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Evolution and the Origins of Visual Art: An Archaeological Perspective

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Handbook of Evolutionary Research in Archaeology

Abstract

Over the past three decades, hypotheses that aim at explaining the origins of art from an evolutionary perspective have thrived. Proving particularly popular are those which put forward sexual selection, social cohesion, or cognitive enhancement as the primary selective contexts in which visual art prospered throughout human evolution. Such proposals, while interesting in themselves, have seldom been assessed in terms of their fit with the archaeological record. In this chapter, I look at each of these hypotheses’ key predictions and compare them to the evidence of early art available from archaeology. The analysis shows that there is an overall discrepancy between the hypotheses and the archaeological data, generating some reflections on the future of Pleistocene art research.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Dissanayake identified at least nine of these proposals (2007), each suggesting that art evolved for some specific purpose: pattern recognition, mental problem-solving, adaptive decision-making, increasing mating opportunities, supporting religious behaviour, providing fictional scenarios for action-planning, social manipulation, social cohesion, and cognitive enhancement.

  2. 2.

    For a complete review of all purported art objects of Neanderthal origin, see: David (2017), Langley et al. (2008), Roebroeks (2008), and Zilhão (2007).

  3. 3.

    Body art (e.g. tattoos, scarification, painting) and the use of garments can also be inferred from figurative art. For example, the ‘Venus’ figurines have proven a valuable source of information about Palaeolithic female hairstyles, headgear, and garments and of possible body art patterns (Soffer et al. 2000). Rock art from the European Palaeolithic has also provided some clues about the use of complex clothing and hats (Gilligan 2010).

  4. 4.

    The sites mentioned here only include the earliest samples of ochre exploitation but the actual record is much more extensive. For a general overview, see Watts (1999).

  5. 5.

    The association of red ochre and human burial is also observed in one of the earliest known archaeological sites in Australia, Lake Mungo, dated around 60–40,000 BP, where a modern human skeleton covered in red ochre pigment was found (Bowler et al. 2003; Klein and Edgar 2002, p. 248; Stringer 1999). It is notable that the source of the ochre was about 200 km away from the burial site, which implies that the material was specifically sought after and transported a long distance (Klein and Edgar 2002, p. 249).

  6. 6.

    White has used the term ‘purposely fabricated beads’ (1989), for what I have called ‘manufactured ornaments’.

  7. 7.

    Remains of what seems to be an ivory anthropomorphic figurine have been recovered at the Russian site of Kostenki. The possible human head has been dated to 42–45,000 BP (Anikovich et al. 2007; Cook 2013, p. 56), which would make it the oldest example of figurative representation yet found. However, identification is uncertain due to the worn condition of the piece.

  8. 8.

    Darwin is often quoted as the first researcher to have drawn a link between sexual selection and the arts, but he actually dedicated few paragraphs to this issue and his opinions concerned mostly the occurrence of song and music, e.g.: ‘I conclude that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex’ (2006, p. 638 [1859], footnote 39).

  9. 9.

    That the early production of visual art in Africa may have been correlated to propitious circumstances that allowed for abundant resource exploitation is further supported by the fact that art declined after 70,000 BP, when it is thought that conditions took a turn for the worse as consequence of the Toba volcanic eruption (Ambrose 1998b; Burroughs 2009).

  10. 10.

    For Dissanayake, play is very similar to art in various aspects. Both are ‘removed’ from reality, carried out in special contexts with special rules, both are pleasurable and encourage novelty and creativity, and both develop innately. In fact, in her earlier work, she suggested that art may have evolved from play (1980).

  11. 11.

    With the exception of a recent find of 100,000-year-old ochre-processing toolkits at Blombos Cave, which have been interpreted as evidence of an ochre-processing workshop (Henshilwood et al. 2011)

  12. 12.

    Nonetheless, we cannot discard the possibility that it was how these items were displayed by separate groups which made them different (as jewellery, sewn on clothing, as part of a headdress, etc.).

  13. 13.

    For a full list of Upper Palaeolithic innovations, see Bar-Yosef (2002, 2007).

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Acknowledgements

I deeply thank the editor, Dr. Anna Marie Prentiss, for inviting me to participate in this volume, and the two reviewers for their considered and precise comments.

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Straffon, L.M. (2019). Evolution and the Origins of Visual Art: An Archaeological Perspective. In: Prentiss, A. (eds) Handbook of Evolutionary Research in Archaeology. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-11117-5_20

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