This is a full text html version of the following paper:
FELIKS, J. 2006 (submitted 2004). Musings on the Palaeolithic fan motif. In P. Chenna Reddy (ed.), Exploring the mind of ancient man: Festschrift to Robert G. Bednarik, 249–66. Research India Press, New Delhi.*
figures are arranged as they appear in the published print version even
though Figs. 4 & 5 were misaligned at the editorial stage. The paper is Chapter 23 in Exploring the Mind of Ancient Man.
CLICK ON THE THUMBNAILS to go to each of the fully enlargeable seven figures.
MUSINGS ON THE PALAEOLITHIC FAN MOTIF
of the past century, human beings prior to 35,000 years BP have been
generally regarded as greatly inferior to modern Homo sapiens. However,
human chronicle is undergoing dramatic revision. A growing list of
once attributed only to our species is now being traced as far back as
Acheulian times and our ancient predecessor Homo erectus. A major
breakthrough in this transition was Robert Bednarik’s theory that
marking motif, essentially the “fan” motif, began to be
developed by Homo
erectus as early as 350,000 years ago. In this paper, I offer studies
support Bednarik’s theory and the linked ideas of language and
during the Lower Palaeolithic. The paper
consists of seven figures. Figure 1 demonstrates hominid interest in
motif as evidenced in the archaeological record. Figures 2 through 5
greater number, quality and consistency of the earliest known fan
associated with Homo erectus at Bilzingsleben. Finally, Figures 6 and 7
link the fan motif to the
outspread human hand. I suggest that early interest in the fan motif
reflects both symbolism and human self-awareness prompted by
species has long seen itself as the pinnacle of creativity. Apart from basic
survival skills, most other innovations, from technological to artistic, have
been regarded as the sole domain of Homo sapiens. However, our place as
the only great innovators is no longer set in stone. New archaeological
evidence and increasingly important reinterpretations of prior evidence are
starting to show that most of the significant cognitive leaps traditionally
associated with Homo sapiens were first achieved by Homo erectus during the Lower
paper supports the idea of sapiens-like abilities in Homo erectus,
including language, by proposing a higher level of quality and complexity in
the Bilzingsleben artifacts than previously considered. It also offers a means
of approaching the difficult question of early hominid self-awareness by
associating the fan motif images of Homo erectus with those of Homo sapiens, suggesting a shared
awareness of the human hand.
few years ago, some of the ideas offered here would have been regarded as
highly improbable. However, I believe they will blend well with the new picture
of Homo erectus that has been emerging during the last decade, for these
ancient predecessors are now being seen as
capable navigators; cooperative builders of large freestanding shelters;
and the makers of composite tools, necklaces, and figurines. Truly, these
people set the stage for what we term “modern behavior.”
Towards a recognizable motif
Scholars such as Oakley, Marshack, Dissanayake, Mania and Mania, and Bahn have
contributed to the emerging image of a sapient Homo erectus. However,
this particular paradigm has been forwarded in recent years mainly
through the efforts of Robert
Bednarik. Bednarik has long suggested that
the capabilities and accomplishments of Homo erectus have been greatly underestimated (Bednarik
1993; 1995; 1997: 45; 2000: 12–13, 16–18; 2003a: 100). One
EXPLORING THE MIND OF ANCIENT MAN
of the seminal arguments for advanced pre-sapiens
cognition was Bednarik’s 1995 Concept-mediated Marking in the
Lower Palaeolithic. Bednarik proposed that even at such a remote
time in antiquity as the Acheulian, early humans were creating marks on
bone artifacts that seemed to indicate marking “strategies”
(groups of markings
that were intentionally planned out in relation to one another, as
to random markings). These included fanlike patterns. Of
particular significance were the mammal
bone engravings from Bilzingsleben, Germany, found
in association with Homo erectus (Mania and Mania 1988). Bilzingsleben
is a Lower Palaeolithic site firmly dated to c. 350,000 years before
the present. Contrary to the popular image
of Homo erectus as a
simple-minded “ape-man,” the Bilzingsleben markings
indicated a much
higher order of intelligence, such as an ability
to understand the abstract concept of convergent lines. The
artifacts featured sets of angular lines that did not touch each other
but if extended into imagined space
would meet. Bednarik noted that markings made by later peoples [e.g.,
Neanderthals] exhibited convergent lines
intentionally joined, which he
interpreted as more succinctly representing a true
“motif” (Bednarik 1995: 613). In this paper, however, I
hope to demonstrate that the Bilzingsleben
engravings are unquestionably true
motifs of a consistency and complexity often surpassing those of later
traditions, strengthening not only
Bednarik’s theories of Homo erectus intelligence, but the
evidence for Homo erectus language, as well.
Terminology and format
facilitate ease of comparison, and to focus on issues other than
“true” motifs, I will treat both categories as
“true” motifs. My focus will be
on the concept of “angles” rather than whether or not
angled lines visually meet. Therefore, I will use the
term “fan motif” to refer to any motif that consists of
implied or otherwise. I will also use the term “fan motif”
to refer to any “object” that is characterized by
radial lines (e.g., a scallop shell,
the human hand). The paper revolves around seven comparative studies in
figure form. One of these studies features
unique on-the-page tests that the reader will be able to do for him or
herself using a pencil and a ruler.
Another test can be done with a
protractor. [Note: All graphics presented were either redrawn by the
author or are original to the author.]
The search for evidence of symbolism
Lower Palaeolithic people left no easily
identifiable visual images. Consequently, assessing their mental abilities
including whether or not they had symbolism or self-awareness is no easy task.
It necessitates an interdisciplinary approach taking into account the work of
researchers in many fields. Since two of the issues at hand are the origins of
art and symbolism, this approach will include not only scientific perspectives,
but artistic sensibility as well. With these tools in hand, I will attempt to
show that both symbolism and self-awareness are reflected in the graphic markings
of Bilzingsleben. And, while slightly outside current beliefs in traditional
archaeology, I hope to support the evolving idea that the cognitive abilities
of Homo erectus were roughly equivalent to those of modern Homo
exploring the Bilzingsleben artifacts, a word must be said about a generally
agreed upon sign of self-awareness in the archaeological record, the act of
personal adornment. Regarding how such might be detected in the Lower Palaeolithic record, Bednarik points to the evidence
for beads (Bednarik 2000). From the perspective of traditional archaeology,
beadwork is well established for the Upper Palaeolithic
beginning roughly 40,000 years ago, and with
definite style conventions (e.g., White 1993). The abundance of evidence
makes body adornment and the associated concept of self-awareness well accepted
ideas in regards to Homo sapiens and Neanderthals after c. 40,000 years
BP. But similar material is now being discovered in Middle Palaeolithic
contexts. It is notable that the recently discovered snail shell beads from
Blombos Cave, South Africa, dated at 75,000 years BP (Henshilwood et al.
2004) are the exact same genus as the prior discovered snail shell beads from
Üçagizli Cave, Turkey, dated at 40,000 years BP (Kuhn et al. 2004).
The Blombos beads are Nassarius kraussianus and the Üçagizli beads are Nassarius
gibbosula. The materials could be interchanged without attracting much
attention. The fact that these two sets of beads and how they were pierced for
suspension are virtually identical despite a 35,000-year age difference
strongly suggests a similar human consciousness at work.
In contrast, possible beads from the Lower Palaeolithic are quite rare. These include Coscinopora
fossil sponges with natural holes containing material suggesting they may have
been strung, and disc-shaped crinoid columnals.
Musings on the Palaeolithic Fan Motif
That Homo erectus may
have had personal ornamentation and, thus, self-awareness has been resisted by
traditional archaeology. Bednarik sees this as due in part to misinterpretation of evidence and unreasonable expectations that
symbolic materials would be more common if higher intelligence were indeed
present. But as Bednarik argues, rarity in older contexts may say more about
preservation matters than the capabilities of early people (Bednarik 1994,
1995, 1997, 2003a. see also Wynn 2002).
question of how self-awareness came into being in the first place, most modern
ideas revolve around the co-evolution of hand, eye, and brain. Recently, Tallis
has suggested that knowledge and use of the hand were the primary agents
responsible for creating our uniquely human sense of self (Tallis 2003). I
agree with Tallis. Certainly, in the modern world, few human beings who have
ever looked at their hands, or touched their own hands and bodies would
question that these actions immediately give one a reinforced sense of “self.”
Ever since Darwin,
it has been believed that human traits became
possible when our ancestors began walking on two feet, allowing more
creative use of
their hands. As Donald (1993), Wilson (1998), Dissanayake
(2000) and Tallis (2003) explain, releasing
the hands from their role in locomotion freed them up for other uses
from technology and art to gestural
communication (see also Harrod 2003).
The advent of Acheulian age handaxes is also regularly cited as a sign
of “human” cognition (recently Wynn 2002, 2003, Mithen
2003, Harrod 2003, Hodgson
2004). Oakley (best known for exposing the Piltdown Man hoax) even
suggested that handaxes were perhaps “symbolically”
connected to the human hand (Oakley 1981:
the greatest cognitive benefit of freeing up the hand was increased ease in
studying the hand itself.
Further, as Homo erectus people were paying closer
attention to the
tools they were fashioning, they, no doubt, also began to pay closer
to the hands that were fashioning the tools. Eventually, they began to
their hands in a contemplative manner. During this stage, startling
realizations of self occurred when the hands were viewed in their most
position, with the fingers and thumb outspread in the shape of a fan.
(Nowadays, this psychological effect is taken for granted, but it is
via EEG, PET, fMRI, etc.) In other words, self-awareness came about not
simply using the hand, even in complex ways (for this was already in
for millions of years), but, rather, by “musing” upon the
hand—a representative extension of the self—with the
“fan” position having the greatest visual and
RADIAL/FAN MOTIFS THROUGH THE PALAEOLITHIC
The most often observed motif and its implications
earliest definite signs that humans were actually “thinking” about their hands
are the hand stencils and prints painted on cave walls during the Upper
Palaeolithic (certainly Gravettian age, c. 28,000 years BP, e.g., Cosquer Cave
[Bahn and Vertut 1997: 75], and probably Aurignacian age, e.g., Chauvet Cave,
c. 32,000 years BP [Clottes 2002: 2]). Hand
stencils were always produced with the fingers spread out like a fan (rather
than as a fist or a salute). The hand
motif spans the entire Upper Palaeolithic,
and in places is so common as to dominate all other art (Bahn and Vertut 1997:
Although we have no evidence of hand stencils or prints from the Lower Palaeolithic,
reference to the hand could have taken other forms. I suggest that
while in the process of becoming
increasingly self-aware, including via study of the hands, early humans
would have been unconsciously memorizing
the angles of the hand’s fan
motif, the characteristic angles of
fingers and thumb, and that when these people first began collecting fossils (discussed below), and
engraving motifs onto bone artifacts, they naturally gravitated toward a motif
that was already well ingrained in
their minds. Engraved artifacts from Bilzingsleben, etc.,
collected fossils and shells, and even the Lower Acheulian collected quartz
crystals (Bednarik 2003a: 93) all feature the basic angles characteristic of
the outspread human hand. I am not necessarily suggesting “representation” of
hands per se. Rather, that the most commonly observed motif by all human
beings for millions of years, carried about by them wherever they went,
involved in whatever they did, was certain to show up in some expressive form.
That expressive form could have included collecting motifs that reminded them
of the hand (albeit, unconsciously), or creating their own via what I will
later call “representation of angles.” The outspread hand was the perfect
influential motif—portable, and ever-present.
the Acheulian, the fan motif was not only the most often collected (as fossils)
and humanly crafted (as engravings), but also, without peer, the most often
observed, being the form of the ever-present human hand. This
EXPLORING THE MIND OF ANCIENT MAN
Timeline: Radial/fan motifs through the Palaeolithic. These are
examples of radial "motifs" either collected or created by several
different species of human beings. All fan motifs are displayed
radiating upwards to facilitate comparison.
Musings on the Palaeolithic Fan Motif
fact may have
contributed to early interest in fossils featuring
the fan pattern. To demonstrate the importance of the fan motif to all
Palaeolithic peoples (see also Feliks 1998a: 116), I consolidate under one
umbrella examples of artifacts featuring this motif whether deliberately
created by early peoples or collected ready-made from nature.
Kenneth Oakley, the eminent British physical
anthropologist, geologist, and paleontologist, made the astute observation that
Acheulian people collected, and in various ways, re-worked fossils that
specifically featured radial motifs. This fits intriguingly well with
Bednarik’s observation regarding focus on engraved radial motifs by the same peoples. In the publication that
first drew attention to the West Tofts
handaxe (featuring a centralized fossil scallop shell), Oakley wrote [my
“I suggest that it was the fine fan-shaped
markings of the Cretaceous fossil shell which appealed to the mind of the
maker of the West Tofts hand-axe, about a quarter of a million years ago. Three
other examples of fossils worked as artifacts by Acheulian people in Europe are on record. In all these specimens a
conspicuous feature of the fossil structure is the radiation of lines
from one or more centres” (Oakley 1973: 60).
THE BILZINGSLEBEN RADIAL FANS
Testing for “radial motifs” as opposed to “parallel lines”
Many of the lines on the
“four” Bilzingsleben artifacts first published in English (Mania and Mania
1988) have been, and still are, considered by writers in archaeology to be
“parallel” lines. However, shortly after beginning my numerous sets of
geometric studies, I discovered that these, too, were convergent, i.e.,
“radial” lines, thus making Bednarik’s “motif” theory even stronger. In Figure
2, I offer an on-the-page test replication opportunity whereby the reader can
instantly perform the very tests I applied to images of the artifacts to prove
their radial nature. I very much encourage the reader to physically do these
tests rather than to simply look at the radial lines I provided. To do the
tests: 1.) Place the point of a pencil on one of the 10 pivot points provided.
2.) Using the other hand, place a straight edge such as a ruler against the
pencil. 3.) Fan across the corresponding artifact image. Disclaimers: Working
only from published photographs and line drawings, the geometric studies of Artifact
1 were especially difficult because different images of the same artifact
yielded different line angle results. This effect was no doubt due to the
beveled nature of the edge containing the markings combined with the publishing
photographers’ original camera angles, focal lengths, etc. I do not consider
any of the geometric studies in Fig. 2 to be the final word on angles in the
Bilzingsleben artifacts, but rather as demonstrations that this type of study
can yield worthwhile insights into the minds of the people who created them.
The pivot points I have provided for each of the artifacts are simplified
consolidations offered in order to make the pencil/ruler tests immediately
accessible to the reader. The tolerances I applied in deciding whether or not
to include certain lines in a particular fan motif will be readily discernable.
Convergence points actually occurred in many different places when extending
the lines out as far as 1000mm (100cm). “Some” of the lines appear to be truly
parallel, e.g., lines #18, 19, and 20 of Artifact 1. Still, the whole
point of this figure is to illustrate the general idea that these were probably
“intended” (using this word very loosely) as radial lines referring to points
of convergence. [Note: While the recently discovered 1.4 million year old
engraved bone from Kozarnika Cave in Bulgaria is still undergoing
evaluation, I suggest that it too contains a subtle fan motif with three lines
converging at a point about seven times the length of the engravings].
might the convergence or pivot points of
the Bilzingsleben radial fans represent?
experiments using blank duplicates of the Bilzingsleben artifacts would be very
informative in answering this question, and would also benefit us toward
gaining an understanding of the artistic mind and capabilities of Homo
erectus. The more exactly matching the blank objects are made (including
not only size and shape, but weight, color, and texture), the more complete and
accurate an impression would be gained by experimenters duplicating the
artifacts. This would include gaining a sense not only of what was cognitively
and dexterously necessary to produce the markings, but other impressions such
as emotional responses elicited by working the details on objects of certain
characteristics. Impressions and intuitions are as much a part of the
scientific process as is logic, and often result in unanticipated insights (see
also Feliks 1998b: 129). This is one of the great values of replicative
EXPLORING THE MIND OF ANCIENT MAN
The Bilzingsleben radial fans. To test with a straight edge: Holding a
pencil in one hand, place its point on one of the 10 pivot points
provided. With the other hand, hold a straight edge against the pencil,
then fan across the selected artifact image to confirm radial
positioning of the engraved lines. It should be noted that these
convergence points are simplified. They have been averaged out or
consolidated for easier viewing. (a & b) Artifact 1 (after Bednarik 1997:41; line numbering as per Steguweit 1999). (c, d, f & g) Artifacts 1, 2, 3 & 4, respectively (after Mania and Mania 1988:93-5). (e) Detail of Artifact 2 showing example of duplicated composite line motif (after Mania and Mania 1988:94).
Musings on the Palaeolithic Fan Motif
all four artifacts would produce interesting results in replicative
tests, I am thinking in particular of Artifacts 1–3.
Duplicating the unusual positioning of the marks on Artifact 1, for
instance, being on the beveled “edge” rather than a larger
(Bednarik 1995: 607) might reveal that certain body positions were
necessary, or perhaps the use of propping objects. Regarding Artifact
2, attempting to duplicate the
composite lines while retaining awareness of and adherence to the
perfectly radial fan motif (expounded below)
would reveal much about the mental
concentration abilities, determination and deliberation of the person
who created the pattern. It could
be said similarly for the doubled lines and impeccably referenced
of Artifact 3 (also discussed below). It should be kept in mind that
these extremely complex
combination motifs were created 350,000
years ago. In the meantime, I suggest the following ideas for what the
Bilzingsleben radial fan pivot points might represent. I list them
order from unconscious internal references
to external references:
reference 1. The points could represent the physical body of the artist
doing the engraving. This seemsfeasible when one compares to the
non-converging fan motifs created by
the chimpanzee Congo
during the late 1950s. Desmond Morris, Congo’s researcher
many cases, if the fan was projected
downwards the lines would have met at
a point that was approximately the centre of the chimpanzee’s
body, as it sat at its picture-making” (Morris 1962:
95. see also Wynn 2002: 392–3, and Lenain 1995: 210–11).
The physical body is one
of the most natural points ofreference for
creating fan patterns, though by no means the only way a creative human being might approach the matter.
2.) Physical reference 2.
The points could represent the centralizing effect of the generally radial
sense of vision elicited by the comfortable (i.e., minimal strain) field of
view experienced either by turning the eyes or turning the head. The outer
angle of this field is roughly correspondent to the shape of a scallop shell or
the outspread human hand (see #s 4 and 5 below), each of which were observed by
Lower Palaeolithic peoples. A further
similarity between the human field of view and both scallop shells and the
outspread hand is that the eyes, when scanning a horizontal or vertical field,
scan the field in broken movements creating radial sight lines, which, if drawn
on paper resemble sections of a fan, scallop shell, or the outspread fingers.
To immediately test this, notice how your eyes move while reading the text on
3.) Intuitive mental
references. The points could represent the “sense” that life radiates
around the self or that all stimulation (e.g., audible, visual, tactile) is
radially drawn in toward the self, i.e., that the self is the center of the
universe like the hub of a wheel. This is sometimes referred to as “egocentric space.” This is the
space in which “the things of the world are arranged around oneself, with oneself
located at the 0, 0, 0 coordinate” (Tallis 2003: 53).
mental references. The points could echo internal visual
sensations such as phosphenes (Bednarik 1995: 614; Hodgson 2000) or
influences from the structure of neurons or the nervous system in general (J. Greve, pers.
comm.). Likely, such patterns are reinforced
in the mind by observing similar
patterns in the physical world of organic forms. Sacks suggests that the two
may share similar restrictions upon how they
take shape (Feliks 2003: 113; see also Sacks 2002: 109; 1999: 289). This
might help explain human attraction to certain patterns (see also Hodgson
5.) Consciously observed
and duplicated references, or cryptomnesic references. As noted
earlier, Acheulian people (Homo
heidelbergensis, for certain)
were drawn to fossils of a radial nature. That radial fossils were consciously studied is indicated by the fact that
five of them had been creatively
reworked. As seen in Fig. 1, these fossils clearly suggest points of
convergence, focal points around which the fan rays pivot. (See also Feliks
1998a, b—the “natural representations” and “fossil depictions”
assumed for Homo erectus at Bilzingsleben is observation of the human
fingers and thumb, suggesting points
of convergence. One notable piece of evidence that the human hand may have
influenced the Bilzingsleben fan motifs
relates to the nature of its radial lines. The radial lines characteristic of
the outspread fingers and thumb are, themselves, not seen as referring
back to the point where they converge.
Rather, the hand’s fan motif appears only to “suggest” convergence of
lines. Therefore, the engraved fan motifs of a non-converging style on the
Bilzingsleben artifacts seem a perfectly
natural response had human hands indeed inspired them. [Note, also, that
non-converging radial lines are characteristic of the Acheulian-collected and
“framed” fossil scallop shell (Fig. 1b, Figs. 7c, d). See Feliks 1998a for detailed geometric studies.]
Cognitively, engraved fan motifs
consisting of lines that
EXPLORING THE MIND OF ANCIENT MAN
do not converge may, in fact, represent a more advanced conceptual technique than fully connected motifs. As Bednarik
himself reminds us, greater complexity of
thought is sometimes represented by apparently simpler actions (Bednarik
1995: 613; 2003a: 99). Each type of radial
motif implies a “focal point.”
both fossils and hands were observed consciously, there is also the equally
valid point that they were remembered and ingrained subconsciously as well, and
that their characteristic “motifs” were duplicated cryptomnesically (see “race
cryptomnesia,” Feliks 1997a: 12–13; 1997b: 10–11; 1998a: 116; 2000; 2003;
Bradshaw 1998: 126; Bradshaw and Mattingley
1995). [Cryptomnesia is “the unconscious influence of memory that causes
current thoughts to be (wrongly) experienced as novel or original inventions”
(Taylor 1965: 1111). Cryptomnesia shows itself most dynamically in creative
reference points. These could be responses to certain geometric aspects
of the medium of expression (Bednarik 2003a:
99; 2001/1990; 1995: 612–14; 1988: 99). Bednarik has shown, for
instance, that the radial motif on Bilzingsleben Artifact 3 relates to
the shape of the object’s corner. In the case of the “side fan” of Artifact 1, the angles suggest, instead,
mental focus upon a “central” point.
This is not without precedent in the Acheulian (see Figs. 1b, c, d, e,
g). Consider Feliks 1998a: 114–16, where
it is demonstrated that the umbo or beak of the Spondylus scallop fossil
in the West Tofts handaxe, and the fossil’s
radial lines point directly at the “centroid” focal point (where all
three vertices of a superimposed triangle meet). See Fig 1b for a miniature
reproduction of that particular study.
[It is notable that later, from the Châtelperronian onward, nearly all of the radial brachiopod and scallop
shells pierced or grooved for
stringing as personal ornaments have this preparation done at the point where the rib lines
converge. In other words, the focus
was on the radial pivot points.]
7.) Arbitrarily chosen
references or “artistic points in
artistic impulse can be influenced by many different things, from single
inspirations to all manner of influences in
combination. But it should also be remembered that, oftentimes, artistic
decisions involve deliberately avoiding
obvious associations for the sake of originality.
"Straight edge theory"
Referring to Artifact 1
(Fig. 2a–c), Mania and Mania mention the straightness and
regularity of its
engraved lines constituting fan-like patterns. Their microscopic
showed the lines to be of identical cross-section and groove diameter,
allowed the conclusion that they were all deliberately engraved with
tool and probably in the course of one single process (Mania and Mania
1988: 93; laser analysis confirmation,
Steguweit 1999). Bednarik noted that the lines were
and evenly spaced” (Bednarik 1995: 607).
While discussing Artifact 3, Bednarik referred to the lines as
being “amazingly straight” (Bednarik 1988: 97) or as
exhibiting “extraordinary straightness” (Bednarik
I suggest that not only are the lines remarkably straight, but the
perfection of their radial relationship to one another is comparable to
modern standards (see test, Fig.
2f). Regarding two straight lines in
tandem on the same artifact, Bednarik suggested that it would be
to create such a perfectly spaced second line “freehand,”
that the lines were engraved simultaneously
via two side-by-side minute projections on the same burin point
1988: 97). Due in large part to Bednarik’s efforts, today, other
options relating to early human capabilities can be considered. With
the perspectives we now have, I suggest that
“freehand” is not the only way
that a Homo erectus artist may have created such lines (or any lines,
for that matter). There is also the possibility that they could have
a straight object as a guide.
that Lower Palaeolithic people were
aware of the concept
of “straightness” dates to 50,000 years earlier than Bilzingsleben, at
the site of Schöeningen, Germany. Here, small spruce trees had been felled, de-barked, and
de-branched to create perfectly straight spears. These spears are said
to greatly resemble modern javelins (Thieme
1999). In a broader sense, this may indicate not only a developed eye
for straightness, but a general “interest”
in straightness, as well.
edge technology is something that could quite easily have been discovered and
employed 350,000 years ago. Not only is it a simple technology, but also, early
hominids were approaching it for millions of years while in the process of
using stone tools for survival purposes. The linear scraping of bones would
have been a pre-conscious priming stage in that the direction of tool movement
was willingly restricted or guided by an external object. As to the question of
what might have motivated Homo erectus people to try similar actions in
a different context, I would appeal to artistic temperament. People in creative
frames of mind are regularly inspired to try things, usually
Musings on the Palaeolithic Fan Motif
prompted by seeing
common everyday objects in new ways. And, where many in archaeology have
suggested bone scraping as one likely beginning of deliberate marking (most recently, Hodgson 2003),
I suggest that guided marking or engraving using a
“secondary” object would not
have been far behind, especially since applicable objects such as flat
were conveniently at hand. In fact, I would point out that Artifact 2,
the flat rib bone of a large mammal, is about the same dimensions as a
modern day ruler. It is
286mm in length by 36mm in
width by approximately 7mm in thickness. In inches, that correlates to 11
1/4" by 1 3/8" by 1/4". Sketch
those dimensions as a rectangular
figure on a piece of paper, and a
sense of immediate recognition will likely occur. To get a physical
sense of the artifact, simply hold a ruler.
that the mental abilities of Homo erectus are increasingly being
assessed much higher than before, it seems reasonable that the
designation of an engraved
line as “early” in human evolutionary
terms should no longer necessitate the assumption that it must have
done freehand. If early peoples such as Homo
erectus were able to string necklaces, build extremely large structures
such as those at Terra Amata,
navigate bamboo rafts across miles of open sea (e.g., Bednarik 2003b;
1997: 34), and make 3-component composite tools
(discussed below), not to mention, create fire, they would certainly
able to understand and use the simple and
mentally fascinating technology of a straight edge.
If we consider it likely that Homo erectus was capable of using a straight edge then analogical testing with
chimpanzees might be useful. For instance, can a chimpanzee draw a line with
the aid of a straight edge that is similar
in thickness to Artifact 2? Can a chimpanzee draw multiple lines with a straight edge? Radial lines?
Regarding testing of archaeological evidence: The lines on Artifacts 1 and
3 appear “straight.” But a primitive straight edge such as Artifact
2 might produce lines with a
slight detectable wave or bump.
If similar waves or bumps could be detected in any two Bilzingsleben engraved
lines, it would support the possibility
that a straight edge could have been used.
Failure to find such curvatures, however, would not rule out the
straight edge possibility, as other factors could contribute to variability
of the lines (consider Bednarik 1988:97).
only does Artifact 2 have a ruler’s straight edge quality, but
spacing of its six engraved lines, / //
/ / /,
is a measurable sequence
(60–20–40–40–60mm) expressible in the
ratio 3:1:2:2:3 (Mania and Mania 1988: 94). This ratio is startlingly
transparent and can be readily compared with modern analogues. For
instance, expressed in the
language of musical scale degrees, the ratio and its reverse translate
perfectly into two quite playable six-tone
scales. The first ratio becomes 1, #2, 3, #4, #5, 7, and, in
the key of C, would be played as C D# E F# G# B. This is known as
“Augmented Scale X” (Kadman 1995: Fig. 46). Reading the
sequence from the opposite end
of the artifact, / / / // /, the ratio would be 3:2:2:1:3
or 1, b3, 4,
5, b6, 7, which, in classical Indian music
is known as “Raga Takka.” In C, that
would be played as C Eb F G Ab B. Another comparison quantifies in
terms Mania and Mania’s observation that
the engravings are “rhythmic” (1988: 94–5). In point
of fact, the ratios translate
into “exact” rhythmic units. Ratio 3:1:2:2:3, for instance,
equates precisely to dotted
quarter, eighth, quarter, quarter,
dotted quarter, eighth. Lower Palaeolithic intent aside, musical tests
such as these can inform upon characteristics as specific as language
Early intricate art: a perfect radial motif
consisting of duplicated sub-motifs of a composite
While the lines on Artifact
2 are always referred to as “parallel,” closer inspection
reveals them to
be, in fact, convergent, i.e., “radial”
(Fig. 2d). [In this study, I exclude the outer line that does not
the radial motif.] The radial positioning of lines on this artifact is
absolutely remarkable considering how perfectly the radial pattern is
maintained despite the composite nature of four of
the lines that make up the larger fan
motif (Fig. 2e). The fact that each of these
four radial lines actually consists of three overlapping zigzagged
are consistent from one composite line
to the next despite variation in line angle and length is, in my
opinion, no less than astounding. Not only
does the artifact clearly show a “composite motif”
duplicated four times
in a row, but also, this is accomplished as part of a larger, perfect
fan motif (consider Wynn’s 2003 criteria for
intelligence). Hence, Artifact 2 represents an indisputably complex
motif, which, if we evaluate by the old
paradigm’s estimation of the intelligence of Homo erectus people,
would be comparable to creation of a Bach fugue. Either this is the
work of a
rare Lower Palaeolithic genius (which is not impossible) or it is
simply more evidence that Homo erectus in general
had intelligence not far removed from that of modern Homo sapiens.
A reminder: Much of what we regard as our own species’
“higher intelligence” is actually a matter of our easy
EXPLORING THE MIND OF ANCIENT MAN
knowledge via all manner of “external memory storage”
(Donald 1991: 308–33). An up-to-date picture of Homo erectus would
consider that 400,000 years ago (i.e., 50,000 years earlier than Bilzingsleben Artifact
2) three-component composite tools had already been invented, as known from
the Schöeningen, Germany site (Thieme 1997). In this
light and other evidence, there is no
reason not to consider that Homo erectus was the first to consciously
create a “composite artistic motif.”
on two separate artifacts
The fan of Artifact 3
and the side fan of Artifact 1 are, for all practical purposes,
duplicates of the same motif, including the
same size. While there are variations in line length and number of lines, these follow the same basic
radial pattern and are even
contained within the same 20º outer angles. Another reason for grouping the motifs together involves the process of
duplication. I suggest that most people alive today would have difficulty reproducing either motif by
memory, especially if
attempting to do so with the same materials
originally used by Homo erectus (see tests proposed earlier). The
similarity between these two motifs is so great as to suggest the possibility that
one of them was being viewed as the
other was being engraved. I believe it possible that the same “artist” created both motifs.
However, if different artists created the motifs, then I
believe the only acceptable conclusion is
Figure 3. Duplication of a motif on two separate artifacts from the same archaeological site. (a) Motif only, from Bilzingsleben Artifact 3, a self-contained doubled motif, (after Mania and Mania 1988: 94). (b) Motif only, from Bilzingsleben Artifact 1 (after Bednarik 1997: 41). (c) Artifact 3 motif in context of the entire artifact. (d) Artifact 1
motif shown in general context. The motifs are the same size
(measurements approximate). Note also that the widest angles of the
motifs are each 20º, testable with a protractor.
Musings on the Palaeolithic Fan Motif
communication occurring between two different people by way of a
graphic symbol 350,000 years ago. [Visual similarities to
the human hand may not be coincidental, as discussed
below.] If considered as a possible
symbol, it would have great implications for the idea of Lower
Deliberate markings are often considered indicative of language even
without the added bonus of duplicated motifs
(e.g., Mania and Mania 1988: 95; 2003: 32). Additional support
for language, and symbolism in general, is provided by “straight
edge theory.” This is because any line engraved with the aid of
a straight edge would be directly
symbolic of the straight edge itself, with analogues in abstract
It is notable that the
positional contexts in which these two motifs are engraved are quite different,
in fact, opposites. Specifically, the motif on Artifact 3 radiates from
the end corner of the artifact, whereas the motif on Artifact 1 radiates
from the center of the artifact. The motifs being otherwise alike, this
observation suggests deliberation of design independent from the medium.
While some of Morris’
analogical conclusions regarding chimpanzee art as it may relate to the
development of human art have been questioned in recent years, the
Bilzingsleben radial fans make a comparison with his ideas worthwhile. Consider
“Just as Congo settled for a basic theme
(the fan pattern, for instance) and then rang the changes through a number of
variations (split fan, centrally-spotted fan, curved fan, reversed fan, etc.)
…without losing sight of the basic motif, so will a human artist use a similar
progression as part of his basic method of working” (Morris 1962: 162).
Consider also in regard to
the Bilzingsleben fans Morris’ wonderfully described moment of inspiration when
came up with an innovative new idea:
“On the day in question, Congo had drawn
several normal fan patterns in the usual way…and then, as the next blank card
was placed in front of him, a strange intensity seemed to overtake him and with
soft, almost inaudible grunts he began laboriously to make a fan, starting each
line at a near and central point and spreading it away from him. As each line
was marked out, he could be seen carefully studying its course, so that it
radiated away in a fresh direction from those already made.
The fan was therefore similar
in appearance to any normally produced one, but had been drawn completely in
reverse. This astonishing performance can only be explained if one assumes that
Congo had reached the stage where he had a fan image [Morris’ emphasis]
in his brain and that he was virtually experimenting with a new way of
producing it” (Morris 1962: 97–8).
If such a description is applicable to the mind of
a chimpanzee, how much more can we safely ascribe to hominids that were
physically like us in every way except for a differently shaped skull? Such
creativity is easier still to ascribe when we keep in mind that these people
are credited with other technical innovations we’ve traditionally ascribed to
SUPERIMPOSITION STUDY #1:
EXAMPLES OF THE SAME BASIC MOTIF ON THE SAME ARTIFACT
two separate fan motifs of Artifact 1 may seem difficult to reconcile
with each other owing to differences in their orientation and degree of
But these foci are diversions from noting a
significant similarity. On closer examination, it is seen that each
shares the same angles and angle spacing as though from different
along the length of a single fan motif. This single motif was likely a
image in the artist’s mind (e.g., as per Morris 1962:
97–8), thus further supporting Bednarik’s idea of
Another early example
demonstrating duplication of a motif on the same artifact is the Tata fossil
nummulite mentioned earlier which Bednarik (1995: 612–13; 2003a: 99) observed
featured the very same deliberate artistic action taken on both sides of the
Exploring the Mind of Ancient Man
“In adding an engraved line on each face at
right angles to the natural line and so dividing the circle into four equal
quarter-segments, the ‘artist’ was clearly reacting to the natural line as well
as to the circular outline: these are not randomly positioned marks. Not
satisfied with the mere possession of an object with ‘aesthetic’ qualities, the
artist improved them, commented upon them”
(Bednarik 1995: 612).
Dissanayake would refer to
such artistic improvement to natural objects as “making special,”
“elaborating,” or “enhancing” (e.g.,
Dissanayake 1999: 39–63, 2000: 132–4). “Commenting upon” or “enhancing”
natural objects is clearly a most important aspect of the origins of art. We do
not know that the four Bilzingsleben mammal bones discussed in this paper were
not “special” to certain Homo erectus people before they were engraved.
But the obvious enhancements ensure that we in modern times will pause long
enough to consider them, and, at the very least, regard them as “artistic” or
SUPERIMPOSITION STUDY #2:
artifacts presented by Mania and Mania (1988) are characterized by
identical angles. This consistency is so close that images of the
artifacts can be
superimposed on top of one another in
countless ways that show the angle qualities do not clash. The
individual elements in this particular superimposition study are not in
scale to one
another. This was simply to present them in a certain layout. Since
remain the same at whatever the scale, many such arrangements are
possible, and would make the point similarly.
ANGLE CONSISTENCY OF THE FOUR BILZINGSLEBEN ENGRAVED ARTIFACTS
Figure 4. Superimposition study #1: Angle consistencies in two separate motifs on the same artifact. (a) Detail, Bilzingsleben Artifact 1
“side fan” and portion of “central fan” (after
Bednarik 1997: 41). (b) “Side fan” superimposed over the
artifact’s “central fan.” Both sections are pictured
at the same scale.
Figure 5. Superimposition study #2: Angle consistencies of four Bilzingsleben engraved artifacts. Note: These items are not drawn to scale. (a) Artifact 1 (after Bednarik 1997:41). (b, c & d) Artifacts 2, 3 & 4,
respectively (after Mania and Mania 1988:93-95). This is only one
possible arrangement example. Since angles remain the same at any size,
other arragements would produce similar results.
COMPARING THUMB AND FINGER ANGLES WITH BILZINGSLEBEN ARTIFACT I
"Representation of angles" theory
Each of the Bilzingsleben artifacts presented by Mania and Mania (1988) feature
radial motifs whose widest angles hover around 20º (Artifacts 1–4), with
a maximum angle around 35º (the central fan of Artifact 1). This is the
Musings on the Palaeolithic Fan Motif
angle range of slightly to
moderately out-stretched human fingers. Since these particular angles
observed on a daily basis by virtually every hominid for
thousands of millennia, it is certain
that they would have been etched into the
hominid mind, as noted earlier, and then, likely, reflected in the
graphic marking motifs of Homo erectus.
[This idea of hand observation can be understood in a modern context by
realizing that stretching the hand into a fan shape is something
does each day, either deliberately or
as an unconscious reflex action. Often, during
brief unoccupied moments, this process is noticed, and one looks
directly at the resulting fan motif.] The fact that hands were directly involved and visible during the engraving process
further suggests that observing them would have reinforced not only the graphic
fan images being created, but also the fan
image template already present in the mind.
6 is not meant to suggest representation of the human hand,
rather, representation of its characteristic angles. I am suggesting
deep-rooted conscious or unconscious abstraction (see
Feliks 1998a: 116, “race cryptomnesia”)—perhaps more significant
than iconic representation. The most important fact: In all of the Bilzingsleben
fan motifs, none of their angles extend beyond those of moderately spread
Figure 6. Superimposition study #3: Comparing Bilzingsleben Artifact 1 with thumb and finger angles. (a) Artifact 1 (detail after Bednarik 1997: 41). (b) Artifact 1
(after Mania and Mania 1988: 93). (c) Finger and thumb angles in
moderately spread hand. It isnotable that although there are many lines
in the “central fan” of Artifact 1,
none of their angles extend beyond those of moderately spread fingers.
(This is, in fact, true of each Bilzingsleben artifact discussed in
this paper.) Also, the “side fan” of Artifact 1, when viewed in relation to the “central fan,” roughly corresponds with angles of the thumb. (d) Left portion of Artifact 1
(detail after Mania and Mania1988: 93) showing coincidental outline
similarity with thumb. I am not suggesting deliberate conscious
representation of a human hand, rather, representation of particular
angles prompted by familiarity with the hand. Note: items a, c & d
are drawn to the same scale.
Exploring the Mind of Ancient Man
SUPERIMPOSITION STUDY #4:
COMPARING THUMB AND FINGER ANGLES WITH OTHER PALAEOART OBJECTS
This figure demonstrates
that interest in the fan motif can take many forms, yet still relate to angles
of the human hand. For instance, the most prominent lines in Fig. 7a match
finger angles exactly. This motif (the same as Fig. 1h), if superimposed over
hand-like motifs from the Upper Palaeolithic
(such as Figs. 1v and 1w), matches so perfectly as to essentially disappear in
them. Regarding a different kind of similarity, the radial lines of Fig. 7c are
non-convergent, just like human fingers. Fig. 7e has five radial lines, equal to the five digits of a human
hand. Fig. 7f features angles quite similar to moderately spread
fingers. Without making too much of these observations, I suggest that such
motifs may have prompted early people to “think,” albeit, perhaps intuitively
or cryptomnesically, of their hands. [I have considered the
possibility of cryptomnesia as a “minimum” influence on how the hand’s
angles could have inspired the graphic marking of early peoples, as well as
their interest in naturally radial objects. Related to this idea, Bradshaw
(1998) has noted that unconscious influences are now known to permeate all
aspects of human information processing, including object recognition (Bradshaw
and Mattingley 1995).] Still, with so much evidence of higher cognitive
abilities now coming to light, there is, in
fact, no longer any reason to assume that early people
Figure 7. Superimposition study #4:
Finger and thumb angles superimposed over early “palaeoart”
objects. Note: these items are not drawn to scale. The artifact motifs
are very small (enlarged here) as compared to a human hand. However,
angles remain the same regardless of the length of lines comprising
them, and the human brain makes the scale translation effortlessly. (a)
Engraved antelope bone, Micoquian, Prolom 2, Crimea, Ukraine (detail
after Bednarik 1995: 614). (b) Finger and thumb angles in moderately
spread hand. (c) Spondylus
scallop fossil in the West Tofts handaxe, Norfolk, England, Acheulian
(detail after Feliks 1998:115). (d) Geometric studies showing focal
point at “centroid T,” as per shell’s centering in
the artifact. This is identical to the point of convergence observed
when angles of the hand are superimposed, as in “(c)”
(after Feliks 1998: 115). (e) Micraster echinoid knapped into a scraper, Saint-Just-des-Marais (Oise), France, Acheulian (after Oakley 1985: 28). (f) Millericrinus crinoid columnal, Jordan River, Israel, Acheulian (after Goren-Inbar et al. 1991: 134).
Musings on the Palaeolithic Fan Motif
The archaeological record indicates that early people
in two kinds of fan motifs, those they obtained ready-made from nature and those they created themselves artistically. Upper
Palaeolithic people linked these two categories
symbolically through painted hand stencils
and prints, sending a clear message of self-awareness. In this paper, I have offered a possible means by
which Lower and Middle Palaeolithic people could have sent the same message. Collected or engraved fan motifs
featuring angles characteristic of
the human hand are a sign that Homo erectus, Homo
heidelbergensis, Neanderthals, and Homo sapiens shared not only similar interests, but also
similar awareness, both of themselves and the world they lived in.
such as Homo
erectus were incapable of either
recognizing or deliberately creating two-dimensional iconic images
(Feliks 1998a: 111–16; 2000; 2003), including hand-like images.
This recommended change
of perspective is quite appropriate, for, in addition to reasons
in this paper, there are at least two three-dimensional objects
confirmed to have been enhanced by Homo erectus, presumably to make
more like human “figurines” (Bednarik 2003a; 2003c).
Inspired by the work of
Robert Bednarik, Mania and Mania, and others, I have sought to reassess
long-held popular notions regarding the
mental abilities of early peoples, Homo
erectus, in particular. I have
provided openly testable evidence
that the cognitive abilities of these ancient predecessors were not far
removed from our own. This evidence included
examples of duplicated graphic motifs, abstraction, graphic markings
suggesting straight edge technology, and evidence of complex intricate design.
evidence for ancient seafaring and the building
of large freestanding shelters, many still believe it unlikely that Homo erectus had
self-awareness or language. This is primarily due to a perceived lack of
evidence for symbolic behavior. Extending the work of others, I have hoped to demonstrate that evidence from
the artifacts of Bilzingsleben alone
suggests that Homo erectus had symbolic
capabilities much greater than previously imagined. For instance, fan
motifs resembling the human hand duplicated
on separate artifacts suggest not only
self-awareness, but also, communication by way of graphic symbols. They may also represent
“abstraction” of the hand image, lending support to the idea of early
language. Certainly, by the time Homo sapiens began producing countless
hand images on cave walls, self-awareness and language
had already been long incorporated as essential traits of culturally
preserved human cognition, a process likely begun and developed by Homo
As new evidence continues to
surface, and prior evidence is viewed in a new light, we are starting to see
that Homo erectus people were much more like us than we had previously
thought. In fact, since we ourselves developed
an interest in the very same motif as they, we have a rare opportunity
to understand our early ancestors by way of a shared symbol. The fan motif is a
valuable link between them and us,
especially if it was, from the beginning, associated with the human
I would like to thank the
following scholars for contributions to and/or support of my work during the
past year. In alphabetical order: Robert G. Bednarik, Ellen Dissanayake, Peter
Faris, Jörn Greve, Adrienne Mayor, and Oliver Sacks. In addition, I wish to
thank the following: Bradley Bloom, Gary Borowski, Pietro and Sharlet
DiGiorgio, Shekinah Errington, Walter Everett, Oveda Feliks, Gerry Hermann,
Linda Ostach, Toi Roberts, Jameson Ruel, and Richard Zerndt.
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