Researching the Origins of Art. Religion, and Mind
Palaeoart Representation Mode: Homo ergaster/erectus appears to have created the first intentional sculptures in stone with predominately four themes: aesthetically beautiful symmetrical bifaces (so-called 'handaxes'), representations of the female as birthgiver; the human head/profile/skull; and animals of hunt and ritual. Evidence for red ochre pigment use also appears during the EP.
Early Paleolithic, that is, Acheulian, palaeoart appears to have three distinctive chronological phases. (See argument for three divisions at Olduvai Gorge in Derek Roe 'Metrical Analysis of Handaxes and Cleavers' in M.D. Leakey with D.A. Roe. . Olduvai Gorge. Vol. 5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: p. 204.)....Phase I: Early Acheulian (c. 1.4 MYA to 1.0 MYA).....Phase II: Middle Acheulian (c. 1.0 MYA to 500,000 BP).....Phase III: Later Acheulian (c. 500,000 to 100,000 BP)Phase I: Early Acheulian (c. 1.4 MYA to 1.0 MYA). The oldest securely dated Acheulian "biface" is dated to 1.4 million years ago (Konso-Gardula, Ethiopia). Using examples from Peninj, West Natron, Tanzania (c. 1.4 MYA) and Olduvai Gorge, Upper Bed II (c. 1.15-1.2 MYA), Wynn [Wynn, T. (1989). The Evolution of Spatial Intelligence] has analyzed the topological and projective concepts used to fashion early handaxes, including constant interval, mirror symmetry reversal, and sense of overall shape of the artifact. I would add that the artist appears to use a 2x4-term conceptual matrix with top and bottom of object either pointed/rounded and either trimmed/natural and/or with left and right side curved either concave/convex and/or either curvilinear/rectilinear. Using this matrix all the early Acheulian tool shapes can be generated, including disks, spheroids, biface ('handaxe' and 'cleaver'), scraper, awl and cleaver. In sum, this early phase has a characteristic two-dimensional symmetry modeling that uses pairs of similar and opposite elemental shapes (or shape-gestures) for overall object shaping.I have suggested that the breakthrough to Oldowan stone tools had the capacity to function as a symbol for a corresponding breakthrough to consciousness of the human soul as 'the core sustaining essence' of the self in its relationships. (See summary of Oldowan mind and my essay on the Oldowan mind.) It appears that during the Early Acheulian this Oldowan symbolism was augmented by new symbolic values, the most prominant being: "the renewal, restoration and reparation of the core". I derive this signification by reflecting on the Acheulian process of tool-making. From a boulder (i.e., core) the knapper removed a large flake ('blank') and flaked it into a biface ('handaxe' and 'cleaver' forms). This was used as a core from which flakes were removed to be used as cutting tools, and/or the core was flaked to make a more symmetrically shaped core. In short, a flake blank taken from a core was, in its turn, flaked to create a new 'core'. In this sense, the 'core' was renewed. While at first glance trivial, this appears to have had no small religious and psychological significance. The tool-making process could signify 'the renewal of the core.' The 'renewal of the core' could have expressed psychological and spiritual renewal of the 'sustaining and nurturing core essence' (a fundamental spiritual theme derived from the earlier Oldowan symbolism). It also could re-presence, and be a token of, the reestablishing of symmetry relations among peoples, the renewal of cooperation, mutuality, and exchange. Thus, the early bifaces could have served as a vehicle for the expression of reparation, a foundational theme in interpersonal conflict healing. It could have further expressed not only aesthetic balance, but the balance and harmony of the psyche's (soul's) well-being. It would have signified 'restoration and reparation of the core essence in renewed balance and wholeness'. In this light it may be seen how even the earliest bifaces offered their makers and users a selective advantage in evolution, or at least were an expression of that advantage. (For more details on this interpretation see Harrod, J. Notes Toward an Early Acheulian Stone Tools Logic Model: Constitutive Operations and Analogies of the Soul)Phase II: Middle Acheulian (c. 1.0 MYA to 500,000 BP).. Three-dimensionally symmetric bifaces (handaxes) reflect a Euclidean, projective sense of space [Wynn, T. (1989). The Evolution of Spatial Intelligence]. This sense appears to emerge between 1 million and 600,000 years ago. Representative of this subphase are bifaces from African sites such as Olorgesailie, Kenya (c. 750,000-999,000 MYA) and Olduvai Gorge Bed IV (600,000-800,000 BP); Near Eastern sites such as Joub Jannine II (800-900,000 BP), Gesher Benot Ya'akov (780,000 BP) and Latamne (500-700,000 BP); and the European 'Abbevillian' style (c. 600,000 BP). In addition to the new 3-D sense of space, in comparison to the Early Acheulian, the Middle Acheulians appear to standardize biface manufacture to two predominant biface types, with a pair of type--lanceolate and pick or cordiform and cleaver--characterizing the Near Eastern and African traditions respectively. During this period the percentage of cleavers and bifaces in a given tool assemblage increases and there are sometimes great numbers at a single location. Weight range is variable and some bifaces are quite heavy, others tiny, seemingly beyond any utilitarian function. Microwear studies indicate that while some bifaces were used in the same way as flakes, i.e., for butchery, meat-cutting, woodworking and cutting of plants, others showed no use at all.I propose that to the Middle Acheulians used biface pairings to symbolize and presence the reparation and restoration of two kinds of core-essence conceived as gesture-movements. One was embodied and ‘sheath-like’, transformative like birthgiving and dying. It was energized through intercourse, sexual intercourse, symbolic exchange, creative intercourse, and intercourse with the living beings of the biosphere. The other was spirit and ‘vehicle-like’, an invisible force of aliveness, an animating force or spirit, the strength of which could wax or wane, mature or wither. It was the source of health and well-being. These two kinds of transcendent spiritual forces were presenced through the stone knappers artistic visualization and shaping in three-dimensional space.Residing in this new three-dimensional Euclidean space, these two energies may have been viewed as a kind of otherworldly being 'in another dimension'. One was a transcendent spirit-power, perhaps called ‘the One Who Presides Over the Processes of Birth and Death and Rebirth.’ The other was a transcendent spirit-power, perhaps called ‘the One Who Gives Us Spirit Power.’ This would have been the first visualization of ‘spiritual’ or ‘supernatural’ beings—‘spiritual’ also implying ‘abstract’ since these spirits were symbolized in geometric shaped gesture-movements. Thus, the Middle Acheulians would have been the initiators of two of the most fundamental characteristics found in every Homo sapiens sapiens religion, belief in ‘supernatural beings’ and belief in a process of death and rebirth (after Spiro and Eliade). If such revelations were encoded in bifaces over 800,000 years ago, we must radically rethink the origins of religion, mind and psyche. (For more details on this interpretation see Harrod, J. Notes on Middle Acheulian Spirituality: Stone Tool Logic Structures and Analogies of the Soul)Phase III: Later Acheulian Phase (500,000 to 100,000 BP). Around 500,000 years ago in Africa, the Near East, Europe and elsewhere, there emerges a further refinement in biface workmanship as indicated by extensive 'soft hammer' technique, increased counts of flake scars and decreased relative thickness. During this period one finds beautiful masterpieces of mirror symmetry in 3-D Euclidean projective space. Correspondingly, during the Later Acheulian the symbolic, spiritual nature of the biface is even more self-evident. For instance, at European sites there appears to be a standardization to one biface type ('handaxe') for symbolic purposes and there is convincing evidence of representational sculptures in flint and other materials. These Later Acheulian sculptures appear to have four typical symbolic themes:
a female figure symbolizing a divine 'Giver of Life' ('Birthgiver' and perhaps also 'Death-Giver', a thematic drawing upon meanings previously encoded in the Middle Acheulian Abbevillian type biface
the human head in 3-D or profile, or as a skull
animals, especially carnivore predators and herbivore prey of the hunt
the mirror symmetric, aesthetically pleasing biface (so-called 'handaxe') which appears to recapitulate significations of the Middle Acheulian pick and cleaver, i.e., 'spirit in its soaring and grounding qualities'; 'passageway to the spirit world'; and a divinity of this spirit
Such a symbol system would have been capable of symbolizing the passage between the worlds; the process of passage itself; the creative process as both symmetry-making, birthing, and the releasing of life-force; and the Way as an ultimate spiritual concept. The Later Acheulian symbol system had the capacity to articulate and promote basic shamanic healing, mortuary and rebirthing practices.The most securely dated examples of Later Acheulian figurative art are the Tan Tan (Morocco) figurine, gender indeterminate (Acheulian, 300-500,000 BP) and the Berekhat Ram (Israel) female figurine (Acheulian, 233,000-470,000 BP). In Northwestern Europe Later Acheulian sculptures that exemplify all four symbolic themes have been documented in publications of the journal Archaeologische Berichten (Elst, Netherlands) over the last decade or two, as well as in prior publications of unheralded pioneers such as Walther Matthis (Hamburg-Wittenbergen site, Hamburg, GR). The dating of the Northwest European figurines is by geological profile and tool typology.Toward the end of Phase III artists appear to combine in one object two or more of the four basic EP symbolic themes. Evidently, there is now a sophisticated consciousness of, and ability to manipulate the EP religious symbol system. An early example is the combination handaxe+fossil 'womb'+possible profile on a handaxe from Swanscombe, England (c. 400,000 BP). Examples increase in frequency over the course of Phase III and continue into the Middle and Upper Paleolithic. Typical late Phase III examples are handaxe+two possible profiles (Wolvercote, 200,000 BP); handaxe+fossil 'womb' (West Tofts, Norfolk, 100,000 BP?); and handaxe+'womb'+'head' (Cys-la-Commune, Aisne, 100,000 BP). The increasing frequency of combination art during the Later Acheulian seems to parallel the contemporaneous evolution of Middle Paleolithic art and protolanguage. Middle Paleolithic art and protolanguage utilizes combinations and aggregations of motifs.The Biface Symbol System and Evolutionary Advantage. What are the possible evolutionary benefits of the Early Paleolithic biface throughout its million and half year tradition? Since these bifaces reflect a new cognitive sense of symmetry, one of their meaning-functions could have been as symbols of symmetry and cooperation among social groups and the 'reparation of that symmetry'. The selective advantage of the handaxe would have been its symbolic power to facilitate cooperation and alliances and reduce conspecific competition and conflict. If so, it would have helped resolve the so-called "group size crisis" postulated by Aiello and Dunbar (see below). In addition, the bifacial handaxe along with red ochre use might have had a display function in sexual selection [after Kohn, M. and Mithen, S. (1999). Handaxes: products of sexual selection. Antiquity 73:518-26]. The addition of a sculptural repertoire to the biface ('handaxe') could have further augmented these benefits. For instance the female figurines may have represented a female divinity who was not only the One Who Presides Over the Passage into Life and into Death, but also an ancestral mother of 'the human family as one family' and thus a mediator of intergroup conflict. In combination with symbols of the human head, sacred animals, and the pure geometry of the biface, this female creatrix ('goddess') had the power to preside over and promote the interdependence and harmony of all living things.
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In addition to the biface symbol system, there is Early Acheulian evidence for red ochre mining and use. This appears as early as Wonderwork Cave, South Africa, 900,000-800,000 BP. Later Acheulian instances of striated or abraded (used) hematite include
Terra Amata, FR (ESR 380,000±80,000 BP) -- 77 pieces of hematite
Ambrona, Spain (300-400,000 BP) -- red siltstone, rubbed?
Hungsi, India (?300,000 BP) -- hematite pebbles, 1 striated
Achenheim, FR (250,000 BP) -- 1 hematite, rubbed
Maastricht-Belvedere, NL (285,000 BP) -- red stains in soil
Beçov, CZ (?220,000 BP) -- 1 hematite, striated, ochre powder
Pleistocene beads of ostrich eggshell (El Greifa E, c. 200,000 BP); and perforated wolf incisor (Repolusthöle, Austria, c. 300,000 BP) indicate Later Acheulian technical ability and might have been used for pendants or necklaces, which also may have had a symbolic value.The collection of exotic objects, which may have had symbolic uses, continues from the Oldowan, for example: Quartz crystals (Zhoukoudian, China; Acheulian level, Gudenus Cave, Austria; Lower Acheulian level, Singi Talav, India; Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, Israel); scraper with echinoid cast (Saint-Just-des-Marais, France); polished wooden plank (Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, Israel).There is also evidence for defleshing of the dead, e.g. Bodo, Ethiopia, 550-640,000 BP; Gran Dolina (TD 6), 780,000-990,000 BP. This may indicate ritual treatment of the skull or ritual cannibalism perhaps in the context of mortuary rites. Sima de los Huesos ("Pit of Bones"), 350-500,000 BP, contains one handaxe but no other tools, possibly also evidence of mortuary ritual.Signs Representation Mode: Archaeological evidence of the first human marking ('sign') systems consist of various kinds of engraved markings on bone, including single or iterated strokes, rays or fans of strokes, forked or 'Y' strokes, and crosshatch or netlike patterns of lines. Examples include an elephantid vertebra engraved with (or with natural) fan of seven radiating lines and four undulating lines, which may have been intended as a funnel-shape (Stranská Skála 600,000-700,000 BP); seven bone, ivory, and quartzite objects variously engraved with multiple parallel, radiating, and crossed strokes, paired arcs, arcuate pattern, and crosshatching rectangular pattern with rays or chevrons and parallel strokes (Bilzingsleben 300-350,000 BP). A buried rock fragment engraved with one cupule and a long meander groove, Auditorium Cave, Bhimbetka, Acheulian, >300,000 BP. These examples suggest iterative and tactile (haptic) components of 'meaning'. At Hamburg-Wittenbergen, 200,000 BP, a handaxe is engraved with a schematic head and in the womb area nested 'chevrons' and a 'zigzag' and thus exemplifies the combination and aggregation of thematic elements in a single object that occurs in the latter part of Phase III. Possible, unconfirmed evidence for marking signs also appear in the literature on Grotte de l'Observatoire, France, Acheulian, early Riss -- a lattice of vertical line and crossing lines on a biface; Port-Launay en Ecouflant, Maine-et-Loire, France, Acheulian, early Riss -- a bone engraved with short parallel strokes.Mental Model or Template of Mind: 'Conceptual-Meaning Gesture Modeling'. During the Acheulian Early Paleolithic Period we see the first "meaning systems' encoded in symbolic 'representations' or more precisely in symbolic 'gesture-movements' which 'presenced' their meaning. Extent encodings are in stone (handaxe, sculptures, engravings of marking signs). They were probably also employed in body-painting. These meaning systems likely had both a social function and a depth psychological function. If such meaning systems indeed existed, then it follows that 'meaning' and 'reference' precede language systems. Symbolic modes appear to have included icon and metaphor, activating 'reference' and 'fetish meaning'. Cognitively speaking one could infer a mental model consisting of a neural 'symbolic memory controller' + 'external storage' [after Donald, M. (1991) Origins of the modern mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. Cambridge: Harvard University]. One can also infer expanded social intelligence to manage interspecific conflict and resolve the 'group size crisis' posited by Aiello and Dunbar (1993) [Aiello, L and Dunbar, R. (1993). Neocortex size, group size and the evolution of language, Current Anthropology 34:184-193]. Possibly new distributive + new artistic intelligence modules evolve [after Mithen, S. (1996) The prehistory of mind: The cognitive origins of art, religion, and science. London: Thames and Hudson]. Drawing on the Piagetian theory of child development of intelligence, Early Acheulian bifaces exhibit 'preoperations B' and Middle Acheulian bifaces (e.g., Olduvai Bed IV) exhibit early 'concrete operations' [Wynn, T. (1989). The evolution of spatial competence. Chicago: University of Illinois; Wynn T. (1996) The evolution of tools and symbolic behavior. In A. Lock and C. Peters (eds.), Handbook of human symbolic evolution. Oxford: Clarendon]. Presumably, Phase III handaxes would represent a later stage of 'concrete operations'.