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Homo metaforicus. The origin of art

August 05, 2016


The man and his ability to create images. Fabio Martini, professor of Palaeontology at the University of Florence and the current director of the The Fiorentino Prehistoric Museum and Institute gives us an account of a history that began 40,000 years ago.

Cultural evolution is guaranteed by the communication systems within the community and the social cohesion which generates the ability to jointly develop strategies and behaviours. Among the communication systems documented in prehistoric figurative language, the so-called "art", plays a special role. It appeared in Europe about 35-40,000 years ago with Homo sapiens, who possessed a complex cultural system which included the knowledge and skilled use of materials, such as rocks and hard animal materials, and also intangible knowledge such as funerary ideology, figurative practices and symbols.

For example, "creating symbols", is just one of the many innovations introduced by sapiens and immediately stands out as a common skill.

It is actually a system of representation where, using techniques such as painting, engraving and small statuary, images are applied to the walls and ceilings of caves or to a separate support.

The large repertoire of Paleolithic themes comes down to two main subject matters: that of the animal world - also connected to the practice of hunting - and that of female fertility. The zoomorphic world is, according to the psychoanalyst James Hilmann, the "greatest symbolic system of the human conscience". It is reproduced in wall paintings and carvings, and in the statues of stone, ivory and bone, which include single or multiple representations of animals, sometimes bearing signs of wounds. These findings suggest that the pictorial practise was also carried out as a sort of "hunting ritual", with the depiction of the wounded prey acting as a propitious gesture for the hunt. Included in the animalistic repertoire of majestic figures are aurochs, horses and deer. These could be interpreted as totemic images of sorts, which could provide a special symbolic meaning, a sort of primordial theophany for these Paleolithic communities.


The theme of fertility, i.e., the survival of the species, is most evident in the so-called "Venus" or the representations of pregnant women. In these, the body parts associated with motherhood are highlighted through the emphasis of certain forms. These images have quite a symbolic value, as is evident due to the absence of detailed facial features which therefore negates any indication of intentional portraiture.
Some caves, such as Lascaux in France, were used as actual sanctuaries, where zoomorphic images clearly play a symbolic role. Ritual practices were carried out in these caves, with images playing a fundamental role. A similar role could be attributed to the clay statues of bear or bison, around which remain (in certain, very fortunate cases) footprints which would indicate unusual posture all of which might be linked to some type of dance. Locating images in inaccessible environments such as tunnels or narrow passages, seems to infer a use of images also during initiation rites.

Prehistoric art, in short, is a non-verbal means of communication which helped to develop a strong social cohesion in the articulated culture of sapiens. The system of representation, in addition to other social behavioural advancements of sapiens, is one of the practices which led to union and aggregation - perhaps the trump cards which have allowed our species to acquire the environmental wisdom enabling us to be the only survivors of the Homo genus over the long course of evolution.


The beginning of the creation of symbols, or rather of making art, around 40,000 years ago in Europe, coincided with the phase during which humans acquired an articulate vocal capacity, more developed than that of previous species, with fully functional oral communication. It’s probable that verbal communication was the way in which tangible and intangible knowledge was exchanged which led to the "modernity" of our species.

The birth of art, this great step in evolutionary history, concerns the ability to process images, i.e. the ability to create something two-dimensional from that which is three-dimensional, for masses and volumes. The study of this archaeological material can only be addressed from a multidisciplinary perspective involving archaeologists and scholars of humanities, aesthetics and neuroscience. In fact, the “art” phenomenon not only amounts to a biological event but is a cultural leap which began a large behavioural complexity, which became the starting point for even greater progress, a new path of exploration of the world through symbols.
It is a path that humans still follow today within their complex systems of representation of the outside world and their own inner reality. The proof of this are certain coincidences of the systems of representation, with regard to both conceptual process and stylistic language, which emerge in the Palaeolithic figurative repertoire and in contemporary art.


Cover image:

« Lucy » skeleton (AL 288-1) Australopithecus afarensis, cast from Museum national d'histoire naturelle, Paris. Photo: 120, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.


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