The most ancient known ‘artwork’ is a red jasperite pebble that fits within a closed fist. The pebble is worn and polished. It has two deep-set holes appearing to be the eyes of a brooding, slightly angry face. In the center of the stone is the slight indentation suggesting a nose. Below it, a gaping mouth. The pebble was originally found by a curious Australopithecus on the bank of a river and brought to Makapansgat Cave. There, in South Africa, until found by an amateur archeologist, it rested for some two million years next to the fossilized remains of its caretakers. 1 The Makapangat pebble, is a ‘manuport’ – a carried art object – and the oldest type of surviving artwork. This manuport was not made into a face but was recognized to have the features of a face. As an artwork it works like the ‘bull’ made by Picasso out of a bicycle’s seat and handlebar or the pareidolia with which we read the shape of gods and squirrels into the clouds. Within the same time horizon are the stone tools, shards “cores and flakes” and a number of stones appearing to resemble baboons left by Homo Habilis.
Homo Habilis is famous for being excavated by the Leakeys at Olduvai Gorge. “Lucy” was the best known of the species. The cores and flakes of Homo Habilis are comparable but not at all representative to animal tools (See image of an Olduvai Gorge chopper (from 1.8 to 2 Million years ago) to the left).2 James Harrod writes, how chimpanzee tool-use differ. 3 Chimp tool-use, writes Harrod, is ‘expedient’ were as human tool use is planned. A well known example of chimpanzee tool-use involves sticks for excavating termites. When a chimp finds a large termite nest he seeks a stick to ‘attack’ the nest only in that moment. He does not carry a stick with him anticipating termites, nor, and more to the point, does he spend time fashioning a stick with the anticipation of using it later. Homo Habilis did anticipate and in that anticipation spend time crafting tools. Unlike the chimp, there had already been a tradition of tool making, within which tools were manufactured. Further, the tool makers of Olduvai Gorge left clear categories of tools. Among them are awes, scrappers, points and hammers. Harrod also points out that the tools themselves were intentionally crafted in the sense that many of the tools – not all – assumed symmetry, a careful attention to edge and surface that demonstrate a care transcending the construction of mere tools. It seems that Homo Habilis took pleasure in making these things, and felt an anxiety about making a ‘good’ tool. The process that Homo Habilis used to make tools bears on “why we draw” for two reasons. First, and the most obvious reason: the tools of Homo Habilis probably represent the oldest known artifacts, some can tentatively be called art, made by a relative to modern people. Second, the process of separating flakes from a core is little different than that of drawing. In drawing there is a figure and ground. In Olduvai toolmaking there is the core and the flake. Both figure/ground and Core/flake represent a negotiation between two ‘regions.’ Harrod calls the thinking that the Olduvai toolmaker does, in this regard, “dialectical.” Hitting on an important relation between figure/ground or core/flake the dialectic, here, suggests a back and fourth between two equal spheres. Harrod uses the term to emphasize the fact that both cores and flakes were significant. When we draw the image of a tree on a white sheet of paper both sheet and line support the other. Flakes are snapped away by the tool maker. The tool’s edges, like the drawn line that distinguishes ‘tree’ lets some-thing emerge. Richard Serra, an expert draftsman and sculptor, famous for his ‘Tilted Arch’ describes the significance of ‘edge’ with which the ancient tool and drawing have in common: “… I went to Paris and happened to Brancusi’s studio, and what I noticed about Brancusi is the way the shapes formed on the edge, the way they push out to space, that’s a condition of drawing.4 I mean all edges are [a] condition of drawing.” Homo Habilis’ tool use has a bearing on the ‘why we draw’ because as we examine their well worn tools we can recognize a way orienting towards the world that corresponds to humanity, now, two million years later. The essential similarity is that all people, Homo Habilis included, lived in a world of significance and, observing that this kind of process had occurred at least two million years ago makes it less likely that ‘art’ is a product of leisure. ‘Significance’ is opened, made apparent, by what Harrod recognized in those ancient “cores and flakes” as well as the “edges” defined in a Brancusi sculpture and a drawing that any of us make on a sheet of paper. At best it is probably an incidental point that no ‘drawings’ survive Homo Habilis. They might very well have drawn figures into wood or a now badly worn slab of stone. In a similar vein the Leakeys suggest that, by inspection of tool edges and other means, the these ancient inhabitants Southeast Africa were likely to have made baskets of vegetable material as well as ties and containers with skin.5 None of these things have survived.6 To find our most ancient, surviving ‘drawings,’ we have to take a more than million year forward leap. The earliest surviving drawings are to be found in Europe, India and Australia. They were drawn on the walls of caves. Then, glaciers covered all of the British Isles, the northern half of present Germany, Russia and, surrounded the Himalayas. The most famous, and possibly the most ancient, are in Chavet Cave, France. These drawings are date to 32,000 years before the present. Drawings of a competing antiquity are those in the Apollo 11 Cave, Africa (26, 000 to 28, 000 BP), and drawings within the Australian Malangine Cave which date to 28, 000 BP. Drawings in India’s Bhimbetka Auditorium Cave date from the same general time period.7 My next post, Why We Draw II, will look at these well known pleistocene drawings as a way to approach why it is that we draw.
- Makapansgat Cave is located at Makapansgat and Zwartkrans Valleys, northeast of Potgietersrust in Limpopo province, South Africa. The stone, was found in 1925 by an ad-vocational archeologist and described years later (dates differ) by another, though better practiced ad-vocational archeologist, Raymond Dart. The Makapansgat pebble is described in detail by Bednarik.
- Image of an Olduvai Gorge Chopper in the British Museum. Creative Commons License. Description in Wikimedia Commons: Photo of a chopping tool from Olduvai Gorge 1.8-2 million years old
- Harrod, James. “Two Million Years Ago: The Origin of Art And Symbol” in Continuum 2,1:4-293
- Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Richard Serra, Radio 3 BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/johntusainterview/serra_transcript.html
- Harrod. pp. 7
- the survival of artifacts is a science in itself called taphonomy: http://cogweb.ucla.edu/ep/Art/Bednarik_94.html
- R. G. Bednarik suspects that some images within Bhimbetka’s Auditorium Cave may be the earliest of all known rock art. See: Bednarik, R. G. Earliest Evidence of Palaeoart. in Rock Art Research. Vol. 20 No 2. 2003.