Tata Pebble. It is visible from the cave entrance and is at a spot where the cave turns. While its purpose is also unknown, Francesco d'Errico at the University of Bordeaux has opined that it may have been a sign showing occupation. The creation of unnecessary symmetry is one of the first steps toward building an aesthetic sense. While the spread of symmetrical hand axes does not require an aesthetic answer, it is also likely that Neanderthals did not understand the concept of torque efficiency and were simply attracted to symmetrical objects for their own sake. This aesthetic attraction would have unintentionally spread the helpful trait.

The Tata Pebble, found at an Hungarian Neanderthal site

The crosshatch at Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar. Dated to before 39 kya presumably made by a Neanderthal

Rock Art

Neanderthals also made cupules, small circular cup-like depressions in rock which are an early form of rock art. At La Ferrassie Cave in France, a Neanderthal child was buried around 60 kya, lying in state until 1933. This child was given a funerary slab, except this slab was like no other ever found. On the underside of the giant slab are cupules! 2 larger hollows and 8 pairs of smaller ones. While it is possible the builders used a slab which happened to have cupules, the conspicuous placement of these cupules in the context of a burial is striking, and suggests intentionality. This raises the question of why. Why did Neanderthals connect cupule rock art to this burial? What did cupules symbolize for Neanderthals?

A sketch of the underside of the funerary slab at La Ferrassie Cave, France. This is the oldest art found in Europe

Answering this question is comically impossible. Charles Mountford (an early anthropologist) witnessed aboriginal Australians making cupules in the 1940s. When asked why, they responded that the rock embodies the life essence of the pink cockatoo and the dust resultant from pounding helps fertilize female pink cockatoos which increases the production of edible eggs. Tell me you could have guessed that? The meaning and purpose of cupules are inherently tied to the culture of their creators, and are lost on anyone outside of that in-group. The one thing you can say is that cupules are symbolic.

We do not know what cupules mean, but our genus has been making cupules for quite some time. While the cupules at La Ferrassie France are the oldest art in Europe (around 60 kya), they are not the oldest cupules on earth. Cupules have been found at Olduvai gorge in Tanzania dated to around 1.7 million years ago. These cupules were made for grinding plants, created only for utilitarian reasons. As this idea spread, the practice spread...but eventually something changed. The shape of cupules changed: they were made deeper and wider. More importantly, the location of cupules changed: once made on flat horizontal surfaces, now they were being made on cave walls or even ceilings! Individual grinding cupules were placed in and amongst the living space, yet these new cupules came in groups of hundreds up to a thousand. What changed? They were given a symbolic use, and they became a type of art. The oldest non-utilitarian cupules are at Auditorium Cave in Bhimbetka India. At this cave Homo Erectus made cupules and meanders (wandering lines incised in stone) which have been dated to between 290-700 kya. A nearby site at Daraki-Chattan has 498 cupules which were made from around 400-1,800 kya. While this is a vast time frame, Robert Bednarik argues that since Homo Erectus made canoes around 830 kya they, “clearly had language” and may have started making symbolic cupules by this point. These small rock depressions and incisions at Bhimbetka and Daraki-Chattan are the oldest art on earth, and were not even made by humans!

A cupule and meander at Auditorium Cave, Bhimbetka India. This is the oldest art on earth
A model reconstruction of a male Homo Erectus in profile, by paleoartist John Gurche

A model reconstruction of a female Homo Erectus in profile, by paleoartist John Gurche

Answering how members of our genus made cupules is much easier than answering why. Giriraj Kumar replicated some of the cupules found at Daraki-Chattan, and the most obvious finding is that they are not easy to make. A reproduction of cupule 1 took 8,490 blows and 72 continuous minutes of working time to create a depression only 1.9 millimeters deep. Cupule 5 took 21,730 blows to reach 6.7 millimeters deep. Since there are over 500 cupules at this site alone, it would have been a humungous and exhausting undertaking, requiring a lot of time and energy. The dating of cupules is also problematic, a cupule at Moda Bhata India was created around 7 kya but was re-pounded around 200 CE. Thus when cupules are dated they only reveal when it was last worked on, not when it was created. Our genus has been making cupules for hundreds of thousands of years and continues to do so today. They are found in every time period and every culture on earth. Understanding these art objects is vital to understanding the mind of our ancestors. This practice still in use connects us to Homo Erectus...if we share this symbolic behavior do we also share a symbolic mind?

Robert Bednarik

It is presumed that Neanderthals did not make figurines because they are not found at Neanderthal sites (in comparison to human sites where they are found everywhere). While this assumption holds true in light of archeological evidence, it is possible that Neanderthal figurines have simply not been found or were made of wood. This line of reasoning is supported by the fact that our predecessors Homo Erectus made stone figurines. Unearthed in Israel in the 1970s, the Venus of Berekhat Ram was long thought to be fake until another figure, the Venus of Tan-Tan, was found in Morocco in the 1990s. The Venus of Berekhat Ram has been dated to 230-700 kya, and the Venus of Tan-Tan has been dated to 200-500 kya, making both of them artistic products of Homo Erectus. The Venus of Tan-Tan, for an unknown reason, was originally painted with red ochre. These statuettes make a joke out of our prior anthropomorphic assumptions, Homo Erectus invented figurines. Making and painting a miniature person requires extreme abstraction and symbolism. There are two narratives to explain these objects: either re-invention or continuity. The first idea would be that statuette creation died out with Homo Erectus and was re-invented by Homo Sapiens. The second idea is that this tradition was passed down from species to species, showing a heritage of artistic manufacture and symbolic thought. While the independent invention narrative is probable (it happened with archery), since only two pieces have been found and were found in radically different locals and times, the evidence is scare. Even then, Homo Erectus in Israel and in Morocco shared some cultural knowledge, possibly evidence that this was a widespread practice.

On the left, the Venus of Berekhat Ram, made between 230-700 kya by Homo Erectus. On the right, the Venus of Tan-Tan, made between 200-500 kya by Homo Erectus, it was painted in red ochre

The Mask of la Roche-Cotard, a possible Neanderthal figurine and art object. Found with Mousterian tools and dated to around 40 kya this object was a manuport. Originally only consisting of a piece of flint with a hole in the middle, a piece of bone was forced through that hole, and the sides and top of the object were leveled down. While there is no doubt that the placement of the bone and the side/top scraping were intentional, what is controversial about this object is why it was kept as a manuport. The most obvious reason being that it resembles a face, although this may be an entirely anthropomorphic argument. So far there is no consensus, only hypotheses

Cave Paintings and Music

It is also possible (but unlikely) that Neanderthals made cave paintings. At the cave of El Castillo near Altamira Spain, recent dating has identified dozens of disks, 40 hand stencils, multiple rectangles and ovals, all of which were on the same panel and have been dated to at least 40.8 kya. Regardless of who made these paintings, they are already the oldest painted art in Europe by at least 4 thousand years. While Neanderthals probably made the paintings if they were created prior to human contact, the most obvious answer is simply that humans entered Spain before 40.8 kya. Since humans were already in western Europe between 48-44 kya, it is most likely the case that these paintings speak more to human movement than Neanderthal activity. As of 2014, tests are still ongoing to more reliably figure out the dates of these paintings. At the Nerja cave in Malaga Spain, cave paintings (presumably of seals) have been dated to 43.5-42.3 kya, making them the oldest paintings in Europe and opening the possibility that they were created by Neanderthals. For the time being the dating at Nerja is unreliable, since the paintings were ochre and cannot be carbon dated, nearby associated artifacts were dated instead. Even at Nerja the problem of human contact remains, as the dates are still within the time frame of human settlement in western Europe. The likely conclusion from these findings is simply that humans entered Spain earlier than previously thought. While it is unlikely that Neanderthals independently invented cave painting, it is possible they copied it from their human cousins. Since humans and Neanderthals co-existed for a couple thousand years in Spain and other parts of Europe, it is possible that Neanderthals at least saw these early Iberian cave paintings. If you find a Mousterian site with a cave painting it is not necessarily Homo Sapiens. Regardless of whether or not Neanderthals painted, what would one have thought if they looked at a cave painting?

Hand stencils at the El Castillo Cave, Spain. Made at least 40.8 kya, they are some of the oldest paintings in Europe. By this time period, the human Aurignacian culture dominated Europe and Neanderthals were almost extinct

The painting of a "seal" at Nerja Cave, Spain. Made between 43.5-42.3 kya, it is the oldest painting in Europe

Neanderthals may have also made music. For humans singing and dancing come naturally, and possibly Neanderthals practiced the same phenomena. Sadly these are not left in the archeological record, but instruments are. The earliest instrument is the Divje Babe flute. Found in Slovenia it was made around 43.1 kya. It is made out of juvenile cave bear femur, and was found near a Mousterian hearth, although it is not associated with any hominin bones. Some scientists (including Jean-Jacques Hublin) assume that the holes in this “flute” were made by the random chomping of carnivores, yet other scientists have shown that the conspicuous lineup of the holes and the even keel of their boring are evidence that it was made intentionally. Matija Turk in 2011 used a replica of the presumed entire flute to show that it would have the range of about 2 ½ octaves. While the Divje Babe flute is not associated with any remains, early humans of the Aurignacian culture made bone flutes around 43-42 kya in southern Germany. This lends weight to the idea that this flute is simply the earliest human flute. Since there was interaction between possibly-musical Neanderthals and certainly-musical humans at the time, it is possible that Neanderthals adopted the technology after human contact. It is also possible that Neanderthals invented the technology which was later adopted by humans. As long as this Mousterian site is not connected to any remains, the jury is still out. Curiously, these German Aurignacian flutes are the earliest sign of humans in the region, 2-3 thousand years older than any Italian, French, or English Aurignacian site. This fact lends weight to the idea that humans first entered Europe moving up the Danube between 40-45 kya.

The Divje Babe Flute, the earliest musical instrument ever found, made around 43.1 kya

Adornment and Color

While it is possible that Neanderthals made paintings, possible they made flutes, and possible they made statuettes...it is certain they used pigment. Neanderthal sites usually contain evidence of manganese black pigment, although red, yellow, and orange pigment has also been found. Pigment is usually found in sticks or lumps, with these sticks showing the usual wear of being scraped along something. Remarkably at a site in Murcia Spain (dated to 50 kya), small slender horse bones have been found with bits of pigment on the tip, most likely used as a painting device or as stirrers. Also at the Murcia site these Neanderthals left shells containing pigment residue. Some shells contained yellow pigment, some contained a mix of pigments (presumably mixed to create new colors). Red pigment found here was mixed with flecks of reflective black minerals so that it would shimmer in the light. What was this pigment used for? While it is possible it was used for some strictly utilitarian purpose (such as mixed in with bitumen), lead excavator Joao Zilhao thinks it was body paint or makeup. Presumably Neanderthals would have painted their bodies to show clan affiliation, considering this area of southern Spain was hotly contested among many Neanderthal clans.

Horse bones tipped in red ochre, found at Murcia Spain made around 50 kya by a Neanderthal

An illustration reconstructing the Neanderthals who left pigment splotches in teh cave at Pisecny Hill, near Becov, Czech Republic. By Libor Balak

Also found at the site is a certain scallop shell. While this is a normal find, this particular shell is very unique. One half of the shell has naturally occurring red pigment running across it in a horizontal band. The other side has lost its coloring, and Neanderthals replaced the red stripe with a stripe of orange pigment, obviously continuing the pattern. Not only is this the first actual evidence of Neanderthal painting, it shows a high degree of symbolism. Continuing a linear pattern shows a recognition of the object's geometry. The natural pigment is blended with artificial pigment to create a unique whole, neither just a shell nor painted lines, but a symbol.

The famous painted scallop shell, found at Murcia Spain made around 50 kya by a Neanderthal
Joao Zilhao

It is possible that these painted shells were worn as a necklace. Neanderthals did not pierce holes in shells, but did collect shells with small holes drilled into them by marine snails. Some of these shells have been found with pigment on them. While most people assumed that Neanderthals only collected these shells as an interesting manuport, recent evidence from a 2013 project by Bruce Hardy and others shows that Neanderthals did in fact have string. Microscopic amounts of unnaturally twisted fibers were found on the end of a stone point at a Neanderthal site in France dated to 90 kya. The 2nd oldest piece of string has only been dated to 30 kya and is obviously human-made. What exactly does this say about the symbolic life of a Neanderthal? Why would a Neanderthal have made a necklace in the first place?

[Speaking about human necklaces found at Blombos Cave in South Africa] “If...you ask yourself when is the first evidence for self-consciousness you don't really find it in those tools/hand axes. Perhaps you find it here in these beads, which are deliberately put around the neck or sometimes feet, and are deliberately used to be noticed by other people. I think they do ask the question 'How do I look in this?', and this question is clearly a question of self awareness.” -Colin Refrew

The microscopic piece of twisted plant fiber, found on a stone point at a Neanderthal site in France, made around 90 kya

Naturally pierced shells collected by Neanderthals, possibly worn as a necklace

A painted Neanderthal, by Mauro Cutrona
A Neanderthal with body paint and a shell necklace

A Neanderthal reconstruction by Viktor Deak

"Neanderthal Study", by soulty666

A 2012 study by Clive Finlayson and others found that Neanderthals intentionally removed the feathers from certain birds. The distal wing bones of raptors (specifically vultures and eagles) were targeted in this manner. The wings of these birds do not have much meat, and the systematic cut marks are dissimilar to cuts from butchery or disarticulation. The conclusion is that Neanderthals were removing feathers specifically for a non-utilitarian purpose, probably for ornamentation. The color of these feathers were mostly dark or black, and while many birds have been found with these cut marks this phenomenon is limited to caves in Gibraltar and the Fumane cave in northern Italy. It is possible that only certain groups of Neanderthals had developed this cultural trait, although corvid and raptor bones are strongly associated with many Neanderthal sites across Eurasia. “We don't think it's a coincidence that so many modern human cultures across the world have used them.” -Clive Finlayson. The interest in black feathers mirrors the Neanderthal interest in black manganese pigment, whereas early humans more commonly used red pigment. “What our ancestors liked about red these Neanderthals...liked about black...It means they had color symbolism. They were able to imbue colors in their natural world with some kind of arbitrary meaning.” -John Shea.

A sketch of a Neanderthal wearing one style of feathered ornamentation, by Antonio Monclova
A striking reconstruction of the La Chapelle-aux-Saints Neanderthal by Fabio Fogliazza. While there is evidence of clothing, body paint, and feather ornamentation, there is not evidence of ear piercing (earliest evidence of this practice is by humans), hair coloring, and shaving. Although early human societies without sharp razors did shave, either with stone tools or by plucking out the hairs individually

The reconstruction in profile

The reconstruction full-on. Around its neck is a raptor claw which have been found at Neanderthal sites in France. Claws have been found with cuts not made by butchery or by the bird itself, and presumably the claws were used in a symbolic manner by Neanderthals (according to the 2012 paper by Eugene Morin and Veronique Laroulandie)

A-ha! I bet you thought Fabio's reconstruction was only CGI! The model is actually an exhibit at the Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain
Clive Finlayson showing a possible feather decoration, the ulna was removed and the piece prepared using only flint tools

The Artistic Tradition

A purely utilitarian kind of person does not put on a feathered headdress.” -John Hawks. So the question remains, what does the Neanderthal artistic tradition tell us about their mind? No utilitarian object stays utilitarian for long. Hand axes become symmetrical, colorful, and adorned with fossils – imbued with new value and traded up to hundreds of miles. Grinding hollows become cupules, created in a repetitive time consuming ritual, evidence of a deeply held symbolic belief. Pigment used for hafting spears becomes body paint, showing pattern recognition and clan individuation. Mammoth tusks become parts of a house, personalized with ochre and intentional markings. Animal waste becomes a painted necklace or a feather adornment. Necklaces are the birth of fashion, dependent on an individual recognizing their own self-image and in a meta reversal, recognizing the group's image of themselves. The one is distinguished from the group, a true individual is created, one with private tastes and fashions. All of which requires a complex theory of mind. Even stones and sand are turned into a funerary slab and burned in a mortuary ritual. “There is no documentable difference in symbolic behavior between Neanderthals and modern humans at any given time period.” -Erik Trinkaus.

You don't need to have shell beads, you don't need to have artifacts with graphical representation to have behavior that can be defined archaeologically as symbolic...burying your dead is symbolic behavior. Making sophisticated chemical compounds in order to haft your stone tools implies a capacity to think in abstract ways, a capacity to plan ahead, that's fundamentally similar to ours.” -Joao Zilhao

Neanderthals designed symmetry, fossils, and color into objects. These objects were made to be looked at, they were made to be not normal. A hand axe with a fossil in the center was designed to be seen as other compared to one without. Hundreds of cupules high on a wall were designed to be seen as symbols compared to grinding hollows. The cross markings on the Tata Pebble were designed to be seen as interesting as compared to unintentional cuts on butchered bones. What does it mean for a Neanderthal to design something out of the ordinary? It implies that they took into consideration the thoughts and minds of others. When a Neanderthal noticed the symmetry of an axe, or the paint on a shell, what were they looking at? What went through their mind? This brings us to...

1 comment:

  1. It is amazing that we humans (or some of us anyway) are beginning to recognize behaviors in whales that might parallel our concepts of tradition, culture, and language. Yet, there is a stubborn refusal to recognize these in our closest relatives the Neanderthals. Evidence of symmetry such as in tools, manufacture of pigments and adhesives, even evidence of intentional burial of the dead in ways that seem more than utilitarian are disregarded.