What Cupules Suggest About Early Human Symbolic Capacity and the Beginning of Art.
Until recently, archaeological wisdom held that a “cognitive revolution” occurred sometime around 50,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens in Western Europe developed the capacity to symbolize, as shown by evidence of language, religion, and art. This “Creative Explosion” hypothesis has gradually been modified to account for discoveries from Middle Stone Age Africa and elsewhere that indicate a much earlier date for “behaviorally modern” humans—from 100,000-120,000 years ago and even earlier. Evidence includes advanced stone tool technologies; increased geographic range; specialized hunting, fishing, and shell fishing; complex processing of plants, fruits and tubers; long distance trade; burial of the dead; and processing and non-utilitarian use of mineral pigment, pierced shell beads, and geometric engravings on pieces of ochre and ostrich eggshell. The touchstone for attributing modern cognition to early humans, however, remains symbolic behavior, so that any instance of “art” (ochre markings, engraved lines, even bone musical instruments) is automatically called evidence of symbol use.
I argue that this “Symbolic Reflex” diverts attention from other notable early cognitive abilities in early humans. The earliest known non-utilitarian artifacts made by humans are cupules—hemispheric indentations hammered into stone—whose implications for understanding the cognitive and aesthetic capacities of early humans remain to be explored. Made by even Homo erectus, and occurring in large numbers on every continent, cupules challenge reigning ideas about art-making and symbolizing capacities. Perhaps our notion of symbol, like that of art, needs further analysis and reformulation.
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