Theory in Biosciences

, Volume 129, Issue 2–3, pp 211–221 | Cite as

Sensory exploitation and cultural transmission: the late emergence of iconic representations in human evolution

  • Jan VerpootenEmail author
  • Mark Nelissen
Original Paper


Iconic representations (i.e., figurative imagery and realistic art) only started to appear consistently some 45,000 years ago, although humans have been anatomically modern since 200,000–160,000 years ago. What explains this? Some authors have suggested a neurocognitive change took place, leading to a creative explosion, although this has been contested. Here, we examine the hypothesis that demographic changes caused cultural “cumulative adaptive evolution” and as such the emergence of modern symbolic behavior. This approach usefully explains the evolution of utilitarian skills and tools, and the creation of symbols to identify groups. However, it does not equally effectively explain the evolution of behaviors that may not be directly adaptive, such as the production of iconic representations like figurines and rock art. In order to shed light on their emergence, we propose to combine the above-mentioned cultural hypothesis with the concept of sensory exploitation. The concept essentially states that behavioral traits (in this case iconic art production) which exploit pre-existing sensory sensitivities will evolve if not hindered by costs (i.e., natural selection). In this view, iconic art traditions are evolved by piggybacking on cumulative adaptive evolution. Since it is to date uncertain whether art has served any adaptive function in human evolution, parsimony demands paying more attention to the primary and afunctional mechanism of sensory exploitation as opposed to mechanisms of models based exclusively on secondary benefits (such as Miller’s, for instance, in which art is proposed to evolve as a sexual display of fitness).


Sensory exploitation Cultural transmission Iconic representations Mimicry Demographic transition Evolution of art 



Sensory exploitation


Upper Paleolithic


Late Stone Age



We thank one anonymous referee, Johan Braeckman and his research group, Andreas de Block, Tijs Goldschmidt, Yannick Joye, and Alexander Verpoorte for sharing useful suggestions and commenting on earlier drafts. Also many thanks to Lokaal01_Antwerpen ( for the opportunity to discuss our ideas among scientists and artists. Last but not least we thank Nathalie Gontier and the other members of the organizing committee for having us at the conference.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of AntwerpAntwerpenBelgium
  2. 2.Konrad Lorenz Institute for Cognition and Evolution ResearchAltenbergAustria

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