How are art and human evolution related?

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My interest is in developing a plausible evidence-based story of how modern humans emerged from ancestral species. This means guessing at what features of humans make us “human” and attempting to see the emergence of each of these features in the fossilized record of our bodies (bones) and behaviors (artifacts and archaeological sites). This question has traditionally been treated, inappropriately, as simple. Walking upright, or freeing of the hands, or using tools, or hunting animals, or scavenging from carnivores, violence, provisioning mates, bonobo-ism (a form of erotica, it would seem) or some other thing (or combination of two, possibly three, of these things) is seen as the “kick” causing the evolution of our peculiar brand of ape. The situation is certainly more complex than that.

Art is almost certainly important and has a place on this list of things to consider when wondering about the evolution of our species. Art did not likely cause human evolution and what we “modern” Westerners call “art” may be nothing other than an indicator of what is going on in human brains. Perhaps art is like the bubbles on the surface of the pot of boiling water: The bubbles do not cook the pasta, but they tell you that it is time to throw it in. Or, perhaps art serves some key role in human behavior. If art has a place in organizing social relations or mediating behavior in the broader cultural context then it may be an adaptive trait all on its own. This is highly unlikely, however, because art as we know it varies far too much across human groups to constitute anything that could comfortably be defined as a trait. But still, what we call art might represent a thing that human brains do that is coherently present in all human cultures and important to normal human functioning.

Whether art is useful mainly as an indicator of something or whether art is “useful” as a trait, it is still useful as the former! It is probably not possible to produce what we call art with a brain that is not linguistic, and a linguistic brain is uniquely human. Or, perhaps art can be produced to some degree by non-linguistic brains but it usually is not. All the examples I can think of involve humans tricking some non-human animal into producing something that passes for (and may or may not be) “art.” In any event, the presence of art linked to hominid behavior in the ancient record may signal a human-like brain at that time and place.

Ancient art is diverse, and explanations for it are even more diverse. One thing most people who study ancient art agree on is this: It is best discussed over a beer.

And, that is what we are going to do. Tuesday night in Saint Paul. I hope you can join us: Art and Human Evolution at the Black Dog Cafe with Abbi Allan and Greg Laden

A few points to keep in mind for this discussion not otherwise covered above:

Just as we modern westerners have a hard time defining “what is art,” archaeologists may not agree with each other, or other observers, what the definition of “art” is. It is useful to consider Iain Davidson’s terminology which focuses on the medium rather than the meaning: PEDS (paintings, engravings, drawings, or stencils). Lots of things that are PEDS may not pass for art, but still may be usefully included in the discussion.

There was not a “creative explosion” 30 or 40 thousand years ago in Europe reflecting the sudden appearance of modern humans, signaled by a sudden appearance of lots of cave art. That idea has been out of favor for quite some time now. Except by those who still think it who are welcome to comment below.

The presence or absence of art or any particular form of art in an ancient context does not mean much. Entire complex artistic traditions are known to have been done mainly on perishable materials. There would be little archaeological evidence of such behaviors.

The earliest things that might be called PEDS are less art-like by modern and western standards than many later things. For example, I know of some unreported cupules that may be hundreds of thousands of years old (the oldest reasonably well dated cupules are between 30 and 40 thousand years old). Cupules are little semi-spheric “cups” worn into rock.

One of the earliest pieces of PEDS is this:


This is from Blombos Cave, South Africa and dates to about 75,000 years ago. The stone is ochre, a rock used to make red paint. Lots of other ochre was found at this site and in this or nearby layers, rubbed smooth from use in extracting or applying the pigment.

Sometimes “art” takes the form of tools made in a way that a modern, western human would think artistic. Is a very finely made stone tool produced with exotic (meaning, from far away) and especially nice-looking stone considered to be art? Of course it is, even if it is not PEDS. (Perhaps PEDS should be PEDSC where “C” stands for “Cool stone tool”). But would early examples of cool stone tools be included as art in a review of paleolithic art? Usually not, formally, though these things are often mentioned.

The above cited Blombos Cave item was found at a time period, roughly, where cool stone tools were abundant, sandwiched between time periods when they were less common.

This object dates to between 35 and 40 thousand years ago, and comes from Schelklingen, Germany:


This object dates to 33,000 years ago and comes from Germany:


Following these and a handful of other items, the art found at various places in the world comes in great variety, and pretty much everywhere. No major culture-historical time/space unit of humanity following about 40,000 years ago lacks art of some kind.

As we trace the history of art or PEDS back in time, the archaeological record passes through one or more major glacial periods, which effectively erases much of the archaeological record in cooler climates and affects human populations in the tropics a great deal. The shift from glacial to interglacial probably changes the nature of preservational environments in caves and other locations. Thus, conditions that would preserve a certain kind of material that might be art or have art drawn or engraved on it may be favorable during one climate phase and unfavorable during another. We would expect, therefore, a big drop-off in perishable art (including cave drawings) around 18,000 years ago as we go back in time, and several other drop-offs before that, which have nothing to do with production of art, but only with preservation of art.

There is art in Australia, Asia, Europe and Africa between 30 and 20 thousand years ago, prior to the 18,000 year climate period known as the Last Glacial Maximum. This indicates that art may have accompanied human groups generally as they expanded their range out of Africa. Anatomically modern humans probably existed 120,000 years ago in Africa. Anatomically kinda-modern humans are much earlier here and there in Africa. Neanderthals, who were very modern in many ways, and modern humans (who probably get more credit than they deserve for being different from Neanderthals) diverged about 500,000 years ago give or take a hundred thousand years. Fully modern human brain size, for example, probably existed at over 300,000 years ago. Certain aspects of stone tool technology that might (might!) signal human modernness of some kind might date to 250,000 years ago or, depending on what is important, closer to 400,000 years ago.

Thus we have several dates that are candidates for important aspects of modern humanness being in place: 500,000, 300,000, 250,000, 120,000. Then, we have a date by which art is assumed present among all humans: Call it 30,000. In between we have things like the scratched-up piece of Ochre from Blombos Cave. Somewhere in there … between several hundred thousand years ago and several tens of thousand years ago … the production of art as a feature of humans emerged. Probably.

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22 thoughts on “How are art and human evolution related?

  1. Ack!

    A great run down of the subject Greg.

    FWIW I find one of the main problems with the origins of art is the problem of the difference between the unequivocable evidence for it and the tentative yet very controversial evidence for it in earlier periods. It is very easy to identify ‘art’ when we have a repeated set of explicitly symbolic objects that are bounded in time in space in a real archaeological pattern. It is very hard to understand what the meaning of the incipient stuff that comes before it is, however.

    I personally think it is worth conceiving as the incipient stuff as showing the latent ability to encode meaning in objects but without the necessity to do so on a regular basis (perhaps because social lives operated on much smaller scales and needed less symbolic negotiation of relationships).

    I’ve been working on seeing if we can find evidence for, if not artistitc, then meaningful use of material cultures back as far as 400k ish in order to help to mediate social lives.

  2. Is it just me, or is art (in this limited PEDS definition) closely related to ritual?

    IOW, isn’t material art in essence ritualized object creation, just as music is ritualized sound production, poetry is ritualized speech, and dance is ritualized physical movement?

    In other words, if you have a species capable of material culture (e.g., tools), and you add to that a capacity for ritualized behavior, then art production is what you’d expect to happen.

    (NB: IANAAnthropologist, and it occurs to me that I may not be using the word “ritual” in an anthropological sense.)

  3. I trust all concerned will read Michael Bishop‘s No Enemy But Time for preparation, and – after appropriate lubrication by libation – will endeavor (without necessarily waiting for dawn) to re-create the morning hymns of Homo habilis as described therein.

  4. @HP

    ‘Is it just me, or is art (in this limited PEDS definition) closely related to ritual?’

    Oh yes indeed, with a caveat. I think you could almost say that art, whilst being a component of ritual, can work at a distance that communal rituals cannot. One has to *be* there to see a certain ritual, but if you can create an object of symbolic significance that says you have been through an understood ritual: well, you might go a long way.

    Ultimately, I have a feeling art is human ritual gestures(or at least significant acts) curated and operating over longer times and distances. Greg may have another opinion though and I would defer to him.

  5. As I recall it, most think that art creation is related to symbolic thinking, the realizing that a rock looks like a rabbit, but is not a rabbit.

    This is related to the theory that symbolic thought and language is related. Which has been used to suggest that Sapiens is the only group which had language.
    …of course the problem is that Neandertals regularly adopted technology fro Sapiens groups, and there have been a few examples of art-objects from their sites too…

    …so the debate continues to rage. Meanwhile, be careful of assigning ritual purposes for art objects. Modern teenage boys who draw tanks and jets aren’t trying to ritually summon M-1 Abrams. A cartoonist who draws a talking dog is not trying to appeal to the Spirit of Dog to make them talk.

  6. My guess (and I don’t know how to prove it)?

    What sparked human development was a mutation for which we recognized that *smarter* people had an evolutionary advantage. Women recognized that mating with *smarter* men let them produce children that survived. Men recognized that *smarter* women were more likely to be able to raise children to adulthood.

    And art is a great indicator of that *smartness*.

  7. Ultimately, I have a feeling art is human ritual gestures(or at least significant acts) curated and operating over longer times and distances.

    That accords with my amateur view as well, with the caveat that later technologies enabled this same transition with respect to poetry and literature (writing), music (notation systems, and then sound recording), and theater and dance (film and video).

    So, nowadays, when we interact with the poetry of Homer, or the music of Billy Murray and Len Spencer (early Edison cylinder stars) or the dance of Busby Berkeley and Martha Graham, we’re engaged in the same kind of social ritual artificially extended across time and space that is embodied by the paintings at Lascaux. The time scale may be off by a factor of 10,000 or so, but the process is the same.

    It was only a few decades after Edison recorded sound that the New Critics created a theory of musical genre that was embedded in the sounds themselves instead of the social and cultural context in which they were created. It was controversial at the time, but “common knowledge” today.

    IOW, the same cognitive biases are in play just in the last century that have plagued aesthetes since prehistory.

    (NB: IMayNBAAnthropologist, but I do have an academic degree in music with a special emphasis on mid-20th c. performance praxes. I welcome your disagreement, provided you welcome a vigorous debate backed up by evidence.)

  8. As you say Greg, the definition of “art” is pretty fluid. A useful, fun and quick read on the subject is Believing is Seeing: Creating the Culture of Art by Mary Anne Staniszewski who focuses on visual art and the history of the term “art” which defines disparate things under one umbrella that had not been grouped together before.

    I agree with StJason as well: creating curiosities and doodles seems as likely an explanation as any other to my (fine artsy not anthro) eye.

  9. Now I want to see an experiment with New Caledonian crows, where the crows get their food reward not by creating a practical tool, but by creating a beautiful tool.

    I see a panel of art critics looking at a video monitor, saying, “Oh, that’s delightful. Here’s a mealworm.”

  10. Greg, assuming by “soon” you mean “seen” (and my own fingers are dancing randomly at this time of night), then you can confirm that you participated directly in a communal social ritual that we call, “going to see the ballet.” You were a direct and immediate participant in the event. I have seen the Martha Graham Dance Company on TV, watching a film broadcast long after the event occurred.

    Was I a direct participant in this communal social ritual, or not? What exactly was my relationship to Martha Graham’s performance, and how does it differ from yours?

    Is there any fundamental difference between my viewing Martha Graham only on video, and an archeologist finding a bone carved into the shape of a mammoth? My contention is that any difference is a difference of degree, not of kind.

  11. Also, HP = howard.peirce. I am one and the same. Apparently, my google login is overriding my preferred ‘nym on my home computer. I blame Pharyngula.

  12. Greg, I agree with you completely, to the extent that yes, I was totally not there for Martha Graham. Has anyone ever actually been “there” for Lady Gaga? Or is she solely a media creation? And how would I know?

    Is your Black Dog Cafe discussion with Abbi Allen going to be podcast? Because this niche discussion is actually on a topic very important to me, and I am totally not physically able to be in St Paul, Minnesota in order to directly participate in the communal social ritual we call, “a public discussion.”

    But I would love to experience it vicariously via modern recording technology, at an arbitrary spatial and temporal remove.

  13. HP: I think there is not a podcast, but I don’t know if it is recorded or not. Probably not, unless Lady Gaga shows up of course! Wish you could be there.

  14. Hmmm. Hard to get a handle on for sure. There’s no doubt a link to symbolic thinking of some sort.

    I tend to think of any “art” as that portion of human activity that isn’t readily reducible to some sort of algorithm, but has a sense of fleeting feelings, impulses or insights. In visual art, there is often talk of whether a piece has a sense of being “aiive”, “numinous”, “luminous” or that sort of thing. It is of course partly communication and may also be at root a way to evoke perceived intention in nature. Possibly it’s a reflection of (or reflection on) symmetries, tensions, harmonies, etc. at work in the brain. Arnheim’s essay “Entropy and Art” sort of speculates about the latter, for instance.

    How any form of communication drives evolution should probably look at how it uniquely functions and the role of its illusions. We do have a lot of brain space devoted to vision. And there does seem to be something in visual art that is linked to seeing mysterious intent and patterns in the physical world: a rutabaga shaped like the Virgin Mary for example. So it may have played a role in the development of religious thinking.

  15. Food. We forget it’s all about food. And sometimes sex.

    Why did we loose our penile spines? Because we no longer make the mistake of sticking our precious bit of food in a hole that is pretending to be a human vagina.

    Successful predators are lazy. Why chase food, when you can get it to come to you and stick itself in your mouth? Why chase a cat when you can wave a sock?

    Hence, any sub-hominidae has penile spines, to avoid the obvious. The raking of the inside of the vagina was a later adaptation, making sure that any offspring only came from a father who was sensible enough to guard his precious meat with spikes.


    Cave paintings, early art – food education.

    But humans are food too. How do we tell the civilised from the cannibal? How does the continually evolving dance of predator and prey play itself out between the humans who eat humans, and the humans who would rather not be eaten?

    If I was a cannibal, I would pretend to be a vegetarian, then when I had a real vegetarian on her own, I would eat her, and make sure the other vegetarians were told that ‘god did it’. An old trick.

    The threat of cannibalism isn’t really around anymore, and has not been a problem in the UK since the little ice-age of the 1750s (hiding in the reeds waving a swan at closing time, hoping a drunken chap will wade in to grab his ‘meal’, a swan ‘caught’ in the reeds, only to find my great-greatx12 grandmother hiding in the reeds, ready to eat both man and swan).

    Ever wondered why weddings are such extravagant events? To exclude vagrants.

    The invite is in latin, the uniform is expensive. A wedding is one of the best sources of food for a cannibal (think ‘grendel from beowulf’).

    A wedding is two families and all the calories they control, all their horses, all the food they can gather. Excluding unwanted guests was of paramount importance. Brides are tasty.

    How do we know when to stop? Fear of predation by other human beings is the darkest part of the subconscious. It is the thing that drives art and all the other anti-predator adaptations we use on each other. Art goes on and on.

    Ever seen what happens when the cool kids like a band, then the uncool kid likes the band, then the cool kids have to like a different band?

    It is well known, that the woman you would most like to copulate with is the woman who looks the ‘tastiest’.

    It’s all in the Bible and the fossil record and the history of Europe if you know what you’re looking for and you waive your bias against the null hypothesis 🙂

  16. The answer is quite simple. Art is complex. Humans are the only species capable of processing (truly) complex information.

    As human consciousness evolves, so does our complexity and therefore our artistic skills, sporting skills, language skills and other *meaningful* cognitive skills.

  17. Interesting article,

    Talking about art and evolution I have a song that I wrote and recorded called Darwin if you have few minutes to check it out.

    EDITOR’S NOTE: Zara’s Darwin song is very nice as is the album (if I can still use that word) it is on. I recommend checking her work out on iTunes and/or checking out her blog:

    Support artists that do stuff with evolution!


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