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The subject of this paper, the very earliest forms of art-like products created by hominins, is of fundamental importance to both the Arts and the Humanities. In the sciences it is essential to cast propositions in cause and effect formats: while a disease is defined by its symptoms, it should rightly be expressed as a function of its etiology. What we define as Arts and Humanities are entirely self-referential and anthropocentric pursuits and it is useful to occasionally place them into the greater epistemological context of reality: how things might really be in the world. Protagoras’ dictum that man is the measure of everything explains the Humanities and leaves the Sciences with a quandary. But pursuing cause and effect issues has proved fairly successful over the centuries, and it might be useful in examining where the Arts and the Humanities originate. As a species we have, despite our ingenuity, so far failed to explain how the contents of our crania form concepts of the world from the sensory input reaching them, and an explanation of how we manage to develop constructs of reality has largely eluded us thus far. In part this may be attributable to our inability to recognize the role of exograms, the externalized memory traces constituting the thing we call culture (Bednarik 2014), in the way we connect with external reality. It might then be useful to investigate how the human ability of creating exograms, which is one of the few human faculties not shared with other animals (others being metarepresentation, recursion, and autonoetic consciousness), came into existence.
This is not an easy task and has never been attempted by the gatekeepers of the human past, Pleistocene archaeologists and paleoanthropologists, who are more concerned with the tools and skeletal architecture of our ancestors. Indeed, very few authors have even concerned themselves with the phenomenon of exograms so far (Bednarik 1987; Donald 1991), and the exograms of the human past have either been ignored or explained away as "art" or "symbols" by archaeologists. There is no evidence that they were either. Just as the humanistic definitions of culture and civilization lack scientific significance and relevance, humanistic comprehension of art and symbols is impaired by simplistic understanding of what these concepts embody. Paleoart (a generic term defining art-like productions preceding written records) was not necessarily "art," in the sense of that term today (Davies 1991; Stecker 1997; Carroll 2000); nor can we know if it was symbolic (involving referent and referrer). The term "art" always derives from an ethnocentric concept: "the status of an artifact as a work of art results from the ideas a culture applies to it, rather than its inherent physical or perceptible qualities. Cultural interpretation (an art theory of some kind) is therefore constitutive of an object’s arthood" (Danto 1988). It would be preposterous to contend that modern (Westernized) humans could fathom the ideas past cultures applied to paleoart tens or hundreds of millennia ago. They cannot even establish the status of recent ethnographic works (Dutton 1993) with any objective understanding: interpretation is inseparable from the art work (Danto 1986: 45; Convey 2014). To regard paleoart as art is therefore an application of an etic and ethnocentric idea to products of societies about whose emic parameters nothing is known in most cases ("emic" refers to knowledge and interpretation within a culture, "etic" refers to interpretation by another culture).
Here it will be attempted to define what is currently known about the earliest surviving exograms, which are collectively defined as "paleoart". Palaeoart of the Lower Paleolithic period seems to have been found for well over 150 years but it has remained largely ignored, misinterpreted, or its existence was fundamentally denied. Most archaeologists and paleoanthropologists of recent decades attempt to refute anthropogenically modified objects located in Lower and Middle Paleolithic contexts as being taphonomic accidents or "natural" in origin. Their presumption is that all Lower and Middle Paleolithic humans (including Homo habilis, H. rudolfensis, H. ergaster, H. georgicus, H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, and H. sapiens neanderthalensis ) were cognitively incapable of expressing themselves through "art" or exograms. They "know" these hominins were cognitively incapable of expression because they were not modern humans; they have been convicted of mental deficiency by negative evidence (Speth 2004). This is despite the clear evidence that these hominins have engaged in maritime colonization since approximately a million years ago, and have crossed sea barriers of up to 180 km to reach over twenty islands and one continent prior to having "Upper Paleolithic" technology (Bednarik 1999).
How did such biased perceptions develop historically? They begin with the (still present among many archaeologists) assumption that de Mortillet’s divisions of European Paleolithic stone tools into the Lower, Middle, and Upper "stages" correspond to biological grades of Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic European humans (Monnier 2006). Next came Marcelin Boule’s classification of all Neanderthals as deficient degenerates on the basis of his analysis of the geriatric male from La Chappelle-aux-Saints. It is still common in the media and pop-culture for Boule’s caricature to be regarded as valid. Then came the "New Archaeology" of Lewis Binford, who with his students wanted to practice a new, explicitly "scientific", archaeology, mainly through a process of accusing other archaeologists of subjectivity and imprecision. Such accusations were accompanied by criticisms of earlier interpretations of the archaeological record, especially regarding European Neanderthal sites. Then we experienced the famous Wolpoff-Stringer debate, which was followed by the Krings et al. (1997) paper on the Neanderthal DNA, after which many people discounted any similarities between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. The success of the marketing campaign promoting the replacement ("African Eve") hypothesis (Thompson 2014) began to wane only with the erosion of its credibility (Bednarik 2008a) in recent years. Denying archaic humans cognitive abilities of any consequence has become a fossilized "unstable orthodoxy" in archaeological reasoning (Thompson 2014), but one that is squarely refuted by the data reviewed here.
This paper summarizes the currently available credible evidence of "symbolic" or non-utilitarian behavior from the Lower Paleolithic, the earliest period of human tool making (beginning at least 3 million years ago and ending very roughly 200,000 years ago). Material evidence of this kind is defined as "palaeoart;" whether or not this constitutes art in the modern accepted usage of that term is irrelevant. The primary issue is that this material is crucial in considering the cognitive and intellectual status of the period’s hominins. For purely descriptive purposes the relevant evidence can readily be divided into a few groups: small perforated objects that may have been used as beads or pendants, petroglyphs, indications of pigment use, proto-figurines, engravings on portable objects, and unmodified objects that are thought to have been carried around because of some outstanding property (manuports).
Palaeoart finds of this earliest time of exogram use are still exceedingly rare, and among those reported some are of doubtful status or have fairly been rejected. The evidence presented here has been culled from a much greater corpus of reported finds. It consists of specimens that constitute either convincing evidence of symbolism, or that provide such compelling aspects that they deserve to be seriously considered in this context. I have examined most of the crucial specimens myself and their listing here indicates that I accept their authenticity after careful analysis. In the cases where reasonable reservations are appropriate I will try to present these fairly.