Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Subject Of Art #5: The Makapansgat Pebble And The Beginnings Of Art Appreciation

As far as we know, humans began intentionally creating art about 32,000 years ago based on fantastic cave paintings and skillful carved rock figures from the period. But a lesser-known aspect of human psychology is when humans first begin to appreciate artistic vision.

It is entirely likely that our ancestors had a feeling for art and some concept of aesthetics and symbolism long before they had the ability and the tools to actually create art themselves. One could even imagine that it was the aesthetic sense in early humanity that drove us to discover the skills and materials of artistic expression so that we could fulfill the visions ourselves.

Such visions of art would have been found first in nature, in random circumstances when an object presented itself with the right aesthetic qualities. Archaeologists found such an object in 1974 in the Makapansgat Valley of South Africa, in a cave complex that had been in use by humans for millions of years.

The object, now known as the Makapansgat Pebble, is a small, roundish rock of Red Jasperite with peculiar markings on it. For us, in the 21st century, it's no problem to look at a photo of the Makapansgat Pebble, note the two round depressions next to each other and the straight groove underneath and, without hesitation say "that looks like a face." The pebble and markings are much more fascinating due to the context in which the pebble was found.

The Pebble was discovered in the remains of a site that was inhabited by an ancient human ancestor, Australopithecus Africanus, dated to between 2.5 and 3 million years ago. Australopithecus were not capable of creating complex tools themselves, but they did make extensive use of found objects to perform all sorts of tasks. The Pebble itself does not resemble any known tool that they used and its purpose, if it had one, is a complete mystery. Upon further examination, it is clear that the markings on the pebble are natural, probably the result of water erosion, but it is also interesting to note that the nearest deposits of Red Jasperite are several kilometers away from the cave system where the Pebble was found. So apparently, sometime around 3 million years ago, an Australopithecus found this rock in or near a stream, picked it up and carried it a fairly long distance to keep around the home — without any indication of any practical value.

Is this the reason why that Australopithecus noticed the Pebble and deemed it important enough to grab it and carry it all the way back home? Keep in mind that these folks didn't have pockets or purses. The Australopithecus would have had to carry it in hand for the entire journey, so there was definitely an intention there. If our friend (and possibly relative) the Australopithecus did see the face, understand the resemblance and place an aesthetic value on that resemblance, purposefully making a decision to keep it, then that would mark the earliest moment of a human ancestor appreciating a work of art that we know of.

This would be indicative of a mental capacity beyond anything that other animals display. Even when animals like chimpanzees or elephants can be taught to create paintings or other artwork by humans, they never show any interest in the work after it has been created. In the case of the Makapansgat Pebble, we can imagine that the Australopithecus was so taken by the stone face that he wanted to keep it, cherish it and perhaps share it with others, displaying an attitude that shows that we have placed value on art for a very, very, very long time.

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  1. This is a very interesting and informative blarticle. I read and enjoy everything posted on Binder's Art Blog, so keep 'em coming.

  2. Fascinating story. I wonder not only what it is in humans that makes us value art, but also why are artists driven to create?

  3. I really love that someone thought that something made by nature was art. Art is really anything that anyone wants to think of as art, so this is obviously art if someone recognized its face.