The Origins of Artistic Expression – Part 1 ‘Things looking like other things’


The image above shows the Makapansgat pebble, a small stone of entirely natural origin which was evidently picked up and kept by an early hominin (human-like) ancestor, and the assumption is that this was because it looked like a face. This action would be no big surprise if we were talking about a modern human, but when one considers that this is stone was singled out between 3-2 million years ago and that the finder was an Australopithecus africanus whose brain size and physical attributes were much closer to a modern chimpanzee than to us .. it’s an almost spine-tingling revelation if it’s true!  No disrespect intended to any Australopithecus, but it’s likeable to your little dog ceasing to bark at its own reflection and starting to preen itself in the mirror instead, though admittedly this one’s more to do with the dog’s awareness of ‘self’ than of ‘symbol’.

The hominin’s reaction to the pebble is considered to be evidence of symbolic thought .. the conscious mental ability to let one thing stand in for another in the mind, and which up to now we’ve believed that only we Homo sapiens have been blessed with. It is believed that, once we developed that mental capacity, it opened the doors leading to art, or the expression of the imagination, and the development of language.

The name of the pebble (apparently more properly termed a ‘cobble’ because of its 8cm size) is taken from the cave in the Makapan Valley, South Africa, where it was found in 1925 together with Australopithecus remains. It’s made of jasperite, the nearest source of which is many kilometres from the cave itself, making this the earliest discovered manuport .. a natural object which assumes archaeological significance because it has been moved from one place to another. Tests have confirmed that the features of the cobble are due to natural erosion and that there has been no artificial enhancement by ‘human’ hands. Curiously it has been said that the Makapansgat pebble makes a rather ‘poor face’, as accidental faces go! That may be so .. considering both our ‘finer’ Homo sapien features and our modern, richly-fed visual sensibilities .. but it’s interesting to compare that face with the reconstruction of Australopithecus africanus created  by Elizabeth Daynes.

I have to say at this point that .. great as it would be! .. I’m a little sceptical about the exact provenance of the pebble. Although the dating methods are considered sound, I don’t think it can be adequately ruled out that the stone was collected by a later hominin. I feel that this comes far too early in our developmental timeline, and more than just one lonely piece of evidence is needed. But regardless which of our distant ancestors responded to it, it supports what I have always personally believed .. that the first opening of that door .. the first awakenings of our imagination, and the very first impulses to create our own representations of the world, may have been fuelled in part by such instances of pareidolia.


In its broadest sense ‘pareidolia’ can be taken to mean ‘something looking (or equally, sounding, smelling or feeling) like something else’ and so for we sapiens with our enormous sensibilities it could apply to so many experiences on different levels .. either pleasurable or unfortunate. It is the term given to the conscious recognition of ‘likeness’ we experience when we, for example, see shapes in clouds or hear tunes in the ‘babbling brook’. In such cases, it can be very positive, inspirational .. a jump-start to the imagination or invention. But it also has another, darker side which feeds on our fears when we’re not so properly conscious, or panders to our assumptions or wishes even when we are .. leading us to mistake, sometimes to mistake disastrously! So at its simplest we might mistake the hat-stand for a lurking figure, a tangle of thread for a spider, or devote hundreds of hours to a ‘face’ on the surface of Mars.

At an early stage in the development of our survival software, our brains were predisposed to spot familiar shapes or patterns .. such as a lion’s face in otherwise random undergrowth .. and our recognition of even the slightest hint of symmetry remains particularly strong. Animals are equipped with similar pattern recognition abilities to us. These have been ‘standard issue’ for so long that nature has even started to play with them, as if to relieve the boredom, by putting eyes on butterfly wings, or giving some flies the appearance of wasps. It should therefore be no surprise that the Australopithecus spotted and was ‘interested’ in the stone, even if only at a subliminal level at first .. but adopting it as a keepsake suggests something much more. It suggests a more conscious recognition of what’s happening .. an ‘owning’ of their own imagination.

The lure of the mimetolith

During my walks on the Thames Foreshore, a landscape which has changed very little in its essentials since the prehistoric beginnings of the river, I probably see the same stones which have been there from those beginnings .. just a little moved around. Stones which look like other things are so common that they even have a name of their own .. mimetoliths .. more commonly associated with massive rocky outcrops bearing uncanny resemblance to fantasy characters or American presidents, but really meaning any size of stone. The flint nodules can be especially evocative of other things .. especially bones, but also all manner of body parts. Even when they’re not pretending to be something specific they might go for a more ‘abstracted’ semblance of the living, such as the one below.

Interestingly enough ‘pareidolia’ has been firmly linked to the search for the origins of artistic expression for some time .. but in two converse ways! One has to do, as I’ve said, with its influence on the minds of our ancestors, but the other concerns its effects on the minds of our contemporary searchers!  Robert G Bednarik one of the most tireless of experts on paleoart (a word adapted from the chronological term Paleolithic, covering basically this whole ‘origins’ period from 2.6 million to 12,000 years ago) has even written a paper illustrating how easily our archaeologists, palaeontologists, anthropologists and paleoanthropologists .. both funded and amateur .. ‘see’ what they most want to see in the most innocent of stones.

One of the most extreme and fantastical cases was that of the Japanese medical doctor turned amateur palaeontologist Chonosuke Okamura who in his 70s became convinced that he’d found fossil evidence of tiny animals including humans only a few millimetres in size, preserved in polished limestone.

Whether the Makapansgat pebble really does signify our conscious ‘owning’ of the imagination at such an early stage, or not .. it’s clear that pareidolia has had a significant influence on us, that it continues to have, and that some even ‘have it bad’! Let’s say you wanted to invent a plausible art history for a fictional species dominated by the double-edged ‘blessing and curse’ of pareidolia, and you wanted to feature something like the Makapansgat pebble as a starting point? Your next step would be to throw in a bucketful of slightly more ‘recent’ manuports from around the globe, just to reinforce the notion. Then you’d want to introduce, not too long afterwards, the first attempts by the species at making their own, starting perhaps by just continuing what nature has started .. by modifying suggestive stones? In our reality, that supportive collection of other manuports hasn’t yet materialised, but evidence of modifying suggestive stones has .. at least, possibly!  Two examples have been discovered so far .. the so-called ‘venuses’ of Berekhat Ram and Tan-Tan. But the question of whose pareidolia is playing the greater part here .. whether these truly show the first awakenings of symbolic thought in our ancestors, or whether they’re more a reflection of our own ‘wishful thinking’ .. envelops them like a cloud.

Tan-Tan and Berekhat Ram

The Tan-Tan ‘figurine’ shown here is the more plausible of the two. It is a quartzite pebble almost 6cm in length, found during excavations on the north bank of the river Draa, near Tan-Tan in Morocco. It has been ascertained that, although the overall shape including the vertical divisions are entirely natural, parts of the horizontal lines have been emphasized by ‘human’ means. These areas are indicated by the bold dotting above. The pebble was embedded between layers of sediment dating from 500,000 to 300,000 years old .. so it’s at least the latter but could be older.

The Berekhat Ram is much smaller, at c.35mm, and made from reddish ‘tuff’ (a natural stone which has been formed from compressed volcanic ash). It was found at Berekhat Ram in the Golan Heights, between Syria and Israel, in 1981. It is also mainly natural but the stone has been worked on to emphasize the ‘head’ form and the arms (although these are difficult to make out in these photos)

It’s considered most likely that the hominids responsible for both of these were Homo erectus, the earliest undisputed precursor to Homo sapiens and the first to make stone tools and use fire. There is at least one other piece of evidence that Homo erectus may have been capable of ‘artistic expression’ and that is an engraved shell excavated at Trinil, Java .. which will be featured later. Here below, again from the reconstructive artist Elizabeth Daynes, is what Homo erectus might have looked like.

If these two ‘figurines’ are what their supporters claim they constitute the oldest ‘sculptural’ objects found; the oldest known attempts at figuration .. in fact the oldest known objects that could justifiably be called ‘works of art’. But even though both have undergone tests which appear to confirm that the stones were modified by ‘human’ means, many experts disagree or contest whether a figure was ever intended.

If you want to read something more convincing, a strong case for the intrinsic importance of pareidolia in the development of later representational art is made by the archaeologists Paul Pettit (University of Durham) and Derek Hodgson (University of York) and a summary of this can be found here

Speaking of that later representational art, in my previous article on my friend’s exhibition I wrote of my belief that art developed as our attempt to show those we imagined were above us that we could do similar. Art was not only the expression of our ‘imaginative existence’ but became a vital means of communication with the unseen, inextricably linked to the ritualistic voicing of our beliefs. This was part of the reason why a non-functional, an essentially impractical and time-consuming endeavour assumed its level of importance in our existence. Later on I will be looking at one of the earliest and most impressive examples of this, the ‘lion man’ (or woman) .. the Loewenmensch found in Hohlenstein-Stadel cave, Germany. With the Loewenmensch we’d already arrived .. with a full suitcase! Here is the ability to acutely observe and replicate, together with the imagination to invent our own ‘take’ on nature, and to consider it important enough to invest hundreds of hours in the making. We were doing it to impress .. not just ourselves, not just for the satisfaction of our own collective ego .. but to show what we could do to ‘those above’.

But all this would take a very long time yet!

Millions of  years separate the Makapansgat pebble from the Berekhat Ram, and possibly more than 200,000 between those proto-figures and the ‘Loewenmensch’. The initial sparking of our imaginative faculties was the breakthrough step in this long, exclusively ‘human’ and artificial process, but our distant ancestors had to develop other things first. The most fundamental of these, in my view, was the conscious (as opposed to purely instinctive and subliminal) recognition of marks in the natural landscape, eventually followed by the deliberate making of them.

When I started looking into this I didn’t know much to start with, I had my own theories but I’d heard of just a handful of examples, so things were so much clearer to me then than they are now! There were just a few of the ‘earliest’ or the ‘oldest’ to go through, grouped together under Paleolithic or ‘prehistoric’, and invested with a kind of hierarchy of significance according to how much each was written about by others. It seemed logical to look at pareidolia and the oldest attempts at figuration, together with the oldest instances of mark-making. So I finished my ‘Part 1’, twice the length of this and with twice the number of examples .. but something felt wrong! I still feel as before that pareidolia and mark-making have fairly equal footing as the ‘parents’ of artistic expression. Pareidolia, or more broadly speaking ‘an awareness of the likenesses between things’, kick-started our imaginative faculties and kept us inspired .. it also gave us the notion that we could create our own ‘likenesses’. On the other hand mark-making told us we could do something other than copy .. we could invent our own forms; break free from nature; illustrate our independence; be different .. we could ‘make our own mark’!

The two feed into each other to an extent .. but in another way, they just don’t belong together, it’s difficult to appreciate them on the same page. So I’m looking at the development of mark-making separately in the next article, going back to the possible beginnings and moving forward through the timeline of its found examples. My feeling is that this better reflects how these two core directives developed for our ancestors. They progressed in parallel and influenced each other .. but they were also divergent, and with ultimately different ends.

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