The Antiquity of Art

2 March 2010


Several media sources today reported on an upcoming article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which it is argued that ancient ostrich egg shells etched with markings constitute the earliest record of symbolic cognition. The shell fragments were found at the Diepkloof Rock Shelter in Western Cape in South Africa, and are dated between 55,000 and 65,000 years ago. Not far away, at the Blombos Cave on the Southern Cape, also in South Africa, etched abstract designs have been discovered earlier that may be as old as 100,000 years.

This paper is apparently getting a lot of attention because of the claim of the researchers that the markings are not merely decorative, but represent a graphic form of communication and therefore early evidence of symbolic thinking and language. As the paper is not yet available, and one must rely on the news reports, it is probably better to withhold any judgment, but even though I am skeptical of the claim of the etchings being evidence of symbolic thinking they are still of the greatest interest.

Part of the question comes down to what constitutes symbolic thinking. I suspect that the markings are decorative rather than a means to convey information, but their decorative character, if such it is, does not make it less important to the history of human thought. I think it would be extraordinarily difficult to establish these markings are symbolic communication in any robustly scientific sense, but that does not mean that our early ancestors who created these objets d’art did not have language. I strongly suspect that a sophisticated spoken language emerged early in the history of anatomically modern man, but that it was not converted into written symbols until much, much later. Obviously, the writers of the article have a different view on this matter.

In Ideas Again I mentioned listening to the lectures “Ideas that Have Shaped Mankind” by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, who maintained (perhaps for a certain shock value) that the oldest idea may that be that of cannibalism. I sympathize with Fernández-Armesto’s approach, but I don’t think that cannibalism is the oldest human idea. However, one could make the convincing case that decoration is the oldest human idea. Or, if you prefer, we could say that art is the oldest human idea. Taking delight in the product of one’s own hands, and then systematically seeking to increase one’s delight by distributing the product of one’s hands as widely as possible, is a quintessentially human idea, and it may be the oldest. Does art constitute symbolic thinking? There is a sense in which it does, but it is a different kind of symbolic thinking that written language.

These fragments of decorated ostrich egg shells from the Diepkloof Rock Shelter, and the similar designs from Blombos Cave that are even earlier, not only are among the earliest artifacts of human beings, they are so old that they nearly coincide with the emergence of anatomically modern man himself, homo sapiens sapiens, who dates back to approximately the same time frame as these artifacts. It would seem that mankind and his art emerged more or less simultaneously in natural history. If this is the case, we could define man in terms of his art.

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