Art ; Or, How women taught humanity to communicate

Art is the wellspring from which all human communication descends.

Possible Paleolithic figural representations of humans from the Blombos cave in South Africa, dated to 73,000 years ago.

This includes not just the expression of ideas in traditional physical media–painting, sculpture, carving–but the expression of ideas in language and even speech. Where the expression of complex ideas became necessary for our prehistoric ancestors, we would expect that physical expressions of the body–i.e. “nonverbal”: facial expressions, lines of sight, gesturing–would be followed by the development of more complex means of communication. But communication is not inherently verbal, for we must remember that art is at its base a means of communication, and likewise that not all art is inherently verbally. Here I propose that art and speech developed alongside one another as a means of clarifying complex thought which might otherwise be misunderstood when expressed through body language exclusively. In this case, the concept of “art” expands to include unpreserved “works”: expressions made manifest in sand scribbles, the carving of trees long since felled, and other forms of ethereal media. We may even hypothesize that the ethereal nature of principle media is directly tied to the articulation of complex thought into “verbal media,” itself only until relatively recently made perceptibly permanent in the form of physical and, in the present, electronic media. Though to be clear, there being no natural system of recording the verbal medium, and without some form of “upkeep” (i.e. the preservation of electronic media in perpetuity), the verbal medium remains as ethereal as the breath from which they were uttered.

In essence, as evermore complex thoughts occurred to prehistoric humans, so too did evermore complex forms of expression come into existence. These complex forms of expression did not come from the male-centric model of the “hunter-gatherer” and the need to communicate whilst on the hunt in the bush, but from the familial matriarch and her steads. This model therefore ascribes the need to communicate to the need to pass on the complex information necessary for the preservation of the young through education–here used loosely to mean educating in life lessons, i.e. how to cook, how to care for young, etc. Although the image of a schoolhouse from The Flintstones may come to mind when posed with the concept of “education” among early humans, it is worth noting that the forms of communication necessary for the roles thought to be principally occupied by early humans–hunting, fishing, gathering–do not require much beyond the ability to do what every other species of animal does across the planet, just in more specialized and varied manners. They are nevertheless instinctual behaviors, ones to which “education” allowed considerable enhancement, but no different in value to the question of language than the value of that which allows wolves, hyenas, and lionesses to coordinate their movements and behaviors when on the hunt.

We must instead turn to the most complex behaviors of early humans, the preservation and passing down of complex ideas. This is not to say that this inherently requires women to return to the role of teacher-nurturer in the present. On the contrary, it is now abundantly clear that the personal tenets and personality of the individual can and do outweigh any sort of natural or biological selection inherited at birth. This is innovation in behavior over all other forms of known life is, however, only possible through the continued prosperity of the species–that one can have the freedom and space to understand one’s true nature is traced directly to the ability to express complex thought. In a society of specialists like our own, all the tasks which were once necessary for existence are no longer so, so that individuals are no longer required to hunt their own meals or bake their own bread, but can instead rely on the output of factories and private companies whose entire modus operandi is to provide those basic goods or services–what we might in the present call “essential.” To come to this particular status quo, education is necessary in order to allow the outsourcing of the necessary skill, so that a human who was never taught to butcher or bake can still produce meat and baked goods for market. This is in itself an outgrowth of the neighborhood butcher or baker, and with the growth of the aforementioned larger entities, we do indeed see that the price of consistent necessary products, goods, services, etc., comes at the expense of the smaller entity. It is worth noting, however, that as the larger entity’s output becomes more the accustomed status quo, a demand will inevitably rise for further specialization, so that it is no longer good enough to be able to mass-produce bread for market, and so what we in the present call “artisan” entities emerge. But whereas a company like Pepperidge Farm might have destroyed the neighborhood baker in the 1970s and 1980s, it is not being eclipsed by the local artisan baker. Rather, these artisan entities become an alternative to the “fallback option” of the larger entity, though this often restricted to places of such affluence that specialization alone is no longer valued. This is a form of “hyper-specialization” among the artisan entity might now offers its own selection of baked goods but perhaps serves Pepperidge Farm bagels because they might only bake loafs of bread. The artisan bakery of this example is now not so much the inherited specialization of a family, but a small business specializing in a very particular sort of service, one which is itself no longer inherently necessary.

This is all to say that without the ability to express complex thoughts, it would have been impossible for our species to have developed the ability to communicate beyond what we were able to do against the mammoths and rhinos we pursued into extinction. And it seems to have happened at this juncture, at the “hunter-gatherer” or “prehistoric man in cave at Lascaux” period of time, at which point language developed, notably not after traditionally male-centric occupations associated with agriculturalism and its offspring recordkeeping. It was indeed a surplus of some kind which permitted early humans time enough and space enough to develop the expression of complex thought, but the surplus was not of the agricultural or specialist variety. It was instead the time and space born from the time women spent with the very young and juvenile, until the hand of social specialization would push them either in the direction of a future matriarch of the family or the role of “hunter-gatherer.” With the time afforded not having to be actively at a kill-site with the others–though certainly women did attend to the hunt regularly–the wisdom of the family matriarchy could be preserved. And so we must imagine circles of children on the ground, giggling and teasing one another, while one of the women of the family transmitted the wisdom of her age as knowledge for her children and kin. Such would have been a regular duty in the prehistoric household, but far from the only one–I illustrate it alone not to box in women, but instead to emphasize this critical facet of human development.

Painting of aurochs, horses, deer from the Lascaux cave in France, dated to 17,000 years ago.

The transmission of complex ideas through words is, however, not always precise, particularly when one’s repertoire of words might have excluded certain concepts while overexpressing others. As an example, perhaps the need to help distinguish between types of animals might have motivated the drawings in Lascaux, perhaps kin to the rather ubiquitous posters of animals found in preschool and kindergarten classrooms. The need to express the idea of the various fauna found in prehistoric France would not have translated well in form to an earliest artist counterpart in prehistoric Borneo, for the animals would have been irrelevant in their exactitude. So in form–that is to say, the things which are made visually manifest–what is communicated may not be comprehensible to an outsider, perhaps in this case “overemphasizing” the fauna of a particular region. But in function it translates easily, so that in East Kalimantan, the Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave preserves the image of their own fauna in mirror to her later counterpart in prehistoric France. Whatever the true purpose of these forms of figural communication, their use as educational aids may be inferred by the presence of footprints made by children–and dogs!–at Chauvet in France (35,000 years ago), and it may even be inherent by its “mere” visual manifestation. To express differences among animals of the same or similar kind–horns, coloration, and other particular characteristics–must have helped in the expression of variety, itself a complex concept not typically found among other members of the animal kingdom.

Painting of a bull discovered in Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave in East Kalimantan, Borneo, dated to 40,000 years ago, predating Lascaux by 230 centuries.

In communicating any or all of these particular details, the artist(s) imbued information upon the cave walls which they internalized and subsequently found means by which to express it visually. This inherently symbolic form of communication is clarified through the explanation we would expect an elder to give to the young, for to a child in prehistoric Borneo who perhaps had never seen a bull in the flesh, the idea of a bull might only be a relatively small, static being. The expression of complex thought through verbal articulation would help a mother explain to a child that these animals are actually very large, fast, easily startled, and dangerous. Complimented so, the physical medium is imbued with more than just the symbol of a bull as an educational aid–more than just art for art’s sake (“art appreciation”)–but to express the complex ideas which could not be expressed by physical communication of body language alone. No doubt experience played a greater role in the development of the individual as a child and through life than what might be given through education. Yet the perpetuation of ideas and thereby the ability to educate in lieu of the time and hazards required in the “attainment” of experience gave our ancestors an behavioral leg up on any potential competition. Able to avoid finding out the hard way that a bull will trample them, those children thus educated are at greater odds of survival and therefore preservation than a child lacking in the same transmitted knowledge.

This combination of physical and verbal expression would have developed as a positive feedback loop, where increasingly complex art (communication made physically manifest) in turn stimulates increasingly complex verbal articulation, which in turn stimulates increasingly complex art, and so forth. As verbal articulation becomes increasingly complex, so would the way in which it is expressed physically–and we can see then how “art” as the symbol of complex expression births language through the association of verbal articulation and physical manifestation, in time becoming codified to become what we refer to today as an “alphabet.” As such, it is art and not the need to communicate “on the hunt” which spurred the development of language.

Seal with cartouche of Queen Sobekneferu
Cylinder seal of Sobekneferu, Pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty, 1806-1802 BCE, first known woman king of Egypt.

Herstory, not History.

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