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FOOTPRINTS LITERACY:

THE ORIGINS OF ART AND PRELUDE TO SCIENCE

 

The problem 'Which comes first, the hypothesis (H) or the observation (O)', is soluble; as is the problem, 'Which comes first, the hen (H) or the egg (O)'.
The reply to the latter is, 'An earlier kind of egg'; to the former,
'An earlier kind of hypothesis'.

      Karl R. Popper (1969, p.47)

In the beginning was my end,…
…in my end is my beginning.

      T. S. Eliot, East Coker

1. IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE END

In recent decades the consciousness has become increasingly established, that modernism has indeed failed and that in our century art has reached a dead end. Aestheticians, historians and not a few art critics explicitly maintain this, albeit at differing levels of decisiveness, and in the light of analyses at varying levels of sophistication. (Appleyard, 1984; Avital, 1996, 1997a; Belting, 1987; Field, 1970; Fuller, 1982; Gablik, 1984; Habermas, 1985; Lang, 1984; Ripley, 1969; Wolfe, 1975, and others.). On the one hand, it is doubtful whether it can still be denied, that art is in a paradigmatic crisis which is the inevitable result of the fact that in the name of unlimited creative freedom in the twentieth century, the demarcation lines between art and non-art have been completely breached. On the other hand, art theory at all levels has not to this day provided a clear way of distinguishing between art and non-art. From this arises the central idea of this essay, that an attempt has to be made to uncover the sources of art, and to understand what its attributes were at the earliest stages, before it underwent so many transformations, and served so many functions in the course of tens of thousands of years. The uncovering of the basic attributes of art at its very sources can in any case help us today to distinguish art from non-art. This idea indeed seems promising, but on turning to an examination of the known theories of the origins of art, it is found that they contribute nothing to such an understanding. For this reason, an attempt is made in this essay to propose a more adequate theory of the origins of art which both has wide implications regarding culture as a whole, and furthermore places in a new light the profound connection between art and science.

In another paper entitled: The Origins of Art: An Archaeological or Philosophical Problem?(1999) – three theories have been examined regarding the origins of art: Breuil's imitation theory (Breuil, 1981), Gombrich's projection theory (Gombrich, 1962) and Davis' mark–thing confusion theory (Davis, 1986a). These theories differ in their points of departure and in their degree of elaboration, but equally failed to fulfill the three basic requirements that must be met by an adequate theory of the origins of art:
1. The three theories failed to explain the graphical and cognitive evolutionary stages that must have preceded the emergence of pictorial representation.
2. None of them contributes anything to our understanding of the attributes of art, and these theories therefore cannot help us in solving the central problem of art today, which is the problem of demarcation between art and non-art.
3. None of these theories teaches us anything about the structure of the intelligence of the human beings who created pictorial representation, and therefore none of them helps us towards understanding the deep cognitive structures common to art and to other branches of culture all of which are in the end products of the same intelligence. This being so, a completely different theory is needed, that on the one hand will meet the requirements that have been established here concerning theories intended to explain the origins of art, and on the other hand will be free of the fallacies and inconsistencies which have been exposed in the above mentioned theories. An alternative theory to those must first and foremost single out the activity or cognitive capacity that was the stage preparatory to prehistoric art. Such capacity would have to be of a much earlier origin than prehistoric art, and probably earlier than tool making as well. This cognitive capacity would have to be common to all hunters everywhere and at every period, and would thus explain the fact that very similar representational systems appeared in all hunting societies. In what follows I shall try to show that this capacity is footprints literacy.


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Figure 1. Trail of hominid footprints fossilized in volcanic ash. This 70 meter trail was found by Mary Leakey's expedition in Laetoli, Tanzania in 1978. The trail probably belongs to Australopitechus afarensis and dates from 3.7 to 3.0 million years ago. (Photo by John Reader, reproduced here by his kind permission.)



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Figure 2. Negative hand and dots, Pech Merle. (Photo by Jean Vertut, reproduced here by kind permission of Yvonne Vertut.) For more handprints see Rock Art/Hands.

Not a few archaeologists and anthropologists have of course noticed the fact that footprints and handprints are among the earliest subjects of prehistoric art, and that it is therefore possible to connect these pictures with the graphical origins of image making. (Breuil, Leroi-Gourhan, Delluc and Delluc, and others.) It must be stressed that these scholars deal exclusively with the graphical aspect of footprints as a possible origin, to one degree or another, of image making; and in this respect the present article makes no claim to innovation. What is new in this essay is firstly, the argument that image making has two kinds of origins: graphical origins, and cognitive origins, between which there is a profound connection. Secondly, an attempt is made here to show that the cognitive mechanisms required for the reading of footprints, which are a much more fundamental stratum than the graphical stratum, are basically the same cognitive mechanisms as those required for image making, and are also the same cognitive mechanisms as those that are identifiable in modern scientific activity. That is to say, there is here an attempt to point out a certain noetic evolution, the manifest beginnings of which can already be clearly identified in footprints literacy. For this reason it is quite certain that this is one of the likeliest and most important (although not the only) origins of image making, not only graphically speaking but also, and mainly, cognitively speaking. The graphical and cognitive components of image making cannot be independent of one another, but it is clear that the cognitive component is the one that conditions the graphical component and in fact makes its existence possible, just as certain cognitive properties condition the very existence and functioning of our language and thinking. This being so, it is of at least as much importance to examine the cognitive properties involved here, as it is to understand the graphical evolution of image making. Art historians and archaeologists either ignore completely the cognitive attributes which must have been a precondition for the emerging of image making, or totally deny the need – or even the existence – of such attributes (Davis, 1986a). However, in the light of the analysis of Davis's theory presented in the above mentioned paper, it is absolutely clear that the fact that scholars do not deal with the cognitive properties required for image making or deny their necessity, does not mean that they do not assume them implicitly. For this reason a cognitive approach, even a speculative one, to the problem of the origins of art is no less legitimate than the empiricist and behaviorist approaches, granted that it provides us with insights that enhance our understanding of the origins of art, its nature and the nature of the intelligence that created it. Art is a phenomenon that is not only too complex for it to have had only a single origin, but it is also too complex for any specific approach to suffice for the understanding of its origins.

The alternative theory to be put forward here regarding the origins of art is actually a considerable broadening and deepening of the projection theory. But the concern here is not with the projection of contents such as fears and desires, as assumed by Gombrich, but the projection of structural or organizational principles of mind. According to Gombrich, whose point of departure is basically cognitive, projection is only another word for classification (Gombrich, 1962, 89). Ironically, it transpires that if we were to make a thoroughgoing examination of what cognitive attributes were required in order to classify, then we would arrive more or less at the same list of attributes as that implicitly assumed by his opponent (Davis, 1986a), who sets out from a behaviorist standpoint. But Gombrich did not ask what cognitive attributes were latent in the image we project, nor did he ask what attributes were required in order that one could classify, just as Davis did not ask what attributes were required in order that one could recognize similarities between things or marks. The attributes assumed implicitly by both are the attributes that I have called "mindprints". These unique attributes, which will be briefly discussed below, seem to be the meta-structures of the complementarity of mind and reality. However, the archaeology of mind is not necessarily an archaeological problem. Before we approach the main discussion, which shows how these mindprints appear at the deepest level of footprints literacy, image making, and most probably in science and all branches of culture, we shall first review several basic aspects of footprints literacy that make this phenomenon the point of departure for the alternative theory.



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