Art before art

Humans have been making figurative art for at least forty thousand years – but we may have been carrying “found” art around for much longer.

The Makapansgat cobble
The Makapansgat cobble
Robert G. Bednarik, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Prehistory is murky – what we know of the early days of humanity we must infer from scraps and remnants. The oldest surviving (undisputed) figurative art dates back around forty thousand years, but humans probably thought in aesthetic and symbolic ways long before that particular piece of evidence was created. When did we – or our ancestors – begin to see faces in the Moon, figures in clouds? Manuports are one possible and controversial type of evidence for this early symbolic thought.

The image above is called the Makapansgat cobble. This small rock was found in a dig in South Africa in the 1920s. The rock resembles a stylized face – two eyes and a mouth, at least. It was found near the remains of an Australopithecus, a human ancestor from between two and three million years ago. So, did this hominin carve a face into a rock? Probably not. The features of the Makapansgat cobble are there as the result of natural weathering. But that type of rock was not found anywhere else in the dig; the nearest natural deposit is a few hours’ walk away. The theory is that someone found this rock, noticed that it looked like a face, and carried it with them.

This, then, is the manuport. A found object with some symbolic significance. Not created by humans or their ancestors, but transported and treasured by them. The Makapansgat cobble is the oldest known manuport. Another possible manuport is the Erfoud cuttlefish, a fossilised cuttlefish found with stone tools dating back two to three hundred thousand years. This one is in the shape of… well…

This fossil cast of Orthoceras sp. is distinctively reminiscent of a human penis in every aspect of form, size and surface texture.

The main problems in rock art research

I find the idea of manuports intensely controversial. On the one hand, we are neurologically primed to see faces, figures, and patterns in nature (the term is “pareidolia”). On the other hand, it seems like a very tentative and slight piece of evidence for such a huge claim – that hominins were thinking symbolically three million years ago. But overall, I quite like the idea of some prehistoric ancestor picking up a funny rock and keeping it with them. It is such a human thing to do.

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