Prehistory: a contribution to the discussion

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Prehistory: a contribution to the discussion
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The discussion that follows was prompted by the article: Prehistory: a contribution to the discussion. The discussion was initiated by Fred.
Below is the discussion so far. Feel free to add your own comments!

What a piece of work is man

Thank you baboon for presenting your discoveries and thoughts about this amazing history of ourselves, In such a way that an uniniated reader and beginner can benefit from it.  You have confirmed "the Old Masters" and their efforts and brought them up-to-date. What a piece of work! 


baboon wrote:
Many of the specifics of the Old Masters, Marx, Engels, Darwin, Wallace, Morgan, are wildly out of time and some just plain wrong. But I think we can say, in general, that all the major archaeological discoveries and all the positive anthropological research since, as well as those of genetics, have reinforced their positions and definitely their perspectives, as well as demonstrating the great antiquity of the beginnings of "culture" from the transition of ape to man.
the sex strike

Jens writes:

...the cultural phenomenon of what Knight calls the "sex strike" is by no means a matter of "manipulation" by women, since it is something in which all society participates. The fact that Gero transposes the prejudices of a 20th century feminist onto archaic humanity, and better still onto prehuman apes, merely demonstrates her own superficiality.


The whole idea of a "sex strike" sticks in the gullet. How can you have a "strike" that lasts perhaps for thousands of years?  How is it organized?  And, if women will not provide the necessary for bestial men to feast on....well, there are alternatives for men are there not?  It will not go into the details here.  I will not be ribald. Though the notion of the "sex strike" lends itself to ribaldry and dramatic farce and comedy such as is found  in Aristophanes' play "Lysistrata"  and in Restoration Comedy in England.  Is not a view of  the manipulatory factors embedded in sexual favours a product of class societies and not one to be associated with the solidarity of primitive communism?  As Jens points out, Joan Gero appears to be looking back into archaic times with the prejudices of a 20th century feminist.  But isn't this exactly what Knight is doing  too? 


And, just for the moment, lets assume that women at that time were up to creating such a strategy as a sex strike, why were the men so backward as to fall for it?  How did one half of society - the females - manage to acquire a canniness and sophistication not available to their more primitive and club wielding  male partners?  Jens gets round this by suggesting that "all society" participated in the sex strike cultural phenomenon,  even pre-human apes.  Surely this is not possible? 

I had a critique of the idea

I had a critique of the idea of the "sex strike" once, but I forgot what it was.

Is human evolution a

Is human evolution a conscious choice?  The question is raised by Jens, who thinks it can't be,  in his reply to baboon, who, according to Jens, thinks it is, or might be. 

The next  stage of our  human evolution will certainly be a conscious choice won't it, else it won't succeed at all and that'll just about be the end of everything. I mean, communism is a conscious evolutionary choice isn't it? 

But did we contribute at all  ourselves to our evolutionary journey fom ape to human?  Or was it all down to accidents or divine intervention?  Neither of those answers are particularly satisfying. So isn't it at all possible that things we did and choices we made on our earlier evolutionary journey made a positive contribution to our own development?  Were we not responsible for ourselves and our evolution even at an early stage in our growth? Does anybody know? 

There must have been moments when our earlier ancestors were presented with feelings of  "this is good/this is not so good" with regard to most of their activities. You can even see this behaviour in cats;  in connection with food, their relationships  with each other and with humans. They choose the things they like.  But cats haven't developed far when it comes to social relations, though lions have done fairly well.  So why were apes able to go further?


In liking the good over the not so good, a point must have been reached when it dawned on us in the form of  our ape-like forbears, that it might be possible not just to seek out the good, but actively pursue the better. I think this is what baboon is referring to when he mentions the sophistication, and even the beauty, of some of the cutting tools used by our ancestors.  They are not just crude instruments, he suggests, but express a growing awareness and consciousness of  what is  being produced resulting from a reflexive response to the activity being undertaken.  Is this not a manifestation of evolution emerging fom conscious choice? If the choice is for multiple use, or even for beauty of design, is this not an example of evolution resulting from the choices being made, and of ape to human evolution being the result of ape to human choice? 


If the answer is "no" then what is the explanation? 



guessing again

Although it could take years and years  of research to comment sensibly on this thread,  it would be lovely to read some responses to what baboon and Jens have said. 

As to the "key" to evolution. Might it not be the pursuit of shared happiness? .  And might not this most ethical of pursuits turn out to be what communism is?  Just guessing! 

Perhaps I ought to shut up

Perhaps I ought to shut up because I am no expert in this field or really in any field!  But if permission to speak was always just limited to the "experts" where would that leave us?  

Isnt it possible that the evolution of humanity has always been the task of humanity itself, and that's why we have reached the point we have while other animals have generally stayed where they were?  We haven't just sat around dumbly waiting for our genes - selfish or otherwise - to do something, but have made choices which have developed latent possibilities for solidarity, the growth of aesthetic sensibilities and of helpful technologies which, in turn, have extended us to do more. Scientists and thinkers locked more or less permanently into the bourgeois view of life, where humanity by and large is seen as quite separate from nature which is only there to be exploited, and where humanity - specially the class of the bourgeois - has a sort of god-given existence, and didn't so much evolve as fall ready-made from heaven, would no more consider that our evolution  was our own on-going work, than they would consider that the emancipation of the working class was the task of the class itself, and that this act was/will be an essential part of continuing human evolution.  So they look around for more mechanical and "objectively scientific" explanations of human evolution never even considering that "we do it ourselves".


That we may be responsible for our own increasingly conscious self-organization and evolutionary  development is not an idea likely to find easy acceptance among the   bourgeoisie and its ideologists and scientists as it runs contrary to capitalism's grain.   Maybe Jay Gould was working in this direction as jk hints elsewhere, but Dawkins can appear obsessed with religion which must strongly influence his thought.  


I realize we mere ignorant workers are not supposed to say things like this, specially if we can't cough up any supporting academic evidence, but what the hec! 

Good Question

Fred wrote:

Isnt it possible that the evolution of humanity has always been the task of humanity itself, and that's why we have reached the point we have while other animals have generally stayed where they were?  We haven't just sat around dumbly waiting for our genes - selfish or otherwise - to do something, but have made choices which have developed latent possibilities for solidarity, the growth of aesthetic sensibilities and of helpful technologies which, in turn, have extended us to do more.


I don't know Fred, but such a view seems rather incompatible with the main thrust of selfish-gene theory, which seems to, in my view, insist we are mere vehicles for our genes, which are the true subject of history. Organisms are just shells which hide the real replicators, those double stranded bands of DNA that hide inside every cell, but which somehow reach out past the cell wall to effect events in the envrionment. All of this, for me, reeks of biological reductionism--a constant feature of our culture today, in which we really can't understand anything unless we are dealing with the smallest level of analysis possible. Such an approach has become something like folk wisdom today. You can hear it on those 30 second blurbs on the radio in which, in an effort to bring us some interesting fact, the DJ tells us that in order to really understand love, you have to understand how oxytocin works at the molecular level. Of course, it is not clear, if we are going to go this route, why we should stop with genes. What about more simple strands of protein, which we know from the emerging understanding of prion diseases can actually replicate just like DNA?

Good answer

Thank you jk for your helpful and particularly lucid reply.  The bourgeoisie look for mechanical answers to everything. Its the machinery of our bodies that drives us, our DNA, genes, and red blood cells, and that's all we need to know.  Its a kind of Newtonianism gone mad.

 And is the Selfish Gene theory not merely a god-substitute?   We are the products not of Divine Intervention anymore but of the blind activity of our all-knowing genes.  What we think and feel, and how we respond to the environment and each other has nothing to do with our evolution. Its  all a mechanical process.  Not god-driven but gene-driven. 


Its the same with the sex-strike.  Dressed up as Marxism, this reduces our intellectual growth to the mechanics of aplied-sex. This is a sexual life, deprived of all its wonderful urgings and creativity, doled out mechanically  as a reward for obeying the rules of production.  But Marxism lays its emphasis on being fully human in human interaction and solidarity,  and with a growing consciousness of who and what we are, working together.  The reified  mechanical understanding of life, is a wholly bourgeois point of view. As jk  says: a constant feature of our culture today is that "we can't really understand anything unless we are dealing with the smallest level of analysis possible."   Is this not this  the bourgeoisie's way of avoiding the bigger picture, which shows them as doddering dodos on the verge of extinction. 



Here is an article about the discovery of remains that showed hunter-gatherers and farmers lived side by side with one another, including using the same burial cave, but without interbreeding for something live 2,000 years. Its an interesting piece, althought I don't know what the ultimate import is for understating pre-history.

Sex strike!

jk1921 wrote:

I don't know Fred, but such a view seems rather incompatible with the main thrust of selfish-gene theory, which seems to, in my view, insist we are mere vehicles for our genes, which are the true subject of history. Organisms are just shells which hide the real replicators, those double stranded bands of DNA that hide inside every cell, but which somehow reach out past the cell wall to effect events in the envrionment.

To be fair to Dawkins, in his Selfish Gene he is constantly making the point that when you get to humanity things change, that our evolution is no longer determined solely by the rhythm of genetics, and that what he says about bodies (and minds) merely being replicators doesn't hold when it comes to humans. If you've not read the book I recommend it, apart from anything else it's fascinating on the subject of natural history, just brim-full of weird and wonderful examples, and which are used to demonstrate very clearly just how evolution can be explained by this way, including what seem to be some utterly unlikely examples of symbiosis amongst animals and plants.

As for our ancestors "consciously" determining evolution Fred - well, first of all you've got to be conscious. It is clear that humans have modified their genetic evolution culturally: for example, the fact that Europeans can digest milk much more readily than Asians is the result of our descent from herdsmen who made, in effect, a cultural choice (though of course they didn't know that they were modifying their genes!). But the question Knight is posing is how we got from unconscious to conscious. His use of the "sex strike" analogy is perhaps not a very happy one, but I personally would agree with Jens that he is at the least asking the right questions the right way.

Moreover, to say that we can be manipulative and show solidarity only demonstrates that humans (like everything else in nature) are contradictory!

I agree with Lone about

I agree with Lone about Dawkins and the latter himself said that his book could just as well be called "The Unselfish Gene", which is borne out by the content of his book.

A book I'd recommend "updating" Darwin involving genetics and the role of humanity is Steve Jones' "Almost Like A Whale". I think that this is a more interesting and informative read than Dawkins.

Lone and Baboon, do you think

Lone and Baboon, do you think Jay Gould's critique of the selfish gene theory is a straw man then?

I haven't read it, nor heard

I haven't read it, nor heard of it before jk. But I've not been impressed with what I've read of Jay Gould. I would need to dig deeper for a better critique.

Faulty replication

I would agree with Lone and baboon that Dawkins' 1976 expression of a radically new standpoint from which to view selection and evolution was of much more substance than many of the 'drift' reproductions and reductions which came to be 'what people said it said'. 

I would,however, add that this does not make Stephen Jay Gould's opposing standpoint a 'straw man argument'. Even from my very modest grasp of the of the still ongoing debate: it is often (not unreasonably) summed up as 'phenotype versus genotype' or "genes playing a causal role" versus "genes a passive recorders of what worked best" (Dawkins himself makes a similar brief summation). There's more substance on both sides - and 'Almost Like a Whale' sounds like a third -will investigate.

As with Lone's 'weird and wonderful' examples, I found just incredible the mechanisms for replicating gene strings/ base pairs: the enzyme which 'proof reads' the first blueprint 'typos' in amino acid connections: another enzyme which then repairs the mismatches before even one diploid cell replicates. The first blueprint is 99% correct but this seeming efficiency would nonetheless result in 120,000 chemical errors before 'proof reading' and repair - that's just in one cell and we have 6 billion: that's 6,000,000 times 120,000: we'd still be primordial soup but for the (bad pun warning) 'genius' of these replicators: so it was a thought provoking standpoint to start from.

The relationship between the replicator and the 'vessel' (wolf, spider) is always in the picture especially when it comes to humans: to me it was as if he was describing the picture from the 'point of view' of the chemicals in the paint rather than the viewer in the art gallery ...  ah ! how seductive is academia ...ahem. 

Meanwhile back at the Class Struggle .... 

 'The Selfish Gene' was a title just begging to be misconstrued.  Actually, one of his friends warned of the consequences and suggested 'The Immortal Gene' ...which is surely out of the frying pan into the fire, suggesting most definitely - as Fred comments - a sort of atheistic deity.


(We will now sing Hymn 147 of The Genomic Church : 'Immortal, invisible Gene only wise ...')




Like, but don't know enough

Funnily enough, unlike baboon I really enjoyed what I have read of Gould... but unfortunately I have not read his debate with Dawkins. But there is even a Wikipedia entry on the subject, so I do need to bone up on at least a rough appreciation before trying to say anything half way intelligent.

Gould, a very serious contributor to the discussion on evolution

I have tried to grapple with the Dawkins V Gould discussion but found it not at all clear, but I am no scientist. However, in order to try and understand Gould's analysis I tried to plough my way through his truly monument:The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Unfortuntaly I only got to the 30s, but what I read was extremely interesting and appeared to be a very serious academic attempt to understand the historical development of evolutionary theory.

Neanderthal symbolism?

There is very interesting news today of a discovery of possible symbolic engraving by Neanderthals in Gorham cave in Gibraltar. It’s been dated to some 40,000 years ago and consists of eight etched inter-crossing lines on an area about the size of a dinner plate that would have required 317 separate strokes. There’s no doubt that the design is deliberate and it strikes me as similar to designs made by Sapiens on materials and, in the Upper Palaeolithic, similarities to some of the “signs” that connect and make part of the cave art of Europe. Painted dot signs, again similar to those of Sapiens in Chauvet Cave, have been attributed to Neanderthal and dated 41,000 years ago in El Castillo in Spain when members of the species occupied the site. But the dating method has been disputed by arguments about soil erosion which could possibly give them a later, Sapien involvement. And the design at Gorham Cave, along with the dating and other evidence has to be validated. But it shouldn’t be surprising if it’s true because we have come a long way from the bourgeoisie’s post-war view of Neanderthals as brutish, ignorant clods to the point where we understand that we are not just cousins but kissing cousins. There is a small but significant amount of Neanderthal DNA in our blood as there is from the other species, the Denisovans, which we mixed with. We have shagged around somewhat.

The Neanderthals seem to have developed from Homo Erectus and have existed for hundreds of thousands of years in an area from Swanscomb in Britain and Gibraltar in the east to Okladnikov, Siberia in the west and down to Iraq and the Levant. They were both muscular and marathon runners. They lived alongside the “incomers” from Africa for around ten thousand years, sometimes sharing the same “industrial” sites and, possibly, picking up advances from Sapiens. There is clear evidence over time of the development of Neanderthal society even up to very close in archaeological terms to their eventual demise.

The bourgeois view of early homo as a beast and a scavenger, still quite a strong view among many, is used to propagate the idea of the superiority of present society. But the more we research Neanderthal life the more we learn about the sophistication of this species. They had refined hunting strategies, medicines, healers and carers, morality and buried some of their dead with painted ochre and, in one case in Israel, with a deer’s skull by the side of an infant. It all implies a culture and a society. They understood the chemistry of cooking, cooked meat and vegetables around hearths. Their tool manufacture was sophisticated, hafting and becoming more developed as time went on. They made and dyed pendants from shells as finds throughout Spain show and they made pigments from pyrites, manganese oxide and red ochre. They were doing this 40,000 years ago so abstract symbolic art is certainly not out of the question. Well prior to this early Neanderthals, 200-300 thousand years ago, were preparing ochre pigments around a definite hearth (Terrra Amata).

The evidence put forward in the 70’s that analysis showed that Neanderthals couldn’t speak has been completely refuted. It remains to be seen whether this present discovery and analysis will be validated but it is clear that this idea of Neanderthals and early homo as brutish beasts, an idea put forward by the likes of Lewis Binford and, I believe, supported by Chris Knight in Blood Relations, is one that has no historical resonance. Culture and society go back a very long way and are not peculiar to our own particular species.


I dont think that the views of Chris Knight, or others in his 'school', regarding Neanderthals, is static. For example, Joao Zilhao's article in the RAG journal, 'Neanderthals are us':


Happy that this thread continues - with gaps: a bit like fossil skull lineage. Thanks for the news of new discoveries in the Neanderthal world. I will read more.

Some time ago I read of the consensus of research which established the existence of Neanderthal D.N.A in my corporeal form. It came as no surprise. And vindicated my belief that the myth of Neanderthals as grunting, rude, simpletons was pure fabrication (I only pretend to be simple). 

A modest caucasian archaeologist on Radio 4 gave a presentation on the spread of Homo Sapiens (son of Homo Habilis) from equatorial climes, describing the evidence for mixing with Neanderthal groups to the north and concluding with: 'So we Africans have roughly 2% European Neanderthal DNA throughout the population.' It was nicely ironic that the BBC should broadcast that we are all African and that he used an 'N-word' with an entirely different meaning.

More seriously: it is deemed problematic to pick animal kingdom parallels and bring them to bear on human evolution/behaviour and I certainly understand why. However it has always seemed to me equally stubborn and perhaps a little perverse to accept that elephants, orangutans etc. could care about their offspring/partners et al but that palaeolithic woman could not have any finer emotional feelings or aesthetic impulses until her impregnator discovered surplus value. I remember you writing about a cave painting baboon and how the way the rock face/cleft enhanced it and the use of its geometry was part of the work. No amount of 'measuring' could ever prove it but since when did intuition, vision, feeling, become unacceptable forms of human perception and judgement? Since bourgeois whitey said they did surely. If you got it, he meant it, as you may agree. The same with the 'holy' written word: Geronimo had no wisdom because he couldn't write it down. Crazy Horse wouldn't know what to do with an iPhone 6 .Yes he would: walk away.


(call me a crazed old hippy if you like Alf but....)



Some interesting news

... from one old hippy to another, concerns cave paintings on the Indonesian island of Salawest being dated to nearly 40,000 years ago. They were originally thought to be ten thousand years old but a uranium decay techniqe dates the calcite covering and whatever's below must be older. The calcite over paintings of hands - where the red pigment had been blown over the outstretched hand on the cave wall - has been dated to 39.9 thousand years ago and the covering on a babinusa, a pig-deer type animal, was dated to 39.4 thousand years ago. The practice of hand "paintings" on the wall is also a strong feature of European art at the same time, where both the "postive" blown over the hand method is used or the "negative", where the paint is applied to the wall from the palm, finers and thumb and sometimes the lower arm. There are hand prints of men, women and adolescents and sometimes they form a picture or a motif of their own. The dating of the Salawest hand paintings make these the oldest in the world. Ritual implications are strongly suggested both here and in Europe: the colour of the paint which is always red and the connection with and possibly through the cave wall and into the other world.


If it's confirmed, what this find does is undermine the validity of a certain Eurocentric view that exists in the question of the development of paleaolithic art and culture generally. I thought that this argument had already been undermined by the existence of the Australian aborignal art which itself dates back some thirty thousand years. But while it's certainly distinctive it seems to have been treated as a thing apart. What this find also tends to confirm, for me at least, is that the origins of this art didn't lie in a European "creative explosion" or an Australian specific, but existed in Africa long before. The idea of a "creative explosion" in Europe is a one-sided explanation. Humans were producing similar rock art at opposite ends of the Upper Paleaolithic Eurasian world.


Some scientists have posed the question did this develop with travel or did it occur independently. We know that in later periods ceramics, metallurgy and agriculture made appearances in different parts of the world at different times independent of one another. But to me the specifics of this homo sapien art suggests a fundamental and universal cultural developmennt that occured in Africa many millennia before. And while there are specificities and some independent developments of culture and the belief systems that contributed to its advance, the fundamentals were almost hard-wired into the brain much earlier on in Africa..



stimulating news baboon

I understand that during the last ice  age you could (probably) walk from where Singapore is all the way down to Timor and on to Western Australia without too many problems.  Also that, Papua being  attached to Eastern Australia, and with such low sea levels, you might have been able to make it from Papua to the Maluku isles and thus on to Sulawesi which probably had a very different shape then than it does now. This luxurious ease for curious pedestrians got the aboriginals into Australia no doubt, and others into elsewhere, like the "Hobbit" found in Flores  along with the skeletons of minuscule but fully grown elephants.  

People inquisitive about what lay ahead all the time could have walked out of Africa,  spreading East  and down into India,  or continued on to "Indo-China" and down in the direction of Australia with  all  sorts of fascinating things to see and do on the way. And delicious sea food easily available. 

The technique and fun of "hand prints" and developments of this they would take with them, and leave behind in suitable places as a sort  of "Ogg-Ogg was here" gesture, open to refinements as the exquisite diet of sea foods allowed  increased creative energy to the brain. 

So thank you for your stimulating news baboon. What fun it was to be alive in those days: 40,000 years ago. No ISIS no Ebola. No ruling class. 

On archaeological orthodoxy and new discoveries

I hesitate to preface any contribution to this discussion by claiming any expert status because I'm not an expert in early homo developments and cultures. But I have been lectured by and discussed with some world experts in this field, and went through academia at precisely the point when (for example) what I learned in 2006 was '20 years of convincing demolition of the "many roots" model' suddenly, because of work on Neandertahl DNA around 2009, became the 'all non-Africans have approximately 2.5% Neanderthal DNA model' (wiki link - ).

That link also mentions the Denisovans which are a relatively recent discovery, giving up to 6% of the DNA of modern Melanesians, and the same wiki page also has information on homo floresiensis, another (it seems) branch of the human family that lived from around (as far as we can tell) 100,000-12,000 years ago.

Also, the announcement of the second round of discoveries at the Blombos Cave in South Africa (2008) which go back to between 60,000 and 100,000BC - more than 25,000 years (maybe as much as 65,000 years) before the earliest European rock art (wiki link - ).

The relationships between h.sapiens and these other examples of homo groups (species? Maybe not, if they could interbreed) is complicated - genetically and culturally. But, at the moment, and I have to stress that all of this is provisional and could change with new evidence, the idea that Neanderthals produced art and practiced burial rites is extremely hotly disputed.

There seems to be a small group of archaeologists pushing for the notion that Neanderthals were functional 'modern', with culture including art and religion. There is also a small group of archaeologists pushing the idea that Neanderthals had no modern traits and were only opportunistic scavengers. The majority of archaeologists I think reject both these extreme positions and ascribe to Neanderthals social organisation and hunting, the use of boats, the cooking of food and some evidence suggests clothing (Neanderthals seem to have been tanning skins 100,000 years ago, and the evolution of lice adapted to living in clothes goes back 170,000 years or so it's thought).

There's a short piece here discussing work from one of my old lecturers (who is an expert on the Neanderthals) who is trying to bring about a change in how we see them but I don't think (in spite of what the article implies) that he's trying to define them as functionally modern; he's trying to stop them being seen as functionally little more than baboons (sorry baboon). They did it seems have an understanding of seasonality and other such concepts - but then again, many animals migrate in different seasons and exploit different environments during their lives or life-cycles, so I don't know how far such ideas can take us. In the end, Terry's 'many modern traits' isn't the same as 'Neanderthals were functionally modern', and I don't think the latter is actually his position.

Evidence for the social complexity associated with modern humans, with thought-processes that produce 'culture' as we understand it (including art, ideology and all the rest of it) at present seem to belong to homo sapiens rather than homo neanderthaliensis - at the current state of our knowledge, I have to stress.


EDIT: me and my big mouth. It seems Terry has now developed his view - in the light of new discoveries - and is now arguing more forcefully that Neanderthals do have symbolic thought and therefore art, ideology etc. I do think there's a problem though with seeing Neanderthal culture as emerging after  50,000BC though as this means after contact with homo sapiens. Is it then idependant of the influence of (and even interbreeding with) modern humans?

I think that the question of

I think that the question of neanderthal "culture" is a complicated on but one the evidence so far it is beginning to look like that one such existed. What's positive is that we are clearly moving away from the bourgeois view of the H.N. as an ignorant brute - an ideology that was clearly linked to the bourgeoisie's distortion of Darwin's position into "dog eat dog". The extinction of the species similarly is complex but it seems that H.N. were still developing in the later, final periods of its existence and this could well have been down to association with H.S.

On the question of the art just dated in Salawest here's a reference for a good piece in the "Observer" yesterday There's a sweet quote from art critic John Berger who said of Upper Paleaolithic rock art that "there was grace here from the start". That is absolutely  correct and such an understanding is a long way from that of Cambridge University archaeologist Paul Bahn. Bahn, who also writes a lot of background stuff for BBC science programmes (you can often hear his Eurocentricity coming through), had the position that early prehistoric art was crude and meaningless and it gradually got better the closer we came to Europe and the closer we came to the present. For him, and he argued agaiinst it viciously, there was no meaning to early prehistoric art. Not only was Bahn's ignorant position destroyed by the discovery of Chauvet it had already been demolished by Max Raphael 70 years ago. Similarly the Salawest finds undermines the positions of US archaeologist Lewis Binfordl, who held similar positions to Bahn about early man and who argued that culture began with a relatively recent and sudden cultural "explosion".

I haven't seen much of the Salawest painting but from reading some descriptions they, like those of France and Spain, strongly indicate shamanistic practives which again point to those being developed a long way back in prehistoric Africa going on to be a universal phenomenon.

African origins

I'd absolutely agree about the African origins of art, with the Blombos Cave discoveries raising the interesting question that we may be looking in the wrong places. The latest discoveries in SE Asia date to around 40,000 years ago, but the Blombos Cave 'paint set' is around 30,000 years older than that (or maybe more) and at least suggests that art as bodily decoration may have been practiced tens of thousands of years before we have any cave art. If humanity started painting itself 100,000 years ago, or 200,000 years ago, how could we tell? It's only when pictures start appearing on walls (and then we find the walls, with pictures that have survived through chance) that we date the beginnings of art. Something like the art set from Blombos Cave suggests that modern humans might have been using other canvases (perhaps including themselves) but the direct evidence is obviously somewhat lacking.


The Neanderthals are odd, to say the least. Yes, there is evidence (or at least an argument) for Neanderthal culture but only after about 70,000BC in the Middle East, which is when Neanderthals and h. sapiens were interacting in that area, and only after about 40,000BC in Europe, by which time modern humans had arrived there too. It looks to me - but I have to say again, only in light of what I know - that the stimulus for h. neanderthaliensis to develop culture as we undertand it was likely to have been contact with h. sapiens.




Does anthropology see itself as an art or as a science?  I suspect those who follow it would like to claim it as a science, but it isn't like physics is it? It seems to me to be more like a history of humanity's early efforts at art and in the field of  technological developments. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But I suspect Chris Knight among others would like to believe he was pursuing and contributing to a scientific endeavor.  And science  gets all the kudos  these days doesn't it, on this web site too?  I recall Ernie one  time confessing he knew nothing about science and seeming unhappy about this.  It's the sort of thing can make people ill. But this shouldn't be the case. I hope Ernie  is well and all the other comrades who used to post on here from time to time but have now fallen silent.  The silence contributes to the feeling that the ICC is in trouble and that while news of its death may be exaggerated that it might not be as exaggerated as all that. 

This is the fourth post I have attempted on this site today. I have lost them all because of a frozen screen!!  So didn't expect this to work either.  The others didn't contain my somewhat depressing sentiments which are probably the result of frustration.  I also lost two not very good attempts at posts on libcom.  I think it's the result of some iPad update that's gone horribly wrong. But hi-tech like science is not at all  my cup of tea.  Though I dont intend intend suicide because of this.  At least not as far as I know. 

technology and science

Fred, I know nothing about IPads but I think that the best way to guarantee a post is to put it in Word first,.copy it and paste it onto the site.

There must be a scientific explanation to anthropology, art and religion and it's the materialist view of history and the development of its antagonisms. In "The Poverty of Philosophy", Marx outlines the development of machinery (and indeed classical slavery) as essential to the development of capitalism and thus the emancipation of humanity. This to me is a scientific dialectical analysis. Marx criticises Proudhon and the Utopians for looking for scientific formulas that would enable them to solve the "social question" instead of "deriving their science from a critical knowledge of the social movement, a movement itself which produces the material conditions for emancipation". As well as looking for scientific formulas that would raise him above the classes, Proudhon is instead buffeted between and beneath the both. Marx suggests that his dialectics is limited to the "on the one hand, on the other hand" approach and that Proudhon himself is "a scientific interpretation of the French petty-bourgeoisie..." ("a social contradiction in action").

I hope to return to more of this soon in some depth in relation to art which is essentially the same question.

Anthropology suffers from the

Anthropology suffers from the same problems as all "social" sciences. You can employ a scientific method, but the quality of observations is far less consistent than we are able to achieve in the physical sciences. Secondly, the subject matter (human beings, unless one is considering the biological human being that is) is subject to change far more rapidly than the behaviour of matter. Thirdly, there can be no separation from subject or object, even in the abstract. Even bourgeois social thought is capable of recognising the difficulties here.

Marx, of course, as baboon notes above take a dialectical approach to the question, particularly of the relationship between subject and object. Marx neither attempts to separate them nor does he fuse them together but tries to show the relationship between them. Social relations are built on a material base and yet influence that base at the same time. While positivism (crudely speaking, the concept of social sciences being no different from natural science) focuses on empirical data, facts, behaviour and has little use for the role of ideas (not true for all positivists, though), Marx lays great stress on the role of consciousness.

The other question of the relationship between "social science" and natural sciences (and thus positivism) is around the question of natural laws. The positivist seeks to uncover the laws that govern societies. Marx was similar, but for him those laws could only be the historical product of particular socieities at particular times. His critique of bourgeois economics was not simply that their understanding of capitalism's laws of motion was flawed but also their failure to recognise that those laws, while objective as far as capitalism was concerned, were also the subject product of human actitivity. There was nothing natural about "value", which is a fetishistic category peculiar to commodity production, even though it is perfectly natural for capitalism.

Sadly, I am unable to offer any intelligent observations concerning art ...

Where did the great

Where did the great taken-for-granted split between art and science come from and is it to be accepted as a fact of life?              For Michelangelo and Leonardo there was no such split. They were artists and engineers; architects, planners,  inventors of flying machines, anatomists and sculptors, and versifiers  too as the spirit took them.  Their  amazing works, commissioned by popes, Dukes and cardinals, still astound today. They were holistic men. Their workshops, full of assistants and apprentices, contained men of similar outlook and talent to the masterful  organizers themselves.             The bourgeoisie take charge of society and all this changes.  Commodity production means that artisans become restricted to a particular technique or job. Portrait painters are to be distinguished from architects and grooms from turnip growers. They produce different goods.            Science, as it emerges at the hands of Galileo and Newton, becomes exceedingly specialized and is seemingly useless.  You can't sell it after all. You need to be a capable mathematician in order to follow it.  It is a pursuit for those with time on their hands and money too and the ordinary worker doesn't need to know about it in carrying out his job.               When the bourgeoisie finally realizes that it would be advantageous for the pursuit of profit if the working class had a modicum of education and training,  reading, writing and simple arithmetic are to the fore. Luxurious extras, such as finishing schools for young and paying ladies went in for,  would include music and "the arts". If you were working class and found yourself in a better school you might get similar treatment with maybe a singing lesson and painting too.  But no science.  Possibly "nature study" as a complement to "scripture" but no science.                Thus the established state education system including those with religious foundations, fixes as in concrete the acceptability for all of what we now call "the arts" and builds up the myth of science as unattainable for most and unnecessary too. Not only do you not need it but it's difficult as well.  And who anyway was going to teach it?  Where did those with an understanding of science come from if it wasn't taught in schools?                One of the few things that you truly learned in school then, was that "science" was a thing apart and not really for you! It was different from everything else and was restricted, somewhere, wherever they did it, to special people. Probably rich fee paying kids at a posh private school. They of course were altogether different from you, even talked different, and you knew better than to think you could be anything like them. Such was education a few years back. Is it still the same? I think so.              So the bourgeoisie has done science and nearly all of us a great disabling service in establishing the unsuitability of science as a relevant education for most people.   This now is something we have to overcome. Because I have glimmerings of understandings about the discipline called anthropology I concluded that it can't be a science and must be an art, like history.  But isn't history a science too?  Hasn't marxism made a science of history?              Demogorgon.  above distinguishes between the hard sciences and the social sciences and makes very interesting remarks about "positivism". He thereby probes the vague sense of inferiority I inherited from working class school days, where I think they tried hard to stultify me along with countless others. And if they didn't succeed completely it wasn't for want of trying.              Baboon has made some tantalizing remarks about the status of art and seems to be suggesting that it might well have scientific underpinnings too. This would not surprise Michelangelo or Leonardo,  and so I hope baboon's thoughts appear soon.        

As soon as possible Fred.

As soon as possible Fred. But, apart from prehistoric art, I know absolutely nothing about "art" in general and its expression through the ages. I agree with a lot of what you say above and the general sense. I agree that marxism has made a science out of history and I think that, even with a very limited knowledge of art (limited to zero in my case), one should be able to give marxist perspective on it - the same for science.

I also think that one has to say that science in good part - scientific endevour - gave rise to machinery and that gave rise to the working class which gave further rise to a materialist understanding of history which is itself scientific. Anyway, press on - I've got to find out what's significant about the paintings of Courbet..

art and science...

Baboon, you could check out this text, from a previous discussion day, which deals briefly with the significance of Courbet and the ‘Realist’ school. But it’s worth saying here that the text refers several times to ‘modern bourgeois art’, whereas an  important clarification from the discussion for me was that it is fundamentally wrong to talk of ‘bourgeois art’, in the same way as it is wrong to claim there is such a thing as ‘bourgeois science’. I would now refer more accurately refer to ‘art in bourgeois society’. I don’t think this is just semantic; as the text itself says, the best art, just as the best science, inevitably comes into conflict with capitalist ideology. Big discussion, but there are definitely parallels between science and art here.

Also, Fred makes an important point about Leonardo et al not seeing themselves as ‘scientists’ or ‘artists’ – the Renaissance was still a period when the revolutionary bourgeoisie aspired to a unified world view. Also, Greek art was based on ‘scientific’ principles, geometry, ‘golden proportions’, etc….

I know what I like

Thanks MH, but when I put the cursor on the red bit (link) the fickle finger of fate appears but doesn't connect when I click - have you another link please?


I think that from a marxist view there are many connections from art to science and to religion.


I take your point about Greek art. Marx wrote what for me was an enigmatic passage about it in his 1857 "Introduction to the Critique of the Political Economy", where he said that the classical Greek arts "are in certain respects regarded as a standard and unattainable ideal". This puzzled me at the time and I forgot about it. I will return to this issue in good time but my "mission" in my proposed piece is to put the  marxist interpretation of art by Max Raphael (who I mentioned in some detail in the "contribution to prehistory") in the arena of materialism where it belongs. I am struggling with terms like "the anti-dialectical positivism of Proudhon" but am ploughing on because however pathetic my input is this issue and Raphael's work deserves, demands, a wider discussion. On the quote above from Marx, Raphael says that the problem can only be solved through a historical analysis of the conditions in which Greek art has been able to reappear at certain stages of Christian art. You have to consider on one hand the nature of Christian art and the evolution of the social and economic conditions in which it appeared and on the other the "essence" of Greek art itself, which he describes as "anti-dogmatic" or dialectical. I'll return to this in time.


At the moment I am dealing with the first part of Raphael's book "Proudhon, Marx, Picasso" and here is a lengthy quote from that to give a taste of his approach: "To establish a sociology of art, we must first of all study the relations between ideological and material production. with reference to various social groupings - taking the classes first. If, instead of studying those relations, we were to subordinate art to 'science' and 'moral conscience' (as Proudhon does, B), we ought to at least demonstrate why science and conscience are more fundamental than the forces of production. Instead of investigating the interactions between ideological and material production, and their changing relations over the course of history, Proudhon advances an idealist thesis which is actually mechanistic. Incidentally, the idealistic and mechanistic  philosophies are perfectly compatible, and terms such as God, Substance, etc., only very faintly conceal this fact. The important thing about the mechanistic view of the world is not the nature it ascribes to active force (which idealism conceives of as spiritual). but the nature it ascribes to its own activity. As a result, Proudhon is unable to define concretely the only difference he does recognise in art, namely the difference between revolutionary and reactionary art. Such a definition is in fact impossible without reference to material production and the latter's relation to the dominant ideology.

Proudhon's only argument against Classicism and Romanticism (the latter shoudl be destroyed Proudhon said, B) is the charge that they are not "modern". Now, this argument, taken in a general sense, is not only not revolutionary, it is completely meaningless (Did not the reactionary diehards of Romanticism regard themselves as "modern"?). There is no such thing as a uniform, abstract historical consciousness. There can be no historical consciousness at all without class consciousness. Which clas is objectively revolutionary? Only the answer to this question can deterimine the degree of modernity of a work of art. Even the most reactionary art earns the approval of some part of society (within the ruling class and within the oppressed class). and such an art will always be able to regard itself as "modern" if it can overcome the opposition of still more reactionary parts of society. Proudhon's confused theory provides us with no means for discerning such illusions of "modernity" (of which recent examples have successively been Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Surrialism). Moreover, Proudhon himself wass unable to discern the deep-lying roots of contempory Classsicism and Romanticism. That is why he could only indulge in a moral lament".

In order to give his idealist interpretation of art some "body" Proudhon talks about an indivual "faculty" that he ascribes a "collective" to. and this "collective" is just another abstract, idealist  notion which  has nothing at all to do with any expanation of the sociology of art. Proudhon's collective force "... the masses - cannot perform the tasks that Proudhon assigns it, and that this is the real reason (he) is driven to take refuge in the moral mission of art".


lost link

Hi baboon, try searching for 'notes towards a history of art in ascendant and decadent cap' and that should bring it up.

ernst fischer

Ernst Fischer's The necessity of art should also be consulted. A long time since I read it though


Thanks for the two links above. I think that this will take a little time. Meanwhile, in my excitement (poor soul) a little more from Max and I am done here derailing this thread.

Art: “The social function of art may be defined as follows by its creative character, art does away with the inertia, the unproductivity, and the stupidity of the multitude. It activates the creative forces in them to such a point that they can contribute to the tasks assigned them by the conscious vanguard of either the class in power or the class struggling to seize power”
Proudhon gives no materialist basis or explanation for his ‘power of the collective’ and its dialectical relationship to the individual. His ‘collective’ can only be the masses “either the majority of the petty-bourgeoisie and the class conscious section of the proletariat.” The petty-bourgeoisie has ideals because it is unstable, hesitant and irrational. It has no class consciousness. This ‘collective’ can go in any direction.
“For Proudhon, art should be positive, it has a “mission”. For him art has a “true” “moral” mission and he bemoans the fact that artists become “auxiliaries of priesthood and despotism”, as though artists are free to choose between their “moral mission” and their sociological function.
Art is an echo of society and can assist in the means of oppression. Where does its “moral mission” come from? The best understood and most popular painter of Proudhon’s day was Horace Vernet who boasted about his ignorance and the millions he made from painting battles scenes. Proudhon is pained by this and cries in his book (Du principe de l’art et de sa destination sociale – Chapter X, B): ‘He (Vernet) is applauded by everybody – Are we then no nation of artists but grinning scoundrels?’” You can almost hear the moan of despair of the petty-bourgeoisie coming off the page. Proudhon tries to get round this by saying that “true” artistic regeneration will happen 40 or 50 years after a revolution. This “everybody” that he refers to above is, according to Raphael
“a class wavering between reality and a desire to escape reality, a class which when it has escaped reality inveighs against it and draws a utopian vision of the future This class is the petty-bourgeoisie.”

You sure?

Baboon, mate… don’t know who this Raphael guy is but not convinced it’s worth expending so much energy critiquing Proudhon on art… Maybe take a step back and check out the ‘notes’ first, which also draw on Fischer’s book (some really good insights despite him being an East German Stalinist). 


Arnold Hauser's The Social History of Art  is also well worth the read: a comprehensive analysis of art in all its aspects from early humanity to the 1960s.

Im positive MH

Born in Germany in 1887, the next thing we know about Raphael is that he deserted from the German army in 1917. In the early 20’s he lectured at the Berlin Volkshochule where he was kicked out by the directorate for bringing the question of dialectical materialism into art. He held no official position as an academic all his life and seems to have led an austere and difficult life most of which was spent on the run – he was even kicked out of Switzerland. He was disowned by the school of “Soviet Realism” and ignored in great part by the west with his work kept alive by just a small circle of friends. Many intellectuals are called “Marxists” by the bourgeoisie and many of these have extremely important insights into whatever fields they research into but ultimately they represent and disseminate bourgeois ideology – the “Marxist” appellation often gives them more credibility in undertaking this task. The archaeologist V. Gordon Chile is a case in point – great insights but kept within the confines that suited the bourgeois view of history.  Another is the anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, who is labelled a “Marxist” by the bourgeoisie because of his use of structuralism in the field of art and myth. But the structuralism of Levi-Strauss, as important as his insights are, remain limited in its final analysis which is why he has been so feted by the bourgeoisie. Rather than  just a structuralist and bourgeois appointed “Marxist” who stays within the limits of capitalism, Raphael goes beyond this and moves outside capitalism with his dialectical approach to art.

Raphael met Matisse, Picasso, Rodin and others in Paris and described Picasso as by far the most gifted and eminent artists of our day and added that Picasso “lacked the ethos of the man who rises above the present and faces towards the future”.  Over thirty years before art critic John Berger broke the left dominated taboo and criticised “Guernica”, Raphael had done the same, saying that “this work stigmatises the destructiveness of a disintegrating society with a power no other artist has equalled...but what is in question here is not Picasso’s personal abilities but the general historical fate of the European bourgeoisie”. For Raphael, Picasso was an expression of the bourgeoisie and how could he not be unless you think that artists exist outside class society.

I have somewhat enthused about the work of Raphael in relation to Proudhon but his criticism of Proudhon’s view on art closely follows  and parallel those of Marx in the “Poverty of Philosophy”. I don’t think that it’s everyday you come across such a phenomena as Max Raphael and for anyone interested in Marxism and art I would say that his work is important. It is for me anyway.

I was going to just write a piece about Raphael’s book “Proudhon, Marx, Picasso” and this seems to have turned into a Marxist study of art from the beginning of time which I am not qualified to do and don’t have the time to do.  I have now ordered Raphael’s  “Prehistoric cave paintings” and will confine myself to a summary of this.


Rule no. 1...

...never post late at night after drinking a bottle of wine.... I sometimes get a bit frustrated if it seems like we're in danger of reinventing the wheel in discussions when there are already texts/threads tackling a framework for understanding these questions. I'll try to come back with some more specific and constructive comments.

Response to MH above

I think that one of the tasks of marxism is, in some ways, to constantly reinvent the wheel. I don't see a discussion of art within the framework of marxism as being limited to certain specified texts or already established positions. Marxism is not a set of scriptures that have to be consulted and that we have remain within the confines of them. Comrades above say consult Arnold Hauser, look at Fischer (an east German stalinist) and, while I'm sure there are valid and useful contributions to the question of the developement of art from both, then in Max Raphael, here be a marxist, someone that applies a materialist analysis and a dialectical approach to art - and, if one reads just his polemic against Proudhon, you will see that his analyses also - necessarily - impinge on the questions of science and religion.

Max Raphael may be a new guy on the block, he may not belong to any sort of recognised "art club" and he may be woefully under-read and under-rated. But since when did that preclude a contribution to a marxist discussion on anything with the words 'we already know enough about this'? In fact the rejection and wilful ignorance of his position on art by all sides is, for me, a clue to the profound nature of his work. I defy anyone who calls themselves marxist to read his polemic against Proudhon and say that this is not a materialist and marxist approach to art.

Eagle talons and homo neanderthalensis


Some eagle talons found at a neanderthal site in Krapina, Croatia have now been dated to 130,000 years ago. They were found together and each of the talons had been polished, there were cut marks and notches on their base suggesting that they had been held together by sinew or a similar agent. What's important about this - apart from a further demolition of the idea of the "savage" neanderthal - is that this practice took place eighty thousand years before sapiens arrived in Europe - the previous explanation for neanderthal art of decoration being that they copied it from sapiens. This is now clearly not the case and suggests, with other evidence - that independent of homo sapien - neanderthals were familiar with symbolism and thus accessed some form of belief system.

Following worki by a team of

Following worki by a team of international researchers, just published in "Nature", comes the compelling evidence that mostly cave-dwelling Neanderthals in Belgium and Spain 50,000 years ago, were aware of antibiotics, pain-killers and digestive aids. An individual suffering from severe digestive and dental maladies had taken a penicillium fungus not dissimilar from that which Fleming worked on in the 1920's. It's doubtful but possible that he took this inadvertantly, but he also ingested salcyclic acid from poplar trees, the active ingredient of aspirin. There are various other examples taken from the teeth of the other individuals studied and it appears that some are meat-eaters and some are not.

Another blow to the social Darwinists and their "savage" ideology and another example of the depth of Neanderthal societies. It's also another example of the prime importance of gathering in Hunter-gathering societies.