The Origins of Artistic Expression – Part 2 ‘The making of marks’


Imagine, if you can, that you’re one of our pre-human ancestors long before the emergence of our ‘modern’ species, Homo sapiens, which might have occurred as much as 300,000 years ago. So it’s before that .. let’s say it’s half a million years ago, and you and your kind are what later humans will refer to as Homo erectus. I’d like the Czech painter Zdenek Burian to help a little in setting the scene. One of my most treasured books as a child was a big one .. Prehistoric Man .. published in 1960, which Burian illustrated accompanied by a text from Josef Augusta. But a lot more has been discovered about Homo erectus since 1960, so the way you’re represented here needs some updating. You need to lose more of the hair, your face is further on the way to looking ‘like us’, and the same applies to your general body proportions especially the arms. I’m still fond of this painting though, and it will at least give a general idea of ‘locale’.

So imagine yourself into this scene, but don’t start downsizing your mental abilities too soon because you’ll need to read on. At this stage in your development your brain is about three-quarters the size of what it is now, but that’s more than twice the size of your Australopithecus forebears. You’re bigger than them too, not least because you stand, walk and run fully erect just like us, hence the name given to you. In fact that name is just a convenience ‘blanket’ over a long period of human development and there were many physical variations that still need to be understood. There were even variations within the same population sometimes.

You live on what’s now the island of Java in Indonesia but back then it was connected to the mainland and your kind has already had more than a million years to spread through many ancient continents. You are the longest surviving human species ever .. and right now it’s like, you’re everywhere! The climate is warm where you are, and if you could see yourself in the plentiful water while drinking, you’ll see someone about the same size as you, more muscular but not stocky .. ‘athletic’ if you like. That, along with the reduction in body hair, allowed you to use your adapted legs to run freely in the open for longer without getting too hot. This has enabled your kind to start actively hunting, transforming your previous reliance on more passive gathering and scavenging other kills. You’re now a member of a proper hunter-gatherer group. Your life is very active, working ‘as a team’, almost certainly lots of ‘communicating’ .. and so many other new things to think about! In a way it could be said that your kind has become ‘restless’. Larger brains need more to feed them .. not only literally, but also in terms of the stimulation they demand. I doubt whether the spread of your species is purely down to population growth or migrating herds. Your group is learning to control this awesome entity which we’ll later call fire, and eating is somehow more ‘enjoyable’ because of it. Your hands have become just as mobile, flexible and precise as ours. Partly as a result, the stone tools which your kind have always used to dig, chop, crush and cut with are also changing, they’re not just roughly chipped rocks anymore.  Those who make them are spending much more time on them, sitting there ‘knapping’ away with ever more delicacy .. they’re making much more regular, more ‘pleasing’ shapes. Life used to be just about surviving .. but now there are many ‘other things’ to it that are not merely instinctive or practical.

Returning to the ‘here and now’, but still thinking about the everyday existence of Homo erectus .. I concluded Part 1 by saying that this next one would be looking at ‘the making of marks’. Before marks could be made, Homo erectus had to first recognise that there were such things being made. What sort of marks might our distant ancestors have seen, and what could these marks have meant to them?

Above are a few examples of marks made by animals clawing or gnawing trees, and below are some examples of animal tracks. Important to note for later is the fact that there are certain definite ‘regularities’ to these different marks. Claw lines are generally evenly spaced and parallel, and small paws repeat the same general ‘motif’. Prints made by paws or feet are similarly parallel and evenly spaced, also reproducing the same basic ‘motif’. It should also be noted that ‘low-lying’ animals don’t just mark the terrain with their feet but with other parts of their bodies, often producing a very regular and unexpected pattern.

Marks in the natural landscape

Marks made ‘naturally’, without particular intention, could of course include just as many made by ourselves .. such as our own footprints; marks made by muddy hands on clean rock; bruise or pressure marks on the skin; marks made by blood from a killed animal; teeth-marks in fruit or vegetables. Later in the timeline, especially as early ‘technology’ augmented our lives .. scratches made on shellfish when trying to get them open; soot marks from a fire; the marks of a sharp tool on animal skin ; cut-marks on the remaining bones. A common factor of all these different marks is that they would often have been witnessed ‘being made’, no mystery or doubt as to their origin, with the clear recognition, at least in the instances where we are involved, that it is ‘we who are making them’. Originally these marks were ‘by-products’ of little importance, with no significance in their own right. But they weren’t just occasional occurrences which could be missed .. they were constantly being made, and must have been abundant.

Eventually marks must have held an extremely important place in our early consciousness if we relied upon them when hunting and gathering, or for avoiding danger, and perhaps even for gathering information on rival groups. If we were consistently looking out for these we must have developed a sense of distinguishing the various types of marks .. perhaps even according to a kind of grouping, or separation .. those made by natural forces (rain, wind, heat, erosion); those made by animals; and those made by other humans.

So early humans may have thought ‘If marks can tell us useful things .. what are our marks saying about ourselves? Can we say other things by deliberately making them? Empowering ourselves by making our own, in a premeditated way, may not have been such a big step. Marks are elevated to ‘signs’ as soon as the intention is to communicate even the slightest thing. As such they may have been the first ‘We are here’ or ‘I am here’, not so far removed from the scenting of animals, but soon to become so much more when the maker is conscious that they ‘signify’ … something which we believe is unique to humankind! The conscious ego implied by that ‘I am here’ .. subsequently  to develop into ‘Look at me. I can do this’ .. has remained largely unchanged, let’s be honest, as the prime motivation for artistic expression to this day.

The beginnings of ‘pre-meditative, symbolic intervention’

When an animal scents a location to signify its presence you could call this an ‘intervention’ .. there has been a deliberate addition, an alteration to the environment or to a natural object. As a message to other animals it is also in the truest sense symbolic .. the scent is received, the ‘scenter’ thought of. But we have no evidence that the animal contemplates the act, let alone that it is at all conscious of ‘being symbolic’! There is nothing to suggest that it is more than instinctively motivated behaviour. Although many of us would like to think otherwise, it’s a similar case when the little dog runs to the front door on seeing its owner grasp the lead .. the association of the lead with ‘going out’ has merely been stored somewhere.

When a beaver builds a dam, when birds construct a nest, or when a humanoid clears a path through undergrowth .. all are done with a practical purpose in mind, and all are interventions which alter the appearance of the natural landscape. But they are just what they are, purely functional necessities .. they cannot be called ‘symbolic’ on top of that.

But what about this ‘intervention’? You’ll have to look closely!

The hominid who cut these deliberate but non-functional lines into the surface of a freshwater mussel shell approximately half a million years ago (dated to between 540,000 and 430,000 years old from the sediment preserved on it) took great care to follow exact parallels and join the ‘zigs’ and the ‘zags’ up precisely. It is the act of ‘taking a line for a walk’ but in a very careful, controlled and premeditated way. The hominid responsible was you .. at the beginning of this article when you  were Homo erectus, the earliest undisputed precursor to Homo sapiens .. and this to date is the earliest known example of mark-making for its own sake. It was found at an archaeological site in Trinil, eastern Java. This simple form of figuration may not be as obviously ‘artistic’ or as outwardly symbolic as what was to come, but it is a momentous step nevertheless. It suggests a capability for visual abstraction similar to our own. Here below is that updated version of what Homo erectus might have looked like, shown in Part 1, from the reconstructive artist Elizabeth Daynes.

What can we say about the ‘zigzag’ as a choice, compared to either just simple scratches or something more elaborate? This is where it gets most interesting. To start with the practical .. straight lines are the easiest option given the hardness of the shell material. In fact, it’s thought that a shark’s tooth might well have been used to do it .. thin and blade-like .. so anything other than straight lines would be very difficult.  A controlled zigzag would be one of the simplest intentional patterns that could be made with straight lines, and more importantly, readily distinguishable from natural scratches. I don’t just mean distinguishable by later archaeologists .. I mean recognisable by other hominids at the time!

Such straight lines are not a common feature of the natural landscape here on planet Earth. True, there are plenty of things which suggest straight lines, but the straight line in the form which we’ve come to use it is an ‘adaptation’ from nature .. we could call it a human invention! One could also say that this zigzag, with its sharp connectedness and regularity, is even less common. If we need to search about for natural sources not many spring to mind, apart from ‘teeth’ perhaps, or maybe the movement of a snake. But if it bears any relationship to these, this version is significantly ‘artificial’. If this is representative of the kind of intentional mark-making done at the time rather than a ‘one-off’ occurrence, it is as if the early hominids were ‘distinguishing’ themselves from the natural environment .. as if they were saying ‘This is us. This is what we can invent. We are special’. As I said in Part 1, they were ‘making their own mark’.

Later evidence suggests that this wasn’t just a one-off from the ‘Da Vinci’ of its time and species. For some years now the Canadian paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has been cataloguing the earliest known cave wall markings, those which accompany the more impressive and identifiable animals, and for which reason are comparatively neglected. The oldest of these are around the 40,000 year old mark. She has for example found that the number of different ‘signs’ is not extensive, as we would expect if they were made without much thought or purpose to communicate, but are actually limited to 32. There is also a fairly even distribution of them around the globe, as you will see from the map below (click for larger version). Included amongst those 32 is the zig-zag, which occurs in eight of the fifteen geographical areas surveyed.

Amongst the most common of these early ‘signs’ apart from the zigzag are a cross, a cross-hatch or ‘hashtag’, and what I’m calling a ‘fence’ (a number of short vertical lines bounded by horizontals top and bottom). They all share the same characteristics .. they’re all the easiest marks to make with straight lines; they’re arrangements which are not common or obvious in nature; and they’re all marks easily distinguishable from scratches made by accident, or scratches made by claws (note that there are instances of vertical lines on their own, but not as frequent).

But we’re jumping way ahead, just for an indication of what was to follow, and we have to go back to where we left you making this extraordinary ‘statement’ on a freshwater mussel shell in Java around half a million years ago. The problem is that there’s a big gap! Evidence connecting the Trinil zigzag to what developed hundreds of thousands of years later has yet to be found. You’d think that if there’s any truth to the new claims about the capabilities of Homo erectus .. or later Neanderthal for that matter .. there would be many more pieces of evidence like the Trinil shell or the ‘figurines’ featured in Part 1, especially considering how far Homo erectus spread. The problem with such ‘globe embracing’ archaeology is funding, and the willing participation of countries. So one has to remember that this whole ‘story’ is fabricated according to what has been found so far  .. not forgetting therefore that assumptions about, for example, a sudden, massive and ‘exclusive’ artistic flourishing beginning around 40,000 years ago and concentrated in Europe, are only reflections of what that story looks like for the moment. Yes, it has been accepted that Africa was the ‘cradle of mankind’, but the absence there of cave art to rival France or Spain, or objects comparable to the figurines found in Germany or the Czech Republic, used to suggest to many that ‘modern human behaviour’ really only dawned after the move out of Africa around 60,000 years ago.

But that long-held view is increasingly challenged now, and for part of that re-assessment we pick up the timeline again at around 100,000 years ago. After enduring for 1.5 Million years Homo erectus has sadly disappeared, but Homo sapiens is fully established. We humans have always been fundamentally obsessed with ourselves so every activity we engage in, every area of knowledge we pursue, is all about benefitting our ‘here and now’, whether ‘we’ means an individual or the collective. Amongst paleoanthropologists the biggest questions are ‘When did WE begin?’, ‘How much like US were our ancestors?’, ‘What defines US as ‘modern’?’

So when, fairly recently, a number of archaeological sites outside Europe yielded small shells dating back possibly 100,000 years, which had been intentionally pierced in order to be worn as body decoration .. there was a lot of interest, not least because many of us ‘moderns’ are still doing it! Shells of the same type were discovered from five archaeological sites in Algeria, Israel, Morocco and South Africa. The evidence from two of them .. Blombos Cave in South Africa and Grotte des Pigeons in Morocco .. is as far as I know fairly uncontested.

The photo above displays three of the shells found in Morocco ( courtesy Smithsonian Institution: James Di Loreto, Donald H Hurlbert ). It has been demonstrated that the holes in many of these shells have been ‘made’ rather than naturally occurring and that the insides of the perforations are worn down in a way consistent with their being threaded onto a ‘string’ of some type. The most important aspect of these shells is that here we have widespread evidence .. not just a one-off, isolated case .. of humankind making and attributing meaning to things which don’t have another function. The purpose and meaning is the ‘look’ .. or rather, the purpose of the thing is not what it did physically for those who made it, like a tool, but rather what it represented, what it symbolized for them. So from our ‘modern’ perspective we could imagine that the wearing of shells represented ‘self’ or ‘self expression’ even individuality; or, if everybody was wearing them, ‘group’ or even conformity; or, if only some did, then ‘status’ within the group.

It would be misleading to label this oldest jewellery or body adornment the first visual ‘Art’ but it is clearly ‘artistic expression’.. and why should this be any less significant or important? In a sense it’s more so! What most of us have come to think of as ‘Art’ is really just one specialised branch from a deeper and more fundamental stem which anthropologists define with terms such as ‘symbolic thought’ or ‘symbolically motivated behaviour’ .. and which underpins most of what we ‘moderns’ do all day!

For the next significant example in our timeline we don’t have to move very far, because this piece of engraved ochre was also found in Blombos Cave on the coast of South Africa, and it takes the position suggested by the Trinil shell almost systematically a little further .. except that we’re jumping not only more than 400,000 yrs but also to another species; the final one, our own! This piece of ochre found there, dated a little more than 70,000 years old, is engraved with a strong ‘cross-hatching’ pattern .. overlapping zigzags one could say? In any event it is, similar to the zigzag, the simplest form of pattern to make with straight lines, and once again this is not something often ‘seen’ in the natural environment but rather something invented, imagined … ‘abstracted’ if you like.

I can’t resist including this photo here, even though it may seem to confuse my argument a little. Blombos Cave is just 100metres from the Indian Ocean, so I’m assuming the people who left their artifacts in the cave had an intimate relationship with fish-skin. As you see here, when fish-scales are pigmented like this they can strongly suggest a very similar pattern to the engraved ochre. So maybe I was too quick to see ‘complete artifice’ or invention in the cross-hatch pattern, but it doesn’t contradict the view that the earliest marks were ‘adapting’ nature. It’s also, anyway, a very engrossing and perhaps unanswerable question! Is it more ‘advanced’ to be able to copy nature skilfully and faithfully; or to be able to invent one’s own version of it; or to be able to make visible that which nature can’t?

What the Trinil shell and Blombos ochre block also have in common is that the deliberate mark-making is likely to have developed out of natural use. Shells would have been scratched while prising them open, pieces of ochre would have acquired criss-cross furrows while being ground to make paint. Underneath the very definite patterning it can be seen that the surface has already been scratched and furrowed with use. The pattern is a deliberate extension of something already suggested by chance mark-making. Almost as if to make this deliberation clear and permanent, the area of controlled patterning is contained at the top and the bottom by feint boundary lines .. giving it a strong connection, I think, with the ‘fence’ signs which were to come.

Again, I have to interrupt briefly! In the last paragraph I mentioned rather matter-of-factly that the Blombos ochre had been ground to make paint! Yes, Blombos Cave has yielded evidence of ochre paint-making dating back more than 100,000 years! The problem is that it can only be guessed what the ochre was used for that early on. But it’s a whole new chapter .. the role that ochre was about to play; the significance of ‘the cave’; the arrival of ‘hands’ .. to follow.

Last of all, ‘but not least’ as they say .. once again we have a relatively short jump to a kind of ‘summing up’ .. roughly 420km around the southern tip of South Africa and a mere 10,000 years ahead to the Diepkloof Rock Shelter in the Western Cape. During successive excavations which began in 1973, altogether 270 small pieces of engraved ostrich egg were found in layers spanning 5,000 years of occupation, from around 60,000 to 55,000 years ago (the so-called Howiesons Poort culture).

Many have questioned whether the Trinil shell, or even the Blombos engraved ochre have any meaning at all, partly since they’re isolated examples. But with the Diepkloof ostrich shell fragments there can be little doubt .. because of their number, and because their timespan indicates not just one individual but an unimaginably long, established tradition!  Here above are just a few of them.

There’s a touch of irony in that the shell fragments appear to have attractive ‘Easter’ colours which also make the engraved lines easier to see. These colours are .. unfortunately .. a complete coincidence, a result of the egg fragments having been subjected to various fires throughout their long internment in the shelter. There is no evidence of the originally cream-white ostrich eggs having been deliberately coloured. The patterns made are mostly ladder-like .. or like the ‘fence’! .. involving horizontal lines which it’s thought would have encircled the eggs and shorter repeated lines between the two. With our modern sensibilities we might feel there’s not much variation for 5,000 years  worth of development, but that might indicate that something other than personal expression was important. It’s thought likely that the eggs were utilised as water-carriers, as functional objects (since this was the practice later, up until fairly recently) so it’s believed that the decoration may not have been purely ‘aesthetic’ but could have indicated different owners, or different groups. I’m wondering whether, even within the stricture of just having ‘fences’ to play with, there’s a lot of room for recognisable differences? The small selection above suggests this, showing narrow fences; broad fences; fences close together or further apart .. different spacing between the verticals, or perhaps even ‘italic’ ones.

Of the various simple ‘signs’ which would come later, the ‘fence’ is arguably the more ‘advanced’. The simpler ones, i.e. the zigzag, the cross, or the ‘hashtag’ are like ‘taking short lines for a sprint’ they can be done quickly, without that much control. But the ‘fence’ involves more planning .. horizontals first, then verticals carefully between them. Looking at them now I’m thinking .. a very early form of barcoding! Now I’m thinking too much like US! But I think it’s forgivable considering how much like us these people are starting to look. Here is an illustration from the ‘reconstruction twins’ Kennis & Kennis

I’ve already said what’s coming next .. mainly the arrival of ‘painting’ in the form of hands. It was proper ‘painting’ too, as you will see, not just the accidental ‘muddy hands on clean rock’ that I began this article with.


2 thoughts on “The Origins of Artistic Expression – Part 2 ‘The making of marks’

  1. This is deeply fascinating. Can’t wait for your next post. Meanwhile, you touch on fire part way through this article. There is evidence that Homo Erectus used fire for cooking and was almost certainly the first hominid to do so. That had a major impact because cooked food was easier to digest and often more nutritious than raw food. Homo Erectus therefore did not have to spend as long hunting or gathering to get the same nutritional value. So that released time for other things – maybe thinking about and making symbols.

    • Thanks! Yes, that’s a good additional point! I couldn’t afford that much detail for each point .. the piece is long by ‘current’ standards anyway. Best, David

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