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It is quite easy to show that Breuil's imitation theory does not explain the origins of figurative painting, but his empirical findings are among the foundation stones of the study of prehistoric art, and they may also help us to put our finger on the origins of art. One of his most interesting findings was that the earliest prehistoric paintings were handprints, finger meanders, and sometimes also depictions of human or animal footprints (Breuil, 1952). From this finding, he concluded that the imitation of the footprints of animals and men is one of the sources of art because this is one of the first subjects they imitated. It must be noted that there is no agreement among archaeologists with regard to the time of the beginning of image making; nor with regard to the place where it began, nor regarding the aims it fulfilled, and it is therefore not to be wondered at, that there is no agreement on whether pictures of hands are indeed the earliest motif in prehistoric image making. On the other hand, nobody disagrees that this is one of the earliest motifs in prehistoric image making, and this is supported by many findings in Europe and elsewhere. Thus for example, handprints painted on a rock shelter in Kakadu National Park in Australia are dated by some archaeologists at 40,000 B.P. (before the present). Similarly, in the recently discovered Cosquer cave, the paintings of hands are estimated at 27,000 B.P., whereas the paintings of horses found there were produced only some 9000 years later. According to Delluc and Delluc (1981, 1984) the earliest paintings are mainly those depicting animals, female and phallus signs, and these are estimated at around 30,000 B.P. The most important characteristic of the earliest image making is that the pictures are always incomplete. These authors suppose that the simplification of the representations is a kind of quasi-symbolization, and in this connection they propose the principle of la partie pour le tout. That is, the representation of the animal or the figure by means of a schematic representation of only a certain part of it. This principle seems very logical, inasmuch as it cannot be supposed that the first paintings already depicted figures in their entirety. According to the logic of this principle, it is correct to argue that a footprint, whether a natural footprint or a painted or engraved one, was for the hunter a kind of representation of the entire animal. Delluc and Delluc (1985) also mention many places in which footprints and partial footprints of animals have been preserved, and also sites in which marks have been painted or scored, that have in the past been interpreted as female marks; but they believe that these marks are more like footprints belonging mainly to predators, and sometimes also footprints of men and of birds. Paintings of footprints are found in stationary places and also upon moveable objects. Sometimes they did not engrave the whole footprint but were content with an engraving in the shape of a U or V. Their very logical conclusion was that the draughtsmen who produced these marks were Palaeolithic hunters, and that they created footprints of the animals and men that they customarily tracked. They displayed these creatures by means of simplification, schematization or geometrization of these figures. It seems to me that there is no contradiction between the supposition that pictures of hands are the earliest, and the supposition that pictures of parts of animals are the earliest, both because it is impossible to deny the possibility that the two subjects were coeval, and also because in both cases the whole is represented by its part. In what follows, I shall try to show that the drawings of handprints which are quasi-prints of hands on the wall, are the first generalization of footprints literacy, and therefore the link connecting footprints literacy with the symbol system of figurative art. We shall begin the comparison between footprints and painting with regard to two very simple attributes: representation by negative image and contour of the object, before we approach the deeper and more complex attributes that exist within the two phenomena.

It is no accident that hunters noticed the contours of footprints and afterwards generalized this principle to painting. Research today has discovered the high sensitivity of the brain to contours, and in fact this is the basic strategy of the visual cortex in constructing the image from the information received from the retina. New research points to the possibility that the brain stores the visual information in memory as a two-dimensional picture and not a three-dimensional one (Bulthoff and Edelman 1992). The construction and storing of visual information by means of contours is of course very economical, especially when the concern is with visual information that requires a large amount of memory. Handprints fall into two groups: a minority of them were indeed done by imprinting with a hand that has previously been dipped in or smeared with pigment, in this way obtaining a positive image of the hand, but in most cases the handprints were produced by spraying paint over the hand which was pressed to the wall of the cave. In this way a picture was obtained which is the negative image of the hand, just as a footprint is the negative image of the foot that produced it. The negative in the picture is two-dimensional only, whereas in the footprint the negative is a three-dimensional configuration. But this difference is marginal in comparison with the common ground shared by the two phenomena and which is, that in both cases the configuration resulting by means of the negative traces a contour of the hand or foot. Depictions of feet painted by this method are to be found at many prehistoric sites, and sometimes even whole creatures were painted in the same way. (This subject is extensively discussed in all prehistoric art books, and there is no need to discuss it here. See for instance the now classic books: Breuil, 1952; Giedion, 1962; Leroi-Gourhan, undated). A generalization of the principle of representation by means of contour, not by spraying but in a much more economical way, can be seen in most early prehistoric paintings. Since even for super-hunters it was difficult to hold a whole mammoth pressed to the wall simply in order to obtain its contour by spraying, they drew the animals by first outlining the contour and afterwards scoring it and filling the incision with pigment. The history of the contour and what happened within it is more or less the history of art, and we shall not discuss it here. We shall mention only that in later stages the hunters gradually filled the area within the contour with color, partially at first and later on completely. At later stages a retreat took place in the opposite direction - towards greater and greater schematization which led in the end to the creation of writing. For this it was essential to renounce the principle of representation of the object by its contour, for the graphic marks no longer represented objects, but the sounds of speech. The generalization from the reading of given footprints of animals and human beings, to the deliberate depiction of 'prints' of images that we have regarding real or fictitious objects by means of their contours, was an invention of vital importance in the continued evolution of human culture. For the first drawings were already the beginning of the pictorial writing from which there developed, by a long evolutionary process, the syllabographic and alphabetic writing systems without which it would not have been possible to construct the conceptual hierarchies required for the creation of philosophy and science. The invention of prehistoric art signals a singular upward leap in the history of man, since this was the first time that human beings produced an extension of the brain or memory and not of the hand; they transformed visual thinking from a private experience into a public one, for drawing is the 'speech' and also the documentation of visual thinking. That is to say, prehistoric painting is visual thinking exorcised of its privacy in the mind (eyes) of the beholder, to become communal and communicative, i.e. to become visual language. In this way, for the first time a means was created of storing information and human experience for subsequent generations, outside the skull. Only the invention of the computer in our time is equal to the invention of prehistoric art, in being the second extension of the brain created by man; although infinitely more powerful, it is doubtful whether it would have been possible without the first. In the last two sections we have seen in what sense footprints literacy is likely to explain the graphical origins of image making. In the next sections we shall see that footprints literacy is likely to explain its cognitive origins as well. Before we can examine other aspects that footprints and painting have in common, which are far less obvious than contour, but infinitely more important, it is necessary to explain even if very briefly the new key-term: mindprints. (For a more comprehensive presentation of this concept see Avital, 1997a.)


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