The Venus of Tan-Tan: is this object the earliest known example of human craftsmanship? Or is it a stone that happens to look like a human figure and happened to lie amongst many 400 thousand year old tools? The delicate detail of the hands is what leans me toward accepting the work as an artifact.
We all remember the grilled cheese sandwich with the face of Jesus on it. Suppose that grilled cheese was 400 thousand years old and somehow survived for archaeologists to find. What would they make of it? Was the face a human artifact or a quirk of nature? The question is not entirely whimsical. Consider, for example, the “Venus of Tan-Tan," a stone found by Robert Bednarik among some 400 thousand (plus or minus 100 thousand) year old tools. The tools are plainly tools. The stone looks like it could have a crude human figure carved into it. So is it an artifact or a prehistoric grilled cheese? And if an artifact, so what? Answering that last question depends on how you understand what is peculiar about being human.
Anthropologist Philip Case gives the orthodox dismissal of Venus of Tan-Tan type objects:
You can imagine [an ancient human] recognizing a resemblance but [the object] still hav[ing] no symbolic meaning at all.”
Another anthropologist, Thomas Wynn, is even more bluntly dismissive:
If it’s a one-off, I don’t think it counts. It’s not sending a message to anyone.”
Here you see the challenge of scientists trying to discuss the arts scientifically. It’s not quite as disastrous as when scientists try to explain religion, but they sure sound like Philistines.
I’m inspired to this meditation after reading an essay in this week’s Science magazine titled “On the Origin of Art and Symbolism” by Michael Balter (abstract here; related podcast interview with author here). The piece is part of the magazine’s series of essays on human evolution which are being published in honor of the “Year of Darwin.”
Balter has summarized much information and provides invaluable details about dates and places of notable prehistoric artifacts (or possible artifacts) and he quotes a variety of anthropologists on various sides of the question of prehistoric art. Yet the range of quotations shows the general shallowness of the effort to think rationally about humans. These fellows might want to remember Pascal’s remark that the heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing about.
The mechanical model of human behavior looks at machines and sees that they communicate by transmitting physical information from one machine to another; however, neither language nor the other arts works as a carrier. The assumption that human communication and machine communication work the same way has led Drs. Chase and Wynn to dismiss something amazing as though it were no more than a fluke Jesus on a grilled cheese.
Suppose Jane Goodall reported observing a chimpanzee in the wild find a stone and, with a little chipping, turn it into a crude replica of a generic chimpanzee. We would recognize the ensuing cries of It doesn’t count and meaningless for what they would be: shrieks of denial in the face of further evidence that the difference between apes and humans is not as great as many traditions insist.
A couple of weeks ago I reported on the work of John Feliks who takes the argument to the other extreme and says we have not made any innate intellectual advances since the days of Homo erectus (see: Abstract Thought Predates Homo Sapiens). Well, then – assuming the Venus of Tan-Tan is an artifact – what had to happen to get from that prehistoric sculptor to Michelangelo? Obviously skills had to improve considerably, and that was only possible if a tradition grew, so other individuals had to be moved by sculpture and take the trouble to learn and teach the craft. Michelangelo used to say the shape was already in the stone and he just let it out, a statement that the Venus of Tan-Tan artisan could surely sympathize with.
Feliks seems to think that craft improvement is the whole story and when you look at some of the boneheaded criticism cited in the Balter article it is easy to sympathize with Feliks’ reaction. Talk about the need for “the capacity to hold an abstract concept in one’s head” does not take into account, say, Michelangelo’s Pieta, which has nothing abstract about it. Michelangelo presented concrete details, probably by observing a model directly in front of him.
Yet there is a second layer that makes the Pieta distinct from paleo-artistic works. Along with the perceptual recognition that links Michelangelo and his ancient predecessors, the historic sculpture depicts a scene from a traditional story. It illustrates a moment of time, linking the observer who can recognize a timeless reality—a dead man cradled by his mother—with a particular religious event. This artistic tension between the particular and the universal, the sacred and the profane, appears likely to have come into human history between the arts of 400 thousand years ago and those of historical times. Whether the change reflects a biological evolution as well as a cultural one need not concern us here, for it is not of interest to the archaeologists who study art’s origins.
But now lets look in the other direction; what had to happen to get from our last common ancestor with the chimpanzees to the creator of the Venus of Tan-Tan? The ability to recognize shapes in stones is probably a general trait of perception, one that at least occasionally must happen to a chimpanzee. But chimpanzees don’t care. Before people took an interest in abstractions, they had to be interested in things, neutral subjects that could hold attention without provoking a flight-or-fight response. Neutral interest is very rare in the biological world where indifference is the rule. As I have noted before on this blog, interest in a neutral topic, is also a prerequisite for speech.
Paying attention to a resemblance is only the start of the project. The perceiver has to turn recognition into action. A person like me might spot a stone with a notable shape like an attractive woman. I might even look at it for a bit, contemplating the resemblance, but I have no skills with my hands and could not take the observation further. Prehistoric artists too needed the ability to act on their recognition, and we don’t have to look hard to find that ability. The human lineage had been making tools for two million years by the time of the Venus of Tan-Tan, so there were certainly artisans who were capable, with a few well-placed strokes, of strengthening a resemblance found in stone.
In sum, creating a meaningless bit of one-off sculpture requires as a minimum a perceiver who is
- capable of spotting resemblances,
- pays attention to resemblances,
- and skilled enough to do something about the resemblances.
In other words, you need a craftsman, a person who values doing a job well for the thing itself. It is contrary to the reasoning of evolution and economics, in which getting by is good enough, but it is essential to living a human life.
I have never known an artist who was not interested in craft, but I have known many who were not interested in symbols. (For a fine study of this subject, see The Craftsman by Richard Sennett.) It is not that symbols have no role in the arts or language; obviously they do. But that is not where these talents begin. Looking for the birth of art by looking for symbols is the equivalent of looking for the origins of housing by hunting for ancient cathedrals. Look instead for the rise of craft.
Artifacts from Human Lineage
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