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Crayon on a rock shard suggests early humans indulged in abstract art (nature.com)
61 points by ArtWomb 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments

I think that the sample is a little small to call it "abstract" art. It seems as if it could easily be part of a larger figurative drawing.

That's what I thought as well. Some fragment of a drawing of a basket or netting?

It's possible, but would be surprising. The earliest drawings of any kind are tens of thousands of years younger than this find.

I was thinking along similar lines.

It seems less extraordinary to think that the development of art would progress simpler stages - scribbling, then symbols, and so on - and only later get to the level of refinement we see at places like Lascaux. Also that we wouldn't necessarily see much of that in the archaeological record, because you've probably got to have advanced to the point where your art is very serious business before you're doing something as difficult and potentially dangerous as putting it deep inside a cave.

So, assume that people probably were drawing on rocks for a long time before the earliest cave paintings we know of. And assume that, for much of that time, it's typically quite a bit less refined than what we typically see in caves. Ask any kid, and even most adults - making beautiful figurative art is hard, and takes a lot of practice.

I agree that we can't know for sure that this isn't a fragment of some larger piece of representational art. But I can't fault these researchers for going with the simplest available hypothesis.

The conclusion is so premmature. What if ancient children, like modern children liked playing with crayons. Are we calling kids scribbling on the wall abstract art now?

When my kid was 3 she got me an A in an art class because she scribbled all over my chalk drawing with crayon. The professor LOVED it, complimented me on "finally" being able to let go and be free with my art.

It didn't go well when I told him my 3 year old scribbled all over it and I just turned it in anyway because he was a nut job and I thought he would love it.

I love your integrity for admitting that to your professor. He probably initially thought you were channeling your younger self through expression of art.

Turning someone else's work in as your own? Lucky he didn't fail you on the spot!

To be fair, he created the child, so there's that...

It's a very long term generative art project.

One can argue that it is one of the greatest art projects.

Half the DNA was plagiarized.

Maybe this is really the project of some common ancestor?

Nope, I gave her credit for her contribution to the project. But as the project lead, I was able to get the monetary reward (grade) while she got extra pudding and told what a good girl she was.

So, in other words, you plagiarized your child's work -- grounds for expulsion in many universities.

Seems like art for the sake of art has become all art is these days, and honestly I don't see much to it. Art in and of itself is pretty useless, but generally I think people are quick to make political or deeply emotional assumptions about the meaning.

'Useless'? No, its everywhere and a fundamental part of being a human. Culturally we use it throughout out lives - clothes, hair, car styling, advertisements, everthing from buildings to computer keyboards is designed for aesthetic appeal suitable for the culture and situation.

I think this is a misunderstanding, you're referring to the way you can use art within society and the different cultural things we do. I should have been more specific, I think abstract art is truly art for it's own sake, being measured in value by arbitrary interpretations of meaning. Still, some people make art to practice drawing a certain way or increasing their skill. That even is not art for it's own sake, it's art to increase your skill, and is a representation of the way someone likes to practice and is still a cool thing to look at.

I'm simply making the argument that complementing someone on their art that a child drew came about because of the arbitrary interpretation of what "valuable art" is in school.

Art for art sake doesn't mean you can't draw realistically, it means that art does not have to support a narrative or serve a utilitarian function, such as for holding tea. At least that was my understanding from whistlers ten o clock lecture.

Well, in all seriousness... At one time, a lot of art was simply commissioned by religion or rulers or rich folks. No one else could afford it. Part of this was also to make those same people have their image known... with improvements, of course (old-time instagram filters!). The other art was things like political cartoons (which have a long history) and such - this was somewhat because a lot of folks couldn't read (church icons served a similar purpose).

More folks can afford to make artwork, thanks to both photography and much better printing.

So yeah, the reasons for making art have changed. I'm not sure it has ever been actually useful except to show off wealth or to improve surroundings. None of this matters, though. If you don't like art, don't buy it or make it. Maybe you enjoy some sorts of art (music and movies, for example) but not traditional artworks. Again, pass.

Now, as far as people being quick to make assumptions: I find that people need a reason for folks to do art. People attribute all sorts of meanings to artwork that I simply made because I thought it looked neat. I'm not sure why I can't just make something I like to look at and leave it at that.

What isn't "useless?"

Why not? It seems pretty trivial to me to say that art can encompass any creation of designs or patterns for pleasure, including scribbling and doodling. And scribbling and (some) doodling are pretty unambiguously abstract. Ergo, abstract art.

It's hard for me to imagine a more Philistine sentiment than dismissing something as art on the grounds that, if a child can do it, it must not be art.

Abstraction means to take the essence of something and try to display that. Figuring out how a crayon does look and feel is nothing like that. if the abstraction is taken from art itself and resubmitted self referentially as art that shows the performance (e.g. Pollock) or design and perception of proportions (e.g. Mondrian) then that reuqires having done some art before - I'm not totally convinced of their motives, but for sake of argument I would assume they underwent a considerable thought process of refinement. If a child does it as a novelty, it might achieve the same effect, but often not reproducibly - and reproduction is a huge factor of craft. Very correctly, if a child can do it, there's no high barrier to the reproduction. Although kids are free and random enough to be a huge source of inspiration.

I personally don't mind abstract art and believe that it's fine as an art form.

The only issues I have are the proponents of abstract art doing 2 things:

(1) Presenting abstract art as a worthier pursuit than illustration, as if somehow abstract art is harder or more unique than all other art forms.

You can feel the vibe from fine arts professors who look down on illustration majors.

(2) As a subject of study, it feels like they're not willing to learn techniques like perspective, anatomy, etc.

There is no progress on actual learning. I think if you want to be truly creative, you should be willing to learn techniques and then seeing how to break them, so that you KNOW why something feels like X.

Instead it feels like they "look down" on it without ever trying it.

I think people have connected the "we are superior" vibe with the lack of development of skills and started to feel what this connection is called: pretentiousness.

Unfortunately people have also connected the actual art styles to that and dislike the works just because of the art style as well.

> And scribbling and (some) doodling are pretty unambiguously abstract.

Abstractions of what? Surely to have an abstraction, you have to have a subject. If I'm drawing lines randomly, I'm not rendering an abstraction of anything.

"Abstraction", in the verb sense, is the process of taking a subject that isn't abstract and making it more abstract. But that isn't the only way to produce an abstract image.

For example, see abstract expressionism.

true, but my point still holds for pure abstractions - drawing random lines is not creating a representation of an abstract concept.

Unless you want to argue that any output you produce represents the abstraction of your brain's state (ie the random lines represent the firing of the neuronal pathways that are causing you to choose that specific arrangement of "random" lines), but that's pretty meta and outside what I think the common conception of abstract art is.

Your point seems to rest on holding to a different definition of "abstract" from the one I was originally using.

Which is (unintentionally, I presume) a subtle form of putting words into my mouth and then arguing against those instead.

It's not a form of putting words in your mouth, it's called misunderstanding, miscommunication or "talking past each other". I'm operating from my understanding of the word and you are operating from yours. It seems there is a difference between the two. I can't be putting words in your mouth if we're using the same word with different understandings of what it means.

Right, I had noticed the misunderstanding, which is why I initially responded by clarifying my terminology. "Abstract" is jargon in art, so it doesn't necessarily work exactly the same way there as it does in vernacular usage.

I think the argument is it’s possible something looks abstract only because while wanting to draw something somewhat realistically or representative one ends up drawing abstractly for lack of ability to do more representative art. In other words reoresentative ability is forcing you to draw in a certain way where if you could you would draw a different way.

I’ve seen kids frustrated because their “abstract art” didn’t look realistic enough and wanted an older kid or person to help them “draw better”.

thank you

You're missing the point a little bit. "Abstract drawing" is the best description of the markings, not an argument that there was a culture of abstract art back then. (In the original paper -- the linked-to writeup is pretty poorly worded, yeah.)

This drawing predates any drawings (as opposed to etchings) we know from humans by tens of thousands of years -- even if it's a child's doodling, it displays a level of cognition previously dated to much more modern times.

I'd call it that. It's not good abstract art, but it seems to me that children make deliberate decisions to make something that looks good.

Lets not go overboard. The article was specific - the drawing was 'abstract' as versus 'figurative' or art representing a figure like an animal

Didn't I read somewhere that children start out as abstract artists and only begin attempting realism after they discover that the adults go "Oh, a tree?" when looking at their new work "How it feels when I wake up from a nice nap" just because it's brown and green.

FWIW, it's always been the running joke that it's "abstract art".

My children’s art is definitely abstract most of the time.

To put this find in perspective, behavioral modernity -- a sign of which is the use of pigment -- is generally dated to about 50,000 years ago.

Previous finds in Blombos Cave, 77,000-year-old ochre engravings (as opposed to drawings) showed the early evolution of modern behavior. This find, on the other hand, is a drawing, the oldest known finding of which was until now 40,000 years old.

Early humans probably had more downtime during good hunting years. Not much of a point to work harder when you can’t store a ton of food for the future, so they probably made a ton of small art like this.

I'm skeptical of the idea that its the same kind of "abstract art" as Pollock and Mondrian. This book[1] provides clues to another possible interpretation. Symbols and patterns have been used to encode knowledge systems in oral cultures since prehistoric times.

[1] https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/books/general-books/pop...

A cool find, but not necessarily surprising: all modern populations have some art in their culture, but modern populations diverged >70 kya. One might imagine that our common ancestors had similar behaviors to all living humans, at least those behaviors which have not been transmitted culturally in recent years (especially when you take long-isolated or unique peoples into account; e.g. Amazonian and Papuan tribes, San hunter-gatherers, etc.).

What if they were trying to draw what they're seeing but struggling with it?

First art followed by first art critic: "That doesn't look like horse. My kid could do that!"

Why is everyone so locked on the word "art"?

I think in this context it means "it was abstract (and it proved they could think in abstracts)" and "it was for amusement not their daily struggles".

Or someone just scribbled on a rock as they sat waiting for prey to walk by.

Not to diminish this find, but it doesn't demonstrate a pattern or show intent.

You think it’s more likely someone drew on a rock with a crayon unintentionally?

article is paywalled but maybe the existence of the red ochre crayon is more important than the particular drawing -- the crayon implies intent

Abstract art is like communism: it fundamentally follows upon a set of historic circumstances and development and tradition, and applying such terms backwards in time is a logical error.

So marks on a stone is now art? This is a handful of lines. Why is it not language? Or math? Or a navigational marker?

That they are calling this set of marks "art" tells me more about thier assumptions about ancient humans than about actual history. It is evidence of expression and the physical tools needed to create a record of that expression, tools common to many expressive forms. Art requires more.

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