Tuesday, September 2, 2014

That Art Which Makes Us Human

Archaeologists are all abuzz about a finding in a Neanderthal stratum that seems to constitute true abstract art. The piece in question is a series of intersecting lines that were certainly intentional. They were apparently carved 39,000 years before the present at a site in Gibraltar called "Gorham's Cave." They are presented below.

The authors of the scientific article presenting this finding conclude:

[It] represents the first directly demonstrable case in which a technically elaborated, consistently and carefully made nonutilitarian engraved abstract pattern whose production required prolonged and focused actions, is observed on the bedrock of a cave.

The BBC reported that one of the study's authors, Prof Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum, stated that this discovery "brings the Neanderthals closer to us, yet again."

I'd like to play devil's advocate/rain on their parade. I think the scholars who wrote this article have become so enamored by their Neanderthal subjects that they have lost a bit of objectivity. They are trumpeting this as proof supreme that, in the end, Neanderthals were capable of abstract thought and, therefore, that they are not inferior to the Modern Humans who would eventually replace them.

I think they need to take a step back from that cave, take a deep breath, put on their human shoes again, and take a long hard look at that Neanderthal "art."

If it's art at all, it's bad art. I suspect that it's not even art, it's just something some bored person did over a period of time.

Would you like to see some good art? Take a look at this:

That comes from a cave in modern-day France, and it was painted by a Behaviorally Modern Human (Cro-Magnon Man, circa 16,000 years BP). And the best evidence we have is that these earliest examples of cave art were painted by women.

And this art is good. Notice that the legs of the horse don't actually completely touch the body of the animal, and yet you don't look at it as if this were a flaw. That's abstraction, not four lines carved in rock. There are three tones of color on this animal, black mane, ruddy-brown back, and white underbelly. The legs manage to depict movement.

And my point is, of course Neanderthal were capable of abstract thought. There was already abundant evidence of this, such as the practice of burial, which implies some reverence for their dead.

But this so-called Neanderthal "art" is the exception that proves the rule. Archaeologists wanting to vindicate the Neanderthals actually search for signs pointing to their advancement. And if this is really the best thing they've ever found that these cousins of ours could muster in the field of aesthetics, well, far from proving them our equals, it establishes us as quantum leap beyond them.

Yes, Neanderthals could carve intersecting lines in rocks. But the same Behaviorally Modern Humans that made cave art 16,000 years ago honed those skills in a way that Neanderthals never approached.

By truly human hand, art was born.

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