Sunday 26 October 2014

From the origins of art to the decolonisation of human origins

Archaeology/Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia

The recent dating of cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia, to about 40 kyr ago has opened up new avenues for our understanding of human origins and crucial developments in humanity’s deep past. However, the contribution of archaeological research in Southeast Asia and Australia to these fundamental questions is far more extensive and provides a much more substantial challenge to current models of what it means to be human and how we became who we are today.

Archaeologists have long been puzzled by the presence of ‘art’ in Europe that was up to 40 kyr old and the lack of it outside of Europe (Aubert et al. 2014). From this observation it was traditionally concluded that ‘art’ originated in Europe and subsequently spread from there across the world as a cultural practice. The recently published article by Aubert and colleagues has now established that in fact "humans were producing rock art by 40 kyr ago at opposite ends of the Pleistocene Eurasian world" (p. 223). This observation either means that ‘art’ was invented independently in Europe and Southeast Asia at around the same time or has "much deeper origins outside both western Europe and Sulawesi" (p. 226).

Interestingly, these two possibilities have been immediately interpreted to point towards the "African roots of our creative genius" in a feature in The Guardian/The Observer and in numerous other online commentaries. This argument follows a well-established tradition that locates the origin of modern thinking and intellectual abilities in Africa up to 100 kyr ago (Klein 2008; Tattersall 2009). While Africa is widely recognised as the ‘cradle of humanity’ this label was long reserved for the origins of the genus Homo about 2 million years ago (and the earliest toolmakers).

However, in the last decades a real paradigm shift has occurred that strongly argues for the origins of fully behaviourally modern humans in Sub-Saharan Africa. This argument is put forward by a number of prominent archaeologists including Chris Henshilwood, Curtis Marean, Alison Brooks and Sally McBrearty (Henshilwood 2007; Henshilwood and Marean 2003; McBrearty and Brooks 2000). It is based on the occurrence of items and practices that are interpreted to be related to symbolic thinking, such as the use of pigments, use of beads, abstract markings as well as finely crafted harpoons or stone tools (Henshilwood 2007; Tattersall 2009). Some of the reasons this argument has been criticised, include that the indicators selected by archaeologists to identify fully modern thinking are in fact the same that have traditionally been used to identify modern humans in the European archaeological record, and distinguish them from Neanderthals (Cosgrove and Pike-Tay 2004; Davidson 2010; Porr 2010).

Hence, we need to ask, is there a universal way to identify the first people who were 'like us' in the archaeological record?

It seems generally accepted that figurative representations are the litmus test for the presence of fully modern humans in the deep past, because no animal has ever been observed engaging in this kind of behaviour. Together with the position of aesthetics and its appreciation in the Western understanding of civilisation and historical progress, this appears to be the main reason for the prominence of art in discussions about modern human origins. In contrast, for more than twenty years researchers working in Southeast Asia and Australia have made the case that this assessment of humanity’s deep past needs to be questioned and challenged. There is the need to recognise the full breadth and variability of the global archaeological record – Robin Dennell and I explore this, together with our colleagues in the recent edited volume Southern Asia, Australia and the Search for Human Origins.

The Southeast Asian and Australian archaeological record is both very old and very specific in terms of environmental and geographic conditions (Dennell 2009; Dennell and Porr 2014). It has also traditionally been regarded as an impoverished region in terms of material complexity (including, in terms of an absence of early figurative art).

In 1992, Iain Davidson and William Noble argued that it is not any type of evidence that can be found in Europe that can be regarded as the earliest evidence of modern human behaviour (Davidson and Noble 1992). Rather it is the successful colonisation of the Pleistocene continent of New Guinea and Australia (Sahul) itself between 60 and 45 kyr ago that must have involved sophisticated maritime technologies and abilities, which are impossible without symbolic language and thinking. Davidson concedes that this was originally a provocative argument, but it drew attention to the fact that so-called modern human behaviour might have been expressed globally in very different ways and not necessarily following the same historical pattern.

Over the last decades researchers have added a range of significant finds that shows the adaptability and flexibility of the first colonisers beyond Mainland Asia. After 60 kyr ago humans rapidly explored and colonised the whole island world of Southeast Asia and the Pleistocene continent of Sahul. They caught tuna in the deep ocean before Timor and detoxified poisonous nuts in the tropical jungle of Borneo. They also reached the Highlands of New Guinea by 49 kyr ago with the help of sophisticated use of plant resources (Barker et al. 2007; O'Connor 2007; Summerhayes et al. 2010). The recently dated rock art from Sulawesi is not an isolated occurrence of complex behaviour from this region. It is part of a complex suite of practices that have long been recognised to have existed in Southeast Asia and Australia more than 40 kyr ago.

The lesson from the growing body of research that is being done in Southeast Asia and Australia is that we need to rethink the historically developed practice of giving one part of the world (traditionally Europe) primacy in assessing the complexity of human existence (Porr 2010). So far, the archaeological record of Europe has been used – explicitly or implicitly – as a measure of human modernity. This orientation only leads to the idea that Southeast Asia, New Guinea and Australia are impoverished and underdeveloped corners of the world that are outside of the normal course of human history. This view of the deep past is reminiscent of the colonialist view of Australia during which Aborigines were regarded as "the Miserablest People in the World" (Anderson and Perrin 2007).

The dating of cave art from Sulawesi should not just start us revising our understanding of the origins of ‘art’. It is time to start thinking about a decolonisation of human origins.


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