|23 November 2009
Expert says ancient art was 'an instinct'
Images pecked in stone hundreds to thousands of years ago could be for religious reasons, to mark territories or simple doodles such as those still made today by children and adults. That is according to Dr. Ekkehart Malotki, a preeminent researcher into the history of rock art. "Creating art is a distinct piece of our biological make-up," he told during a lecture at Deer Valley Rock Art Center. "It is an instinct."
Malotki, a professor emeritus of languages at Northern Arizona University, said no one would ever know the true meaning of images pecked or painted on stone pallets because the artists are dead and did not leave a record or 'Rosetta Stone' to decipher the images' meanings. The oldest known rock art is a 300,000-year-old panel of small chipped cups, called cupules, found in India. He believes that the images of animals and people evolved from early artists' doodles. "The non-iconic abstract images preceded the representational (humans and animals) imagery," he said. "The nice images are what people focus on, but I like the non-iconic art."
Malotki believes that the ancient artists did not peck or paint images for decoration, but rather as a 'hardwired' need to create art as a survival technique, or a type of spiritual offering, 'to increase their odds of survival.' "The act of making the image was more important to them than the final result," he said.
The professor has teamed with evolutionary psychologist Ellen Dissanayake to study a theory that the reason images found in Arizona are identical to those found in the Sahara and elsewhere is because humans have a core of biologically universal images they are born with. Malotki lists 15 'human universals,' called phosphenes, found in rock art around the world. Some include circles, zigzags, spirals, dots (cupules) and boxes and rows of lines. "They are the same doodles children draw in school and adults draw while talking on the telephone," he said. However, with the advent of cell phones and text messages sent while people walk or drive, he fears the art of doodling could one day disappear.
Not all scientists agree with Malotki and Dissanayake's ideas of iconic rock art evolving from instinctual doodling. He said that is because some people's minds are trapped in a state of pareidolia. Pareidolia is the tendency for people to see images they are familiar with in something that is random or disorganized. For example, seeing faces in clouds or a man on the moon. Nancy Bodmer, a volunteer at the rock art center, said when she first started studying non-iconic rock art that she could see only images she was familiar with. "I'm originally from the Northeast, and I was looking at this image in the Agua Fria National Monument and all I could see was a sailboat with a broken mast," she said. "I was seeing a pre-set image I had in my mind."
To learn more about Malotki or to view his photo gallery of rock art from around the world, visit oak.ucc.nau.edu/malotki/.
Source: The Daily Courier (9 November 2009)
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