Section 1


Outline of Human Phylogeny

Evolutionary Trees
and DNA

Brain Evolution

Hand and Bipedality

Section 2
Social and socio-
cultural systems

Primate societies

Social relations and the evolution of culture

Social relations, communication and cognition

Human socio-cultural patterns

Tools and symbolic behaviour

Palaeolithic Art

Contemporary hunter-gatherer art

Section 3
Ontogeny and symbolism

Editorial Introduction: Ontogeny & Phylogeny

The role of ontogenesis

Brain, cognition, and language

Early interaction and cognitive skills

Language and thought

Theories of symbolization
and development

Children's drawings and the evolution of art

Section 4
Language systems

Spoken language and
sign language

The gestural primacy hypothesis

Comparative cognition

Animal language and cognition

Language acquisition


The prehistory of grammar

Writing systems


Links Policy

Relevant Links

A history of the interpretation of European 'Palaeolithic art': Magic, mythogram, and metaphors for modernity

Margaret Conkey

'Palaeolithic art' provides a corpus of evidence that bears on central questions in the study of the evolution of modern human abilities, in that it appears late in the human archaeological record (from around 40 000 years ago), and is almost exclusively associated with Homo sapiens sapiens remains. This 'sudden' appearance is germane to debates concerning the evolutionary continuity of human lineages versus the replacement of earlier populations through migration from a single geographical 'homeland' [the 'Eve hypothesis; see Campbell, and Waddell and Penny, this volume]; the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition [see White, this volume]; and the very sustainability of 'grand narratives' in our understanding of the origins of our symbolic abilities.

How this corpus of 'art' bears on these issues is a question that is only now beginning to be formulated adequately. Our understandings to date have been coloured by our uncritical acceptance of earlier interpretations that have a particular intellectual history. While 'Palaeolithic art' has a worldwide distribution, its interpretation has been essayed on the basis of the rich sites of south-western Europe. Interpretations of these sites and their images are embedded in the presuppositions of their period of discovery - the 19th Century western zeitgeist in which prehistoric 'man' represented a stage in the evolutionary ascent to civilised 'man': a stage associated through analogical metaphors with 'savage', 'primitive' and 'childlike'. Given the sometimes spectacular representation of large animals in this 'classical' corpus at one period, 'Palaeolithic art' came to be seen as involved in rituals particularly as a form of 'hunting magic' (despite the fact that no correlation has been established between the repertoire of animal images and the remains of animals taken as food during this period the images are a 'bestiary', not a 'menu').

This classic corpus of south-western European imagery is spread over a period of 25 000 years. It was created by a wide variety of techniques. It comprises portable pieces (art mobilier) and cave wall decorations (parietal art). It is an open question as to how representative what has survived to the present is of what was created at the time. There is little direct evidence that establishes a clear cut chronological dating of portable or parietal images, either absolutely or relative to each other, with any confidence. Animal images are more frequent than geometric designs or human/anthropomorph images, but the repertoire is quite diverse. It is thus difficult to characterise it adequately, nor can we be confident that any interpretive categories of ours reflect the productive, functional and symbolic categories of its makers. But neither the diversity of the corpus, nor its problematic status, prevented the historical hegemony of the 'foundation hypothesis' of hunting magic from coming to dominate the interpretive landscape.

The first challenge to the 'foundation hypothesis' was made by Leroi-Gourhan around thirty five years ago, in the context of 'structuralist thought'. Thus he sought to show that images were not randomly placed on cave walls, but were placed according to the use of regular rules. From this spatial analysis he essayed a semiotic interpretation based on the differential 'maleness' and 'femaleness' of different classes of the imagery, and established a stylistically-based chronological scheme of sequential styles in a continuous evolutionary schema of styles. Irrespective of the sceptical current status of this interpretation, it served to establish the 'modernity' (as opposed to 'primitivity') of Upper Palaeolithic human cultures, and a status for the 'art' as amenable to study by the methods of scientific inquiry.

Subsequent interpretations located the 'art' in adaptive frameworks, hypothesised to have been generated by ecological influences on the interpretive frameworks of the 'artists', often mediated by shifting human social group structures and inter-group relations that the changing climate of the Upper Palaeolithic period 'forced' on human social subsistence practices (and to which they were able to 'react' successfully by such strategies, strategies that had previously been unavailable as possible ways of reacting). Marshack has pursued a related line, attempting to infer the cognitive capabilities - or the 'historical' elaboration of the cognitive technologies that modern cognition uses and is constituted by - from the 'properties' of many of the objects he has studied, particularly with respect to calendrical and incipient mathematical systems. Again, in both cases, the security of the underlying premises from which these accounts are essayed is open to critique.

At present, it has become appreciated that 'Palaeolithic art' is polysemic, and no monolithic interpretation is possible. Detailed studies of portions and aspects of the record are being undertaken. On a wider scale, it may prove that the reflexive study of the interpretive frameworks that have been used to characterise 'Palaeolithic art' is a useful way of elucidating the principles and processes that generated the 'art' in the first place [eds].

For further details, see Ian Tatersall on The Creative Explosion