Language and art: From paleolithic art to writing Four lectures 12th Early Fall School of Semiotics “Semiotics of Genre”
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Language and art: From paleolithic art to writing Four lectures
Evolution of the brain
Changes in the geometry of the crane
Maturation of the brain and overall growth of the body
Evolution of cerebral areas and blood flow while words are seen or heard
Instrumentality in higher mammals and man
The development of tool-use and tool making implies learning, social imitation or even teaching. Tembrok (1977: 186 f) distinguishes six levels:
The Design of Lithic Instruments
He beginning of graphical art
Rock engravings and later plastic art in stone may be understood as the origin of representational art.
Drawings on portable art
Paleolithic cave paintings
Drawing techniques and body motion
Patterns of locomotion are not only relevant for the content of pictures but also for their production. Beltran et al (1998: 72) have shown that painters in the cave of Altamira stood with their left arm on the cave wall and traced along it to get a long curved line; i.e., they used their (left) arm and hand as a mold for lines. In a similar way the natural motion of the arm with fixed body was the basis for larger curved lines, e.g., the shoulder and back of a bison, i.e., the human limbs were used as instruments in a ritualized act of painting. The drawing of a bison can thus be decomposed into a series of natural motion patterns, which begin at the head and end at the hind legs (variants of this technique are common).
The cultural achievement of Paleolithic art presupposes a rather general grid of meanings on the level of values in a probably multilingual society of hunters. It would be exceptional if the existence of a large-scale system of values for exchange had not produced a collective system of meanings.
Paleolithic paintings contain many signs, which cannot be interpreted as pictures or figures. The transition between iconic signs and abstract signs (symbols) occurs first with very frequent contents. Two human body-parts appear regularly in the paintings and engravings:
Styled Represen-tations of hands
The relation of hands to their body is metonymical (pars pro toto), i.e., one can guess the whole if one has the necessary knowledge, which is easy in the case of the hand. In some cases, the hands are deformed (e.g., have only four fingers); they could therefore be the personal signature of a painter; some authors even guessed an underlying gestured language.
Many other pictures cannot be linked with specific contents, from which they are derived. Leroi-Gourhan (1992: chapter IX) made an inventory of the Franco-Cantabric signs and distinguished three major classes:
Combination (and separation) of pictorial and abstract signs in the Paleolithic period.
The small signs could be derived by “disjunction”, i.e., certain figural features from pictures are isolated, cut off. The general tendency is one of geometrical abstraction. Small pictures as in portable art could have triggered the abstraction. The conventionalized miniature signs were later added to full-scale pictures in the cave paintings. This is the same process as the one observed in the evolution of early writing systems, e.g., in Egypt.
The signs called “tecti-forms” or rectangular (cf. ibidem: 208 f.) look like huts or shelters and could refer secondarily to the domain of females (In a matrilineal society, daughters inherit the house and objects in the house and these are associated with the female sex). Figure 17 shows some examples from Leroi-Gourhan (1992: 319).
The transition to the Mesolithic (after the last ice-age and after the Magdalenean 17.00to 11.000)
Transition to the Meso- und Neolithic
The disappearance of the Sahara civilizations
Rock-engravings in the Alps as a reminiscence of a cultural stage preceding the modern writing systems
The distribution of menhirs with pictures in the province Trentino
Type of figure found in rock-engravings in the Alps
As the Nilotic cultures melted into the civilization of early Egypt, there was possibly a continuity (in the Mesolithic period) between Paleolithic art in Northern Africa and early writing systems (e.g., in Egypt and Mesopatamia). The hieroglyphic characters are pictorial (although schematized) and sequential, i.e., they are at the level of semi-symbolic signs in the hierarchy. As soon as signs for a word with one consonant were used as signs for this consonant, a consonantal alphabet could be created. It remains controversial if Mesolithic sign systems really contributed to the evolution of writing. Coulmas (1989:17) enumerates three characteristics of writing:
From object-language to writing
Transition to writing (the last 10.000 years): Object signs
The abstraction process from pictures to writing symbols corresponds to a general mnemonic principle. This is also valid for messages in an object language employed by Yoruba tribes and in Australian messenger-sticks. The message is coded for the messenger, who “reads” it when he arrives after a long journey. This guarantees that he does not forget important contents, but it presupposes that he knows the message. This means that the written message can only be “read” accurately if the reader has a knowledge of its contents independently from the “written” document (cf. Friedrich, 1960: 17).
The communicative/functional usage of writing was systematically developed in Mesopotamia, which became a melting pot of many cultures and concentrated large populations into one organized political system. The paths for the exchange of goods, values, and ideas became complex and difficult to control. The civilizations of Mesopotamia (and the “golden crescent”) took their new shape between 11 and 8.000y. BP. The first “token” systems, called “object languages” by Schmandt-Besserat (1978), appeared ca. during this area and were not dramatically changed for almost five millennia. Only in the Bronze Age, between 7,500y. BP and 5,100y. BP, did the number of tokens increase and their shape differentiate and finally give rise to Sumerian writing (ca. 5.000y. BP; cf. also Friedrich, 1966: 42 f.). The context was not religious but economic. The storage, transport and control of goods motivated a system of bookkeeping. A closed jar contained a number of symbolic objects, which stood for the goods sent to a destination. On the jar, a list of the symbolic objects in the jar was marked.
If we look closer at the symbolic objects in the table given by Schmandt-Besserat (1978: 87 f.) we notice the geometrical and abstract character of the signs: spheres, discs, pyramids, cones, tetrahedrons, biconoids, and ovoid are the basic shapes. On these bases, other abstract geometrical shapes are marked (in a lower dimension): holes, lines in/on the sphere, disk, etc. The Sumerian pictograms later flatten the symbolic objects to two-dimensional shapes.
Hieroglyphs in Egypt
As a word stood for a whole family of words with the same root, determina-tives were used to distinguish different word-forms. As only consonantal patterns were mapped into written symbols, the written forms were still ambiguous. There were two major methods of disambiguation:
The ideogram can be decomposed into more elementary strokes (ca. 20). Thus the number of elementary signs corresponds roughly to the number of signs in an alphabet (22 to 30).
Barham, Lawrence S. (2002). Systematic Pigment Use in the Middle Pleistocene of South-Central Africa. Current Anthropology, 43 (1), 181-190.
Friedrich, Johannes (1966). Geschichte der Schrift. Unter besonderer Berücksichtigung ihrer geistigen Entwicklung. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.
Sacchi, Dominque (2003) Le Magdalénien. Apogée de l’art quaternaire. La maison des roches, Paris.
Wenke, Robert J. (1999). Patterns in Prehistory. Humankind’s first Three Million Years. Oxford: Oxford U.P.
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