What Ancient Marks Reveal About Modern Makers

What Ancient Marks Reveal About Modern Makers

Rock with pounded divots

Paleoarcheologists suggest our ancient ancestors expressed their concerns through cupules, the mysterious divots they pounded into rock. Photo: Ekkehart Malotki 

Making marks is a universal human activity. Young children take to it with  enthusiasm, without being taught, and in all pre-industrial societies that we know of, it is customary for people to mark (“artify”) their bodies and possessions with paint, carving, tattoos, and scarifications. In the evolution of our species, abstract or geometric marks on shells and on stone surfaces, large and small, have been found since the emergence of the earliest Homo sapiens, and among even earlier hominin ancestors.

To a biologist, these facts suggest that mark-making is inborn, an evolved propensity that has been essential to the survival of our species. 

But why is mark-making so important? My earlier work demonstrates that the arts, in multimedia ritual practices, evolved because singing and dancing with others, together with visual panoply, stimulated opioids in the brain that produced feelings of trust, confidence, and one-heartedness; that is, the arts built and reinforced community. In today’s societies that are highly technological, pluralistic, individualistic, and secular, modern artists might well wonder if this original communal purpose translates to their lives and work.

My recent studies of the earliest evidence of mark-making in our species shed some light on this question. Although the famous Ice Age paintings of animals in the caves of France and Spain are usually called “the birth of art,” one look at their sophistication makes clear that they could not be the first marks that our species made.

In fact, marks known as cupules predate the Lascaux cave paintings by at least 185,000 years, making them arguably the world’s oldest and most common form of petroglyph (carving on rock). Few people except paleoarchaeologists and some rock art enthusiasts know about them, and at first glance they appear unremarkable, even boring: small hemispherical indentations resembling little cups, pounded or ground into rocks. 

But they must have served an important purpose: Often they appear in groups of hundreds, on all kinds of surfaces. And cupules, both ancient and relatively recent, are found copiously on every continent. 

Compared to the impressive cave images of animals, cupules seem simple, if not simple-minded. Why would anyone make one cupule, let alone lots of them? They lack the usual defining features of art – beauty, imagination, aesthetic pleasure, intellectual challenge, expressive individuality, talent, originality, or creativity. Yet they are clearly not the product of casual activity. Depending on the hardness of the rock, one cupule may require thousands of blows. Modern replicators have discovered that making a cupule demands not only time and physical stamina, but also motivation, planning, commitment, and patience, as well as skill and accuracy – like art of all eras and places.

As part of the impetus to make marks, humans are born with the manual wherewithal to do it – from the hammering and banging that infants do to children’s universal trajectory in drawing: scribbling; gradually and deliberately making more structured and sophisticated marks such as dots, squiggles, lines, circles, and radials; and eventually using combinations of these, with increasing skill and complexity, to draw pictorially. But why does this readiness exist? Pounding or engraving on stone is costly: It uses time and energy that could be devoted to activities with survival benefit – or even to resting. What was mark-making for?

Although mark-making is by nature an individual activity, I interpret its utility as reflecting or fostering community. Indeed, the arts, in their costliness, would have had to be born in community. Think about it: Early humans lived in small groups of 25 or so, as hunter-gatherers. They were not only predators, but also prey, and in their precarious way of life, close emotional relationships with others were essential for survival.

Of the various reasons that have been proposed for cupule-making, many contribute to important beliefs of a group. In some accounts, the cupule is made to produce a fine powder believed to have supernatural powers, likened to a fertilizing essence to bring prosperity to the land and its animals, or, when consumed, to a woman who wants to become pregnant. In other circumstances, cupules are said to have been made for weather control, such as rainmaking, the pounding sounds presumably attracting thunder.

Indeed, it has been suggested that it was the sounds of percussive striking that motivated cupule-making. Striking a rock could be a summons, a signal that people should assemble, and it could become an enduring reminder afterward that something important had happened. And if the cupule were to serve as a permanent record of an event, added to other previous cupules, its careful making may have been considered essential. Some cupules may even have been created in order to make an already important or sacred place even more special.

Whatever they meant to their makers, cupules indicate – to us even today – the effort that produced them. They are a testament for all time that a person or social group cared enough to make them. It seems most likely that whatever their specific meaning, they were the outcome of some ritual or religious behavior – that is, made with a community in mind.

So what does this mean for mark-makers or artists of today, who are not hunter-gatherers and may sometimes feel like a community of one? I think of the question this way: Despite vast social and cultural changes, the concerns of today’s artists are not so different from those of their predecessors in the Pleistocene. Their work makes something ordinary, such as stone, wood, clay, or fiber, into something special, drawing attention to it and its importance to the maker. Because we all belong to the same species, we share many of the same concerns; thus a community of responders and participants comes into being. As always, careful making is a testament to the maker’s devotion to the subject or medium for others to see, again spotlighting its importance. Through the abundance of cupules at a site – or, say, the heartbreaking roster of the nearly 3,000 victims at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum – a community expresses, shares, and reinforces its significances, even though the artist is not present and even if the individuals gathered do not know each other.

The community of mark-makers from past millennia provides a foundation for making and artifying today. Mark-makers are embedded in a vast and ancient communality where their value need not be measured only in transient critical or monetary terms but, in a deeper way, connected to all the generations of makers in human history. For most artists, their work is not something that can be turned on or off at will, but is an inherent part of their lives with fellow makers, intimates, communities, and the universal world of artists. Like cupule pounding, all making can be regarded not only as a product, but also as an act – an act
of community.

Ellen Dissanayake is the author of Art and Intimacy, Homo Aestheticus, and What is Art For? She is writing a book about paleoart with ethnolinguist and rock art specialist Ekkehart Malotki.