Earliest sign of a sense of aesthetics

By Steve Drury First PUBLISHED ON November 20, 2020

Maybe because of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a dearth of interesting new developments in the geosciences over that last few months: the ‘bread and butter’ of Earth-logs. So instead of allowing a gap in articles to develop, and as a sign that I haven’t succumbed, this piece concerns one of the most intriguing discoveries in palaeoanthropology.

In 1925 Wilfred Eitzman, a school teacher, investigated a cave in the Makapansgat Valley in Limpopo Province, South Africa that had been exposed by quarry workers.  His most striking discovery was a polished pebble made of very fine-grained, iron-rich silica, probably from a Precambrian banded iron formation. Being round and deeply pitted, it had clearly been subject to prolonged rolling and sand blasting in running water and wind.

Eerily, whichever way it was viewed it bore a striking resemblance to a primate face: eyes, mouth, nose and, viewed from the rear, a disturbing, toothless grin. We have all picked up odd-looking pebbles on beaches or a river bank: I recently found a sandstone demon-cat (it even has pointy ears) when digging a new vegetable patch.

The Makapansgat Pebble. Inverted it still resembles a face and its obverse side does too.

What is different about the Makapansgat Pebble is that Eitzman found it in a cave-floor layer full of bones, including those of australopithecines. The cave is located in dolomitic limestone outcrops high in the local drainage system, so it’s unlikely that the pebble was washed into it. The nearest occurrence of banded iron formation is about 20 kilometres away, so something must have carried the pebble for a day or more to the cave. The local area has since yielded a superb palaeontological record of early hominin evolution, stimulated by  Eitzman’s finds.

He gave the fossils and the pebble to Raymond Dart, the pioneer of South African palaeoanthropology. Dart named the hominin fossils Australopithecus prometheus because associated bones of other animals were covered in black stains that Dart eagerly regarded as signs of burning and thus cooking. When it became clear that the stains were of manganese oxide the name was changed to Au. africanus, the fossils eventually being dated to around 3 million years ago.

Dart was notorious for his showmanship, and the fossils and the Makapansgat Pebble ‘did the rounds’ and continue to do so. In 2016 the pebble was displayed with a golden rhino, a collection of apartheid-era badges and much more in the British Museum’s South Africa: the art of a nation exhibition.

Well, is the pebble art? As it shows no evidence of deliberate working it can not be considered art, but could be termed an objet trouvé. That is, an ‘object found by chance and held to have aesthetic value to an artist’. The pebble’s original finder 3 million years ago must have found the 0.25 kg pebble sufficiently interesting to have carried it back to the cave, presumably because of its clear resemblance to a hominin head: in fact a multiple-faced head.

Was it carried by a cave-dwelling australopithecine or an early member of genus Homo who left no other trace at Makapansgat? At an even earlier time a so-far undiscovered hominin did indeed make simple stone tools to dismember joints of meat on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya.

It is impossible to know who for sure carried the pebble, nor to know why. Yet all living primates are curious creatures, so it is far from impossible that any member of the hominins in our line of descent would have collected portable curiosities.

If you’d like to read more of Steve’s blog……https://earthlogs.org/homepage/

Many thanks to Steve Drury for permission to republish his article and to Bernie Bell for sending it into The Orkney News.

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  1. It’s a long way from 3 million years ago, to the Iron Age, but…people are people.

    A little stone was found at The Cairns archaeology dig in South Ronaldsay, Orkney https://archaeologyorkney.com/2018/06/15/the-structures-of-the-cairns/, which became known as the Wee Heid, because …that’s what it looks like. At the time, I wrote the following to Site Director, Martin Carruthers…..

    “Yesterday evening, we watched a television programme which we’d recorded – the last in the series ‘Romancing The Stone : The Golden Ages of British Sculpture’ presented by Alastair Sooke. There were some of Henry Moore’s sketches which reminded me of the Wee Heid and of the Piddock stone. Do you remember the Piddock stone I gave you, last year, as a ‘Good Luck’ amulet for The Cairns dig? Well, the Henry Moore sketches reminded me of those two things – The Wee Heid and the Piddock stone. I’m not a fan of Henry Moore, I do think a lot of his sculptures are…just lumps, but, in his sketches……………Henry Moore – Wee Heid – Piddock Stone. Do you get my drift? And see why this interests me? Something to do with basic shapes, something like human, which appeal to us humans.
    In the programme, Young Mr. Sooke also mentions Barbara Hepworth, who is another matter. Many rounded shapes, which are meant to be held.
    Henry Moore, Wee Heid, Piddock Stone, Barbara Hepworth – think on!

    Here’s what Piddocks are….. https://www.thehazeltree.co.uk/2013/08/21/piddocks-anything-but-boring/

    Here’s Steve’s view on that particular Pebblehead…… “Doubt that piddocks were involved in Pebbleface! Some kind of weathering, perhaps of poorly cemented parts, in an outcrop of the ironstone then water transport to round it. The glossy appearance may be sandblasting in wind, or even lots of little, sweaty australopithecines passing it around for generations …”

    And here’s my response……”I agree, Pebbleface doesn’t look like s/he was made by Piddocks – I’m going more for the idea of how much ‘humans’ like things which look – ‘human’.

    That’s another aspect of it – amulets – people like to have things which look like …’us’ ….as amulets.

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