Signaling in Style: On Cooperation, Identity and the Origins of Visual Art

  • Larissa Mendoza StraffonEmail author


This paper argues that visual art coevolved with typically human ways of social organization and cooperation strategies. My argument, in brief, is that Late Pleistocene human groups became organised in band societies that established networks of indirect reciprocal cooperation, which favoured cultural strategies of individual recognition such as social markers, e.g. styles of personal ornamentation. These early forms of visual art, by conveying information about social identity, became important in recalling and assessing individual interactions in cooperative networks. I also argue that as a cultural strategy, visual art could have been adaptive by reducing risk of aggression and increasing resource acquisition through exchange. As other evolved cultural traits, like tool-making and cooking, visual art too could have had an important impact on shaping modern human cognition and behaviour.


Origins of art Pleistocene art Art and evolution Style as information Human cooperation strategies 



I am grateful to the editors, E. Serrelli and F. Panebianco, for inviting me to contribute to this volume, and to two anonymous referees for their comments. This paper was completed within the project ‘Implementing the Extended Synthesis into the Sociocultural Domain’, directed by Nathalie Gontier and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, whom I thank for their support.


  1. Aiello, L. C., & Dunbar, R. I. (1993). Neocortex size, group size, and the evolution of language. Current Anthropology, 34(2), 184–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Aiken, N. E. (1998). The biological origins of art. Westport: Praeger.Google Scholar
  3. Ambrose, S. H. (2010). Coevolution of composite-tool technology, constructive memory, and language: Implications for the evolution of modern human behavior. Current Anthropology, 51(S1), S135–S147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Aureli, F., Schaffner, C. M., Boesch, C., Bearder, S. K., Call, J., Chapman, C. A., Connor, R., Di Fiore, A., Dunbar, R. I., & Henzi, S. P. (2008). Fission fusion dynamics. Current Anthropology, 49(4), 627–654.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Barnard, A. (2009). Social origins: Sharing, exchange, kinship. In R. Botha & C. Knight (Eds.), The cradle of language (pp. 219–235). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Barham, L. S. (1998). Possible early pigment use in South Central Africa. Current Anthropology, 39(5), 703–710.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Barham, L., & Mitchell, P. (2008). The first Africans: African archaeology from the earliest tool makers to most recent foragers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Barton, C. M., Clark, G. A., & Allison, E. C. (1994). Art as information: Explaining upper Palaeolithic art in western Europe. World Archaeology, 26(2), 185–207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (2011). A cooperative species: Human reciprocity and its evolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Breuil, H., & Windels, F. (1952). Quatre cents siècles d’art pariétal: les cavernes ornées de l’âge du renne. Montignac: Centre d’études et de documentation préhistoriques.Google Scholar
  11. Buckley, C., & Steele, J. (2002). Evolutionary ecology of spoken language: Co-evolutionary hypotheses are testable. World Archaeology, 34(1), 26–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bunge, M. (2003). Emergence and convergence: Qualitative novelty and the unity of knowledge. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  13. Chase, P. G. (1991). Symbols and paleolithic artifacts: Style, standardization, and the imposition of arbitrary form. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 10(3), 193–214.Google Scholar
  14. Clottes, J., & Arnold, M. (2003). Chauvet cave: The art of earliest times. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.Google Scholar
  15. Coe, K. (2003). The ancestress hypothesis: Visual art as adaptation. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Conard, N. J. (2003). Palaeolithic ivory sculptures from southwestern Germany and the origins of figurative art. Nature, 426(6968), 830–832.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Conard, N. J. (2009). A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany. Nature, 459(7244), 248–252.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Conard, N. J., & Bolus, M. (2003). Radiocarbon dating the appearance of modern humans and timing of cultural innovations in Europe: New results and new challenges. Journal of Human Evolution, 44(3), 331–371.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Conkey, M. (1990). Experimenting with style in archaeology. In M. Conkey & C. Hastorf (Eds.), The uses of style in archaeology (pp. 5–17). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Conkey, M. W. (2006). Style, design and function. In C. Tilley et al. (Eds.), Handbook of material culture (pp. 355–372). London: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Croft, W. (2000). Explaining language change: An evolutionary approach. London: Longman Linguistics Library.Google Scholar
  22. Crowley, P. H., Provencher, L., Sloane, S., Dugatkin, L. A., Spohn, B., Rogers, L., & Alfieri, M. (1996). Evolving cooperation: The role of individual recognition. BioSystems, 37(1), 49–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. D’Errico, F., García Moreno, R., & Rifkin, R. F. (2012). Technological, elemental and colorimetric analysis of an engraved ochre fragment from the Middle Stone Age levels of Klasies River Cave 1, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science, 39(4), 942–952.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Darwin, C. (1879). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex (2nd edn). Edition used: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. With an introduction by James Moore and Adrian Desmond. London: Penguin Books, 2004.Google Scholar
  25. Dissanayake, E. (1992). Homo Aestheticus: Where art comes from and why. New York: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  26. Dissanayake, E. (2007). What art is and what art does: An overview of contemporary evolutionary hypotheses. In C. Martindale, P. Locher, & V. M. Petrov (Eds.), Evolutionary and neurocognitive approaches to aesthetics, creativity, and the arts (pp. 1–14). Amityville: Baywood Publishing.Google Scholar
  27. Dor, D., & Jablonka, E. (2010). Plasticity and canalization in the evolution of linguistic communication: An evolutionary developmental approach. In R. K. Larson, V. Déprez, & H. Yamakid (Eds.), The evolution of human language: Biolinguistic perspectives (pp. 135–147). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Dugatkin, L. A. (2002). Cooperation in animals: An evolutionary overview. Biology and Philosophy, 17(4), 459–476.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Dugatkin, L. A., & Reeve, H. K. (1997). Cooperation among animals: An evolutionary perspective. Oxford: University Press Oxford.Google Scholar
  30. Dunbar, R. (1998). The social brain hypothesis. Evolutionary Anthropology, 6(5), 178–190.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Dutton, D. (2009). The art instinct: Beauty, pleasure and human evolution. New York: Bloomsbury Press.Google Scholar
  32. Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1988). The biological foundation of aesthetics. In I. Rentschler, B. Herzberger, & D. Epstein (Eds.), Beauty and the brain: Biological aspects of aesthetics (pp. 29–68). Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Emler, N. (1990). A social psychology of reputation. European Review of Social Psychology, 1(1), 171–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Endler, J. A. (1993). Some general comments on the evolution and design of animal communication systems. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B, 340(1292), 215–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Finnegan, R. (2002). Communicating: The multiple modes of human interconnection. New York: Taylor & Francis.Google Scholar
  36. Fitch, W. T., Huber, L., & Bugnyar, T. (2010). Social cognition and the evolution of language: Constructing cognitive phylogenies. Neuron, 65(6), 795–814.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Gamble, C. (1999). The Palaeolithic societies of Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Gärdenfors, P. (2004). Cooperation and the evolution of symbolic communication. In K. D. Oller & U. Griebel (Eds.), Evolution of communication systems: A comparative approach (pp. 237–256). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  39. Gärdenfors, P., Brinck, I., & Osvath, M. (2012). The tripod effect: Co-evolution of cooperation, cognition and communication. In T. Schilhab, F. Stjernfelt, & T. Deacon (Eds.), The symbolic species evolved (pp. 193–222). Berlin: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Gombrich, E. H. (1995). The story of art. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall PTR.Google Scholar
  41. Grammer, K., Fink, B., Moller, A. P., & Thornhill, R. (2003). Darwinian aesthetics: Sexual selection and the biology of beauty. Biological Reviews, 78, 385–407.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Hayden, B. (2012). Neandertal social structure? Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 31(1), 1–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Henshilwood, C., D’Errico, F., Vanhaeren, M., van Niekerk, K., & Jacobs, Z. (2004). Middle Stone Age shell beads from south Africa. Science, 304(5669), 404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Henshilwood, C. S., D’Errico, F., & Watts, I. (2009). Engraved ochres from the Middle Stone Age levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Journal of Human Evolution, 57(1), 27–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Henshilwood, C. S., D’Errico, F., van Niekerk, K. L., Coquinot, Y., Jacobs, Z., Lauritzen, S.-E., Menu, M., & García-Moreno, R. (2011). A 100,000-year-old ochre-processing workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Science, 334(6053), 219–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Hill, R. A., & Dunbar, R. I. (2003). Social network size in humans. Human Nature, 14(1), 53–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Hodgson, D. (2006). Understanding the origins of paleoart: The neurovisual resonance theory and brain functioning. Paleoanthropology, 2006, 54–67.Google Scholar
  48. Horan, R. D., Bulte, E., & Shogren, J. F. (2005). How trade saved humanity from biological exclusion: An economic theory of Neanderthal extinction. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 58(1), 1–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Hovers, E., Shimon, I., Bar-Yosef, O., & Vandermeersch, B. (2003). An Early Case of Color Symbolism: Ochre Use by Modern Humans in Qafzeh Cave. Current Anthropology, 44(4), 491–522.Google Scholar
  50. Kaplan, H., Hill, K., Lancaster, J., & Hurtado, A. M. (2000). A theory of human life history evolution: Diet, intelligence, and longevity. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 9(4), 156–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Kosse, K. (1990). Group size and societal complexity: Thresholds in the long-term memory. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 9(3), 275–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Kuhn, S. L., & Stiner, M. C. (2007). Body ornamentation as information technology: Towards an understanding of the significance of early beads. In P. Mellars (Ed.), Rethinking the human revolution (pp. 45–54). Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.Google Scholar
  53. Leroi-Gourhan, A. (1993). Gesture and speech. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  54. Luria, A., & Vygotsky, L. S. (1992). Ape, primitive man, and child: Essays in the history of behavior. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.Google Scholar
  55. Mather, J. A. (2004). Cephalopod skin displays: From concealment to communication. In K. Oller & U. Griebel (Eds.), Evolution of communication systems: A comparative approach (pp. 193–214). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  56. McBrearty, S., & Brooks, A. S. (2000). The revolution that wasn’t: A new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior. Journal of Human Evolution, 39(5), 453–563.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. McBrearty, S., & Stringer, C. (2007). The coast in colour. Nature, 449(7164), 793–794.Google Scholar
  58. McElreath, R., Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. (2003). Shared norms can lead to the evolution of ethnic markers. Current Anthropology, 44(1), 122–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Miller, G. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. London: Heinemann.Google Scholar
  60. Moro Abadía, O., & González Morales, M. R. (2010). Redefining Neanderthals and Art: An Alternative Interpretation of the Multiple Species Model for the Origin of Behavioural Modernity. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 29(3), 229–243.Google Scholar
  61. Naguib, M., & Riebel, K. (2006). Bird song: A key model in animal communication. Encyclopaedia of Language and Linguistics, 2, 40–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Otte, D. (1974). Effects and functions in the evolution of signaling systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 5, 385–417.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Panksepp, J. (2005). Affective consciousness: Core emotional feelings in animals and humans. Consciousness and Cognition, 14(1), 30–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Pokorny, J. J., & de Waal, F. B. (2009). Monkeys recognize the faces of group mates in photographs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(51), 21539–21543.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Power, C. (1999). ‘Beauty Magic’: The origins of art. In R. Dunbar, C. Knight, & C. Power (Eds.), The evolution of culture (pp. 92–112). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
  66. Riel-Salvatore, J., & Gravel-Miguel, C. (2013). Upper Palaeolithic mortuary practices in Eurasia: A critical look at the burial record. In S. Tarlow & L. Nilsson Stutz (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of the archaeology of death and burial (chapter 17). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  67. Semmann, D., Krambeck, H.-J., & Milinski, M. (2004). Strategic investment in reputation. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 56(3), 248–252.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Shennan, S. (2001). Demography and cultural innovation: A model and its implications for the emergence of modern human culture. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 11(1), 5–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Sinha, C. (2009). Language as a biocultural niche and social institution. New Directions in Cognitive Linguistics, 24, 289–310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Smith, E. A. (2003). Human cooperation: Perspectives from behavioral ecology. In P. Hammerstein (Ed.), Genetic and cultural evolution of cooperation (pp. 401–428). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  71. Snodgrass, J. J., & Leonard, W. R. (2009). Neanderthal energetics revisited: Insights into population dynamics and life history evolution. PaleoAnthropology, 2009, 220–237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Stuart-Fox, D., & Moussalli, A. (2008). Selection for social signalling drives the evolution of chameleon colour change. PLoS Biology, 6(1), e25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Suzuki, S., & Akiyama, E. (2005). Reputation and the evolution of cooperation in sizable groups. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 272(1570), 1373–1377.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Texier, P.-J., Porraz, G., Parkington, J., Rigaud, J.-P., Poggenpoel, C., Miller, C., Tribolo, C., Cartwright, C., Coudenneau, A., Klein, R., Steele, T., & Verna, C. (2010). A Howiesons Poort tradition of engraving ostrich eggshell containers dated to 60,000 years ago at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, South Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(14), 6180–6185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Tilley, C. (1994). Interpreting material culture. In S. Pearce (Ed.), Interpreting objects and collections (pp. 67–75). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  76. Tomasello, M. (2008). Origins of human communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  77. Tomasello, M., & Carpenter, M. (2007). Shared intentionality. Developmental Science, 10(1), 121–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., Call, J., Behne, T., & Moll, H. (2005). Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 675–691.Google Scholar
  79. van der Post, D. J., & Hogeweg, P. (2008). Diet traditions and cumulative cultural processes as side-effects of grouping. Animal Behaviour, 75(1), 133–144.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Vanhaeren, M., D’Errico, F., Stringer, C., James, S. L., Todd, J. A., & Mienis, H. K. (2006). Middle Paleolithic shell beads in Israel and Algeria. Science, 312(5781), 1785–1788.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Vanhaeren, M., d’Errico, F., van Niekerk, K. L., Henshilwood, C. S., & Erasmus, R. M. (2013). Thinking strings: Additional evidence for personal ornament use in the Middle Stone Age at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Journal of Human Evolution, 64, 500–517.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Verpooten, J., & Nelissen, M. (2010). Sensory exploitation and cultural transmission: The late emergence of iconic representations in human evolution. Theory in Biosciences, 129(2–3), 211–221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Watts, I. (1999). The origin of symbolic culture. In R. Dunbar, C. Knight, & C. Power (Eds.), The evolution of culture (pp. 113–146). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
  84. Watts, I. (2009). Red ochre, body painting, and language: Interpreting the Blombos ochre. In R. Botha & C. Knight (Eds.), The cradle of language (pp. 62–92). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  85. Whallon, R. (2006). Social networks and information: Non-‘utilitarian’ mobility among hunter-gatherers. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 25(2), 259–270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. White, R. (1992). Beyond art: Toward an understanding of the origins of material representation in Europe. Annual Review of Anthropology, 21, 537–564.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. White, R. (1993). Technological and social dimensions of ‘Aurignacian-age’ body ornaments across Europe. In H. Knecht, A. Pike-Tay, & R. White (Eds.), Before Lascaux: The complex record of the Early Upper Paleolithic (pp. 277–299). London: CRC Press.Google Scholar
  88. Wiessner, P. (1983). Style and social information in Kalahari San projectile points. American Antiquity, 48(2), 253–276.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Wiessner, P. (1984). Reconsidering the behavioral basis for style: A case study among the Kalahari San. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 3(3), 190–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Wobst, M. (1977). Stylistic behavior and information exchange. In C. E. Cleland (Ed.), For the director: Research essays in honor of James B. Griffin (pp. 317–342). Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan.Google Scholar
  91. Zeki, S. (1999). Inner vision: An exploration of art and the brain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  92. Zilhão, J. (2007). The emergence of ornaments and art: An archaeological perspective on the origins of “Behavioral Modernity”. Journal of Archaeological Research, 15(1), 1–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Zilhão, J. (2011). The emergence of language, art and symbolic thinking. In C. Henshilwood & F. D’Errico (Eds.), Homo symbolicus: The dawn of language, imagination and spirituality (pp. 111–131). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Leiden UniversityLeidenNetherlands

Personalised recommendations