European cave art: Altamira Cave, Spain


Altamira Cave.

Parietal cave art has been the subject of wonder, fascination, and speculation ever since the first discoveries were made in Western Europe in the late 19th century. It has long been a phenomenon exclusively associated with Western European hunter-gatherer groups living from the Aurignacian period until the end of the Last Glacial Maximum. However, some recent finds in Africa, India, Australia and the Ural Mountains have shown that this type of artistic expression was by no means unique to European groups. Regardless of location, however, almost all of these sites link the spread of artistic creation with the presence of modern humans. One contentious exception is the Spanish site of El Castillo, explored in another post.

(More after the jump…)

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Cognitive frameworks, art, and the emergence of “humanity”: a general statement of blog purpose.

This blog is an informal collection of interesting finds, fun graphics, relevant research, and overviews of sub-topics that I will be exploring formally in more detail in my final paper. As such, the following introduction applies to the aims of both. I don’t think I’ll be able to cover all of these themes, nor in such depth, but will see where it goes.

The general purpose and themes behind this blog, however disjointedly-presented, are severalfold:

  • The use of archaeological evidence to define the evolutionary timeline in which “modern human behaviors” emerge; specifically, I will investigate theories surrounding the use of artistic emergence and development as a proxy to estimate the neurological and cognitive changes that would have allowed for this suite of “modern human behaviors” to occur. Fundamental to this suite of behaviors is the ability to think abstractly. Some archaeologists, anatomists, and cognitive scientists in the last decade have begun to study early Homo sapiens’ artistic development through an anatomical/cognitive lens, asserting that the propensity for abstract thinking  (associated with cognitive structural developments such as “mind’s eye” visualization, greater working memory, and spatial intelligence) is the fundamental characteristic that has produced humanity’s distinctive technological development and artistic development over time. In this way, artistic development throughout human history can be very closely tied to lithic development and other innovations that have allowed humans as a species to flourish in an unusually broad range of ecological zones. There is an implication, some authors believe, that art and symbolic thinking are literally an adaptive part of our biology that is as intrinsically tied to human survival and reproduction as any other facet of our physiology. This sort of conclusion approaches the recent “biocultural model” that has been gaining traction within the anthropological community in recent years. The ultimate fascination for these authors lies in our earliest art –for the question that all of them seek to answer is where and how these adaptive cognitive structures and associated behaviors first developed. The closer we get to the answer, the closer we get to our own understanding of what truly differentiates us as Homo sapiens.
  • To discuss how archaeologists are able to define and recognize “modern human behavior.” Namely I will investigate this in an artistic context, evaluating how “art” is defined and the variety of frameworks through which archaeologists address this question. Included in this will be evaluation of Western art tradition’s influence on historical and contemporary interpretations of artifacts, “art” and symbolic objects found in the archaeological record. Typological thinking, for example, and its pitfalls may be seen as one symptom of this tradition.
  • To evaluate continuity or similarity in artistic behaviors, symbols, materials, technique, motif, and more, both synchronically and diachronically, as well as spatially and contextually when possible. These evaluations will be made with both contemporary theories of human migrations and McBrearty’s theoretical framework of gradual (rather than revolutionary) human artistic/technological change in mind.
  • To investigate evidence for the propensity for symbolic behavior in non-Homo sapiens– for example, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo heidelbergensis. Part of this blog will be dedicated to critically evaluating the contentious idea of symbolic and artistic cognitive ability exhibited by other species through a variety of frameworks, including a cognitive framework. Strengths and weaknesses of current theories and evidence will be analyzed.
  • To ask questions. Tracing how we arrived cognitively at the suite of modern human behaviors that allow us to differentiate ourselves from both our pre-“modern” Homo sapiens predecessors and our closest genetic relatives, Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis, is evocative of many questions: for example, how different are we from these other Homo cousins? Are we exaggerating or minimizing our differences? If artistic and symbolic thinking are fundamentally human attributes, why do we see evidence for them in other Homo species? Why are archaeologists so quick to deny the possibility of abstract thinking in other species? What implications does this have for reconstructing the past capabilities and consciousness of other closely related Homo species? How are archaeologists’ a priori convictions about these matters shaping our understanding of reality?
  • To recognize the rather limited and regionally concentrated scope of our data and to recognize the skewed narrative it creates in terms of our conception of the evolution of “modern human behavior.” The nature of anthropology and archaeology’s early development as disciplines means that much of our historical body of archaeological (especially Paleolithic) knowledge has only served to confirm Eurocentric notions of exceptionality, cultural superiority, and artistic precociousness. Why? Namely because Europe is the birthplace of the discipline, and it has been more politically and geographically accessible for excavation than other regions. This was also combined historically with the cultural objective of proving European “racial” and intellectual superiority. The fact is that many other regions of the world are yet unexplored, whether due to political unrest, lower population density, or scholarly disinterest, leaving the artistic developments and technological innovations of their Paleolithic non-Western inhabitants yet unrecorded. The importance of recognizing this limitation has been seen in recent decades of cave excavations at Blombos Cave and Pinnacle Point, South Africa, for example, which have virtually rewritten the history of humanity with unequivocal findings of symbolic and artistic artifacts dated at 100,000 BP which show that modern human behaviors existed in Africa nearly 60,000 years before the long-held “cognitive and artistic revolution” in Aurignacian-period Europe. As more excavations are carried out in Africa and other locations outside of the European continent, more game-changing discoveries will undoubtedly be made.
  • To discuss and critique the dominant (Western) cultural perception of what it means to have attained “personhood” and be fully “human,” and how archaeological evidence has been used socially to answer this question. This not only has implications in the understanding of our own physiological evolution as Homo sapiens, but also lends insight into the cultural lenses through which we have viewed ourselves vs “the Other,” both historically and contemporaneously, and used flawed principles of human evolution to justify colonialism and other differential treatments of non-Western groups. Historical depictions of Neanderthals vs Homo sapiens, for example, are strikingly reminiscent of racialized treatments and stereotyping of subordinated groups in the past. Analysis of the way we interpret the archaeological record and assert our unique humanity can serve self-reflective purposes. How might our cultural biases be informing our interpretations of ancient peoples, human or otherwise, and vice versa, and what will the impact of our findings be today?


I’ll probably come up with more things to think about along the way, but this is a start.

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