Benchmarking Primitive Expression

There’s something great about listening to an orchestra as it warms up.

There’s the violins getting tuned, bows scratching over the strings as the violinists tighten and loosen their pegs. The flutes trilling up and down, pausing, trilling again. The drums rumbling in the back. Then slowly and then all at once, silence, applause for the conductor as he emerges and gathers himself. Then, finally, music.

It’s silly to say that I prefer listening to the orchestra tuning itself more than I prefer listening to the orchestra play. But the tune-up offers pleasures different than the pleasures of a composition well played. Some of it is the same kind of how-the-sausage-gets-made  insight offered by DVD deleted scenes and Terry Gross showrunner interviews. Even better, some of the anachronistic pomp of an orchestral performance is punctured by this brief window into the musicians’ work as musicians, into the life of instruments as objects requiring attention and care.

Some of it is simply heightened anticipation–the warm-up draws our attention, inviting us to imagine what will come next.

I’ve been writing for awhile about Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories, and by the halfway mark of the book, it becomes clear what Boyd’s conception of the history of human intelligence is. He touches on a few points in human prehistory repeatedly, to stress their importance and build his argument as a consequence of their chronology.

The phases of human invention that he points to are: the Oldowan industry, the Acheulean period, the first uses of ocher paint for decoration (especially body decoration), and the first burial rituals.

Oldowan Industry– ~2 million years ago

The term “Oldowan industry” refers to the making of the first stone tools out of flint that the prehistoric ancestors of human beings made. You make the tools by banging a hard rock against a softer rock–that’s the slate–that tends to flake. Careful and controlled smashing motions can create weapons that can then be used to kill animals, making human ancestors much more dangerous than they would have been using their teeth, fingernails, snobbery, or harsh language.

Acheulean Period– ~1 million years ago

The tools used by the Acheulean period were better than in the Oldowan and displayed a more sophisticated, intentional design, in particular the pear- and tear-shaped hand axes. Some axes were discovered that showed little or no use, leading archaeologists/anthropologists (including Brian Boyd) to surmise that the axes must have had some ritual, ceremonial, or artistic purpose. They are, in Boyd’s estimation, the first pieces of human art to survive to the present day.

Ocher Bodypainting and Grave Rituals– ~100,000 years ago

By 100,000 years ago, humans were using ocher to paint their bodies and to paint the bones of the dead. Boyd dates the first use of ocher body paint to 120,000 years ago, and the first evidence of ceremonial burial (and, therefore, the first evidence of a possible human religion) to 80,000 years ago, but a quick survey of google results seems to suggest that there isn’t much consensus on these dates.

The Takeaway

Boyd seems to be stressing art as a precursor–or at least predecessor–to religion, but it seems to me that the prehistoric record is blank enough that it’s hard to believe there’s any certainty about that claim. Prehistory is, by definition, not as well documented as what came after it. There’s so many unknown moments, stories, cultures, civilizations, and so much we don’t know about the things that we do know about, that elaborate chronological arguments like this make me a little nervous, a little skeptical. All of that being said, I’m not an expert on any of this.

What’s fun about exploring these topics, though, is getting a fuller sense of our species-wide artistic tune-up phase–the beveled edges of the Acheulean hand axes, the crudely beautiful ocher body paint patterns (or what we imagine those would have been). The millions of years when humans and their ancestors danced before ballet, sang before opera and American Idol, painted their bodies before tattoo parlors. It took us a long time to invent something that gave us such easy access to the entire history of human development and expression. And how awesome is it to live right now and see it.