Saturday, 11 October 2014

BBC: "Cave paintings change ideas about the origin of art"

Indonesian archaeology briefly made the news this week with a story about rock art from Sulawesi. The art, which includes the oldest known figurative drawing in the world and some extremely old hand stencils, dates back a little under 40,000 years. Rock art is notoriously hard to date, but there's no reason not to trust the dates provided by the researchers at this point, and that makes these artworks incredible, and precious.
The part of Sulawesi where the art was discovered - Maros, in South Sulawesi (SulSel) - is quite well-known in the archaeological literature on Indonesia. Ian Glover, a renowned specialist on the region, excavated there in the 1960s, discovering the 'Maros points'. They're some of the oldest arrowheads known from maritime Southeast Asia.

Unlike the babirusa pictures and hand stencils, there's no reason to believe that the arrowheads are of Pleistocene origin, and they're probably under 5,000 years old; Peter Bellwood has even claimed that the dating of parts of the Toalean culture, of which the Maros points are a late feature, has been overestimated and that the arrowheads and unifacial blades are younger than first thought (more like 4000-3500 BP).

Anyway, back to the rock art: the media, especially non-specialist outlets like the BBC, wildly overstated the significance of the finds and their dates. I can't see any reason to do that based on the published findings. Of course, discovering the oldest picture of an animal in the world is very, very cool. I just don't think it re-writes our understanding of human artistic or mental evolution.

40,000 years is a long time, but humans have been around much longer than that, and there's every reason to believe that humans were fully modern by this point. I lean towards the view that people were already capable of producing art before they took divergent paths in Pleistocene Africa, and if we have no particularly old examples then it is primarily because of a) the use of perishable materials, b) preservation problems with more durable items (like rock art - the art in the Maros caves is being steadily eroded by local industrial pollution, a situation which is hardly unique), and c) the small roving nature of early human populations. I don't think it's because people spread out, split up, spent tens of millennia apart, and only then developed the ability to make pictures. That would hardly be parsimonious.

Some of the statements in the BBC article defy belief. "[...] the Indonesian discovery transforms ideas about how humans first developed the ability to produce art." "The discovery of the Indonesian cave art is important because it shows the beginnings of human intelligence as we understand it today." "The dating of the art in Sulawesi will mean that ideas about when and where this pivotal moment in our evolution occurred will now have to be revised."

These statements elide human biological and cultural evolution, presumably in an attempt to grab the attention of people who would otherwise be uninterested in the discovery of some extremely old rock art in Indonesia. The BBC's implication is that 40,000-year-old art is old enough to represent the earliest human artistic expression. But fully-modern humans were certainly around for at least 60,000 years before that, and events in Indonesia cannot illustrate the origins of human art.

People were widely spread, albeit thinly, across most of the world by 40,000 BP, and what we see in Sulawesi probably isn't evidence of some widespread change in human mental development. It is instead a fortunate and rather incredible survival of an artistic tradition that flourished before any others of which we are aware, and it should be appreciated on that basis.

People were in Australia long before these paintings were created - 10,000+ years before (i.e., longer than the time elapsed since the first cereals were domesticated). Arguably, voyaging across the open sea between (probably) Timor and northern Australia better demonstrates human capabilities than hand stencils and expressive pig-deer drawings, as amazing as it is to be aware of such things.

Here's the paper/abstract, which (I'd say) doesn't bear out the wilder speculation and bluster of the major media outlets. Go here for more, including a list of articles and brief discussion of the implications for rock art across SEA.

No comments:

Post a Comment

You can post anonymously if you really want to, but I would appreciate it if you could provide some means of identifying who you are, if only for the purpose of knowing who has written what.