From scratching to art

1 minute read

Science has a lot of stuff this week about evolution. One of the pieces is a news article by Michael Balter about “the origin of art and symbolism.” The article is a review of a lot of recent stuff. It hits on boosters and detractors of very early “art” occurrences such as the Tan Tan figurine:

For archaeologists, distinguishing art from nonart is still quite a challenge. Take the 6-centimeter-long piece of quartzite known as the Venus of Tan-Tan. Found in Morocco in 1999 next to a rich trove of stone tools estimated to be between 300,000 and 500,000 years old, it resembles a human figure with stubby arms and legs. Robert Bednarik, an independent archaeologist based in Caulfield South, Australia, insists that an ancient human deliberately modified the stone to make it look more like a person....

With reference to some very early red ochre occurrences, we have the mosquito repellent theory:

Yet while the Twin Rivers evidence is suggestive, it's hard to be sure how the ochre was actually used. There's little sign that it was ground into powder, as needed for decoration, says Ian Watts, an independent ochre expert in Athens. And even ground ochre could have had utilitarian uses, says archaeologist Lyn Wadley of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Modern-day experiments have shown that ground ochre can be used to tan animal hides, help stone tools adhere to bone or wooden handles, and even protect skin against mosquito bites.

Reading this stuff, you get a good picture of how difficult it is for archaeologists to agree on basic issues and terminology. What counts as “art”? What do you need to infer “symbolism”? There is a desperate need for some precision here.