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April 19, 2004

Roots of Ornamentation
OutOfAfricaLogo copy.jpg


I spotted an interesting story in the Los Angeles Times on April 16. Written by Robert Lee Holtz, it was headlined—rather wittily, I thought—“With Ancient Jewelry, It’s the Thought That Counts.” (You can read it here.)

The story comes out of a continuing excavation of the Blombos cave in South Africa, which began in 1991. This excavation, one gathers, was designed to address several significant controversies in paleontology. While a variety of physical and genetic evidence points to the development of anatomically modern human beings in Africa (somewhere in the range of 300,000 – 160,000 years ago), the earliest evidence of creative and symbolic thinking dates only from around 40,000 years or so—and comes largely from the Upper Palaeolithic sites outside of Africa, including the cave art of Western Europe and from artifacts dug up in Bulgaria, Turkey and Russia. (I blogged about European cave art here.)

This large gap in time and place raises at least two interesting questions. Did the anatomically modern humans wait until they got to the Mideast and Europe to start thinking creatively and symbolically, or had they been doing it when they were still back in the ‘old country’—i.e., Africa? (The “Africanist” camp points out, rather reasonably, that many Western European and Middle Eastern sites have been exhaustively excavated for the past 100 years while hardly any sites in Africa have received an equivalent examination.)

Second, was the development of such creative and symbolic thought gradual over the history of our ancestors, or did it happen in a sort of intellectual ‘big bang’? (One non-gradualist theory assumes that a genetic mutation affecting the brains of anatomically modern humans occurred roughly 60,000 years ago and led to the development of syntactically-complex speech, creative thinking, and an almost immediate inclination to head out for the territory ahead and settle the whole big wonderful world, as the African climate was worsening and consequently restricting the local food supply.)

75,000 Year Old Find

Well, in a development that must cheer the “Africanist” and the “gradualist” camps, the busy paleontologists at Blombos have claimed a big discovery. In the words of Mr. Holtz:

In a handful of pierced seashells found in a South African cave, scientists believe that they have discovered the world’s oldest known jewelry and the earliest reliabile evidence of creative symbolic thought at work. The 41 tiny shells, unearthed at Blombos Cave, were strung as beads more than 75,00 years ago, making them at least 30,000 years older than any other reliably dated personal ornaments, an international team of researchers said Thursday. As ancient jewelry, the orange and black beads are a priceless curiosity—decorative tokens of prehistoric vanity that are the forerunners of hip-hop bangles and all the cultured glitter of Tiffany’s and Cartier. But to those trying to understand the origins of the human mind, the pea-sized shells also are tangible evidence of one of the most mysterious events in the history of evolution: the advent of symbolic thought.

Naturally, all of this is subject to the usual caveats of paleontology—obviously I’m in no position to weigh in on such questions as to whether the earth strata in which the shells were discovered was contaminated by items from upper, more recent layers. (The dating technology used for items of this age, optically stimulated thermoluminescence, can only date the soil in which the shells were discovered, not the shells themselves.) Or if the shells really show signs of having been worked by hand (a position the discoverers vigorously assert.) So the questions of African or European origin of symbolic thought or the gradualist vs. sudden mutation of the modern human consciousness will have to be worked out by professionals who get paid to argue these things, not by feckless bloggers like myself.

No, what this raised in my mind was the use of the word ‘symbolic’ in the news accounts. I grant you, ornamenting oneself with natural items—flowers, feathers, stones—seems a peculiarly human thing to do. But what exactly, I thought, is being ‘symbolized’ when one punches holes in a bunch of seashells and strings them on a cord of some kind, presumably to hang around a neck, or a stomach, or an ankle or a wrist? (Apparently the shells have traces of ocher on them, and may have been sewn on a garment.)

Symbolism implies a message, no? So what exactly is the message being communicated?

The Blombos cave is right on the shore overlooking a beach. So presumably the seashells were the remnants of dinner or lunch or breakfast. I guess the message might have been something like: “I taste just as good as a clam.”

All Shellfish All The Time At Blombos Cave

But that seems a little hard to believe, as everyone must have been pretty surfeited with seafood, dining on it day in and day out. Surely the message wasn’t “I’m just as boring as our diet. God, I’d kill for a piece of meat.”

Maybe the associations brought up by the seashells themselves weren’t the message. They might have clacked as the wearer walked and thus served to draw attention. Additionally, the shells might have functioned as a form of ‘visual aid’—i.e., used to, er, point the eye towards the wearer’s primary and/or secondary sexual characteristics without directly violating local rules of propriety.

Attention Getting and Attention Directing Uses of Jewelry

That, of course, assumes that there were local rules of propriety, and that everyone didn't walk around with their, er, assets on display. But in either case the term ‘symbolism’ seems a bit strained for such attention getting or manipulating behavior.

While pondering all this, I happened to glance at a home decorating magazine. On the cover is a picture of a dining room. On the table are several ‘sculptural’ doo-dads, the fashionably unmatched chairs are either fringed or covered with complex relief patterns, a virtual hailstorm of crystal balls and beads hangs from the chandelier, the back wall is covered with shelves holding a multi-colored collection of books, and in the foreground is a sort of conceptual ‘screen’ made up of a open wooden grid.

Looking at it, it suddenly occurred to me: people like visual complexity. If they lack it (think of living in an undecorated apartment with bare white walls) they introduce it. Maybe it’s a relic of evolving from apes who lived in arboreal environments, but environments without that level of visual detail are distasteful—and maybe dangerous. After all, if there’s nothing to distract the eye around, we stand out pretty clearly, too.

Granted, prior to the evolution of anatomically modern humans, no hominids seem to have realized that it was possible to artificially introduce visual complexity into the environment, but you have to wonder if they didn’t pine for it when they didn’t have it.

In short, while using seashells decoratively does suggest a level of human creativity, I’m not sure symbolism is an accurate description of what is going on. Maybe somebody started punching holes in the shells and attaching them to clothing because, well, they were bored.

So is boredom the true ‘mother of invention’?



P.S. You can read more about the excavation at the Blombos cave here and here.

posted by Friedrich at April 19, 2004


I'm certain of it! I have made some of my very best doodles and paperclip chains out of sheer bordom! But then, once it was draped around the neck, the Yves St La Rock (as the Flintstones would say) in the next cave wanted one, except, you know, made of THESE shells over here because they are better, shells you know. Then Wilma Flintstone attached her shells to the top of her bearskin dress, and it was ALL the rage...

Posted by: annette on April 19, 2004 1:05 PM

I vote for the sudden leaps forward theory of change, or evolution, or the ascent of man; as opposed to the gradualist approach.
I come to this conclusion based on no scientific knowledge; just on the evidence of my own, and other's, lives. The moments that are creative or relate to unraveling some personal bind, are "aha" moments: sudden. Working out the details can be, often is, incremental, gradualist. But the "ascent" moments come suddenly, out of nowhere.

I'm sure that decorating yourself has all kinds of symbolic (though symbolic may not be the best word) meanings. Establishing status and improving your chances sexually, make sense. But the original impulse is so basic that I'd call it instinctive; by which I mean that given the chance to decorate ourselves and "display" we're almost helpless in the matter. We have to do it.

Posted by: ricpic on April 19, 2004 2:48 PM

Boredom. Sounds like a theory to me. If Archimedes can discover the principle of water displacement while playing with his duckies in his bathtub, then it seems reasonable that post-gnoshing activities in the way olden days brought us art. Inertia's a lovely thing for discovery, escpecially when the cable reception's lousy. Thanks for the ever-clever take on the Blombos discovery.

Posted by: Darkov on April 19, 2004 4:33 PM

Still trying to figure the symbolism

And with ricpic, I thought status was significant

Then I thought of all the tattooing done in less advanced cultures, and the shells are probably as simple as placing an orchid in your hair. A need for visual complexity and decoration.

Incidentally, I live with bare white walls. By choice. Get bored in days with anything I put up there. Got a 21" monitor with 20 thousand jpgs to choose from, or randomly rotate, and that is where I want my vision to be forced. Current wallpaper:Sheeler, "Architectural Cadences"

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 19, 2004 4:46 PM

Again, Friedrich, a great post. And on a subject which has long interested me: how did we go from marks as identification (this pot with two dots is mine, that pot with a squiggle is yours) to decoration (doesn't this pot look snazzy with a zig-zag around the middle?) to art/symbolism (these triangles are roughly the shape of female reproductive organs, which bring forth life just as this waterpot does, so I drew triangles on the pot to remind me of how important the Little Lady is to me and my children). Because there was no written language at that time, though, I don't think we'll ever find an artifact which explains the source of the creative spark (and even if written language existed, I'm not sure it would have been possible to pinpoint the Eureka! moment).

Posted by: Dente on April 19, 2004 4:57 PM

In my experience, boredom is the polar opposite of the creative state. Boredom comes from a restriction of opportunity, discovery and interest. I don't really see how it can be the mother of anything.

Sometimes the message contained in objects is simply memory and sentiment. Bruce Sterling gave a wonderful speech on this topic. Here's an excerpt:

Suppose that I require certain objects in my vicinity that are not functional. I consider them extensions of my being. My bronzed baby shoes, for example -- those dense metallic fossils of my infancy.

A Modernist of the Le Corbusier school must launch a vigorous attack on these unnecessary objects, which interfere grossly with his program of minimal lightness. Le Corbusier once described them as "absurd bric-a-brac" or a "conglomeration of useless and disparate objects." Those are hard words for, let us say, a lock of my deceased grandfather's hair or a medal he won for bravery in the Normandy invasion. These material objects are not about my doing. They are about my being. Without me being around, the living flesh of my grandfather's flesh, they really are quite absurd. Men may live in Le Corbusier's machines, but as Napoleon used to say, men will die for trinkets. He who steals my Modernist apartment in the Radiant City steals trash, but he who steals my grandfather's hair and his medals is someone violently pruning away the vital structure of my personality.

Similarly, we have the Modernist battlecry that "ornament is crime." Ornament is very anti-lightness; it's unnecessary and objectionable bulk. Ornament lacks explicit function and consumes resources. People who avidly consume and obsess over ornaments (instead of obsessing over cool, useful things like architectural drafting tools) have no clear idea of their proper roles, their proper function and their proper position in an advanced society. They are neurotically obsessed with irrational clutter and therefore in a process of savage degeneration.

... Adolf Loos may think that doilies and antimacassars are the road to hell, but my grandfather is even more degenerate than that. He's not degenerate because of his fondness for kitsch; my grandfather is literally degenerating. His corpse is being devoured by microbes and vanishing into the biosphere in a messy, repugnant process of nutrient recovery. Once we cut to the chase and admit that people age, die, and rot, that they sag, that they go blind, they shave and cut their hair, clip their toenails, vomit and eliminate, it seems absurdly squeamish of us to worry about the cherubs on their fruit bowls.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on April 19, 2004 5:44 PM

I think they are misusing the word symbolic, when what they truly mean is abstract, or perhaps conceptual thinking.

Posted by: Ian on April 19, 2004 8:29 PM

FWIW, here's a book I've been meaning to read for years. It argues that "leisure" is the basis for culture and art. Come to think of it, maybe the reason I haven't bothered to read it yet is that I'm already convinced.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 20, 2004 1:12 AM

Thanks again for an excellent post. This one reminded me to renew an old call to action -- and indeed to get my manuals out and start cracking on it myself!

Posted by: Bill Tozier on April 20, 2004 6:39 AM

(Oh, and Michael -- the link you provided in the comment two steps up was, alas, not to a book)

Posted by: Bill Tozier on April 20, 2004 6:40 AM

I think Ian got it right. Yay, Ian!

Posted by: Dente on April 20, 2004 9:24 AM

"So is boredom the true ‘mother of invention’?"

Not at all. Avoidance of boredom is the true 'mother of invention.'

Posted by: Will Duquette on April 20, 2004 10:15 AM

Friedrich, where do you find these wonderful pictures?

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 20, 2004 11:09 AM

Thanks to everybody for joining in.

Mr. Husley:

I was sick this weekend and spent a few hours weakly Googling up some pictures. Another example of the Internet as therapy.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 20, 2004 11:51 AM

Oopsie, got my head turned around. The book I intended to link to is here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 20, 2004 1:57 PM

Good post, but these particular beads are unlikely to have been the result of a food lude. From today's NYT:

"The shell beads of Blombos Cave were from a small snail-like mollusk, Nassarius kraussianus. The people must have brought them from rivers more than 10 miles away. They were too tiny to be dinner leftovers, Dr. Henshilwood's team said, and could not have been brought there by animals. Their only known predators could not leave water."

Doesn't mean boredom isn't the mother of art, but it looks like these folks worked pretty hard and pretty deliberately (a 20 mile walk!) on their bracelets.

Posted by: Mike Snider on April 20, 2004 3:08 PM

Mr. Snider:

Glad to see that the NY Times is finally on the job regarding this story. However, the fact that the inhabitants of the Blombos cave walked a ways to get the shells, or traded something valuable for them, doesn't make the shells the bearer of any more explicit symbolic content, as far as I can see.

Perhaps when I used the word 'boredom' I was unfortunately imprecise, or maybe it's become clearer to me since, but what I was trying to suggest is that the thinking that leads to decoration may involve so many different kinds of intentions that the notion of 'symbolism,' with its neat package of meaningful content, seems way too narrow a concept to describe what's going on. (I mean, maybe the people at Blombos worshipped a seashell-shaped fertility god and sewed shells on the clothes of some of their number to explicitly mark their status as marriageable young men and women, but somehow I doubt it.)

In fact, the whole topic raises questions about 'intentionality' generally. Are people decorative (or do they invent or innovate in any way) because they set out to do that, or do they just do random things and then see which ones make sense later? Like string up some sea shells, and only later realize that they attract attention, which is enjoyable, but originally the 'intention' was just to see what would happen if you passed a cord through the shells. In other words, do people really premeditate this sort of thing, or is a more evolutionary, random-variation model at work, with the 'successful' variations then reinforced. This is of course far too deep a topic to resolve in an off-the-cuff comment like this one, but...I must say the question almost raises itself.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 20, 2004 4:43 PM

There is a more fitting probability based on Friedrich's observation of peoples taste for visual complexity and "arboreal environments". Many cultures have a "fear of vacuum" that is manifest in very "busy" visual art. Rather than boredom moving the creative urge I will suggest fear as a motive to fill the void. I think this fits more clearly with a motivating impulse. There is a bit of uneasiness that accompanies boredom. Perhaps boredom and fear have a common ingredient.

Barnett Newman suggested that man's first act of scratching in the dirt with a stick or first utterance was to express fear before the unknown, rather than an act of more mundane thing like accounting.

Posted by: Roger Harris on May 3, 2004 11:41 PM

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