One of the most interesting things about the arts is its ancient origins. For our purposes, here, the arts are defined as non-practical behavior that is expressed in material form or is signaled through various means e.g. music, or dance. The beginning of the phenomenon dates to around 70,000 to 100,000 years ago with the appearance of engraved geometric patterns. Sporadic evidence, though, for such engravings has been found, for example, on a shell dating to over 500,000 years ago, which may stem from a proto-aesthetic tendency arising from pattern perception and a sense of curiosity. The first indisputable evidence of multiple art practices, however, comes from Europe about 40,000 years ago. We need to go back to the origins of the arts because its beginnings can inform us as to why the behavior has become so fundamental to human endeavor and the reason it persisted over such a long time, right up to the present.

The question arises as to why early hunter-gatherers were minded to engage in the arts when time could have been more profitably spent dealing with the demands of immediate survival. To address this issue, we need to explain how, despite its apparent futility, the arts may have actually served some kind of function. As humans are an extremely social species, the explanation, perhaps, may be found in the demands coming from that behavior. In tracing the likely events that transpired from when humans were mainly hunter-gatherers—living in small isolated groups—up until when they began to congregate at auspicious times of the year to indulge in gift-giving and feasting to when they eventually began to live in large settled communities, we will be much better placed to understand the role of the arts in human evolution.

It seems, however, that the earliest hunter-gatherers of the Upper Paleolithic were not using the arts to facilitate communal bonding rather they exploited its merits for intense personal experience and small band attachment—often involving demanding ritual tasks—sometimes referred to as the “imagistic mode”. This seems to be borne out by the depictions of animals in caves which are, by definition, dangerous places, where many representations were deliberately placed in difficult-to-access locations. That scenario was set to change, probably somewhere during the mid to later period of 40,000 to 12,000 years ago, when population levels were on the rise and hunter-gatherers started to gather at particular times of the year in large groups at auspicious sites to exchange goods and celebrate. One way of assuaging suspicion and potential aggression toward unfamiliar others at such temporary gatherings was to engage in signaling behavior by exchanging gifts, like shells and beads, as well as making things together that had no obvious practical function. Taking those observations into account, the “function” of the arts may be said to have provided a mechanism for binding individuals together when group size expanded beyond the natural prosocial norm of around 150 individuals by producing normative displays for assessing the trustworthiness of strangers. Interestingly, that number represents the upper limit a person is able to dependably monitor the network of trust alliances present in a group.

The crucial question then arises as to how the arts were able to function in that way. It appears that the arts have a special resonance in that regard because the objects produced thereby are imbued with agency, i.e. brought to life through human intervention by acting as a critical node in the complex web of things in a culture. As the arts require extensive commitment with no obvious practical return, before an individual could be accepted as a worthy member of a group, investment in time and effort participating in the procedure was essential. So, by engaging in the arts, individuals were able to “prove” they were reliable members of a large group because they were willing to sacrifice time and effort participating in obscure activities with many unfamiliar individuals.

The reality of the above approach to understanding the original function of the arts is to be found in the fact that the making of apparent “non-functional” artistic objects was crucial to the coming together of large communal groups. What is remarkable about this is that the arts provided a mechanism by which pro-sociality could be artificially extended, so that communities could live in increasingly larger settlements and sedentary communities. In order to reinforce the prosocial quality of the arts, artifacts, and artistic behavior became an integral part of ritual activities, especially as this increased the emotional intensity of collective experience. In fact, making and doing things together has been found to increase endorphin levels (a reward hormone that reduces stress), which promotes a sense of affiliation.

It was once thought that monumental constructions, such as stone monoliths, could have only been made with the arrival of settled agricultural communities during the Neolithic, but the recent discovery of the 12,000-year-old site of Göbekli Tepe, and similar hunter-gatherer establishments from the same culture, has overturned that idea. In reality, what we find is the development before 12,000 years ago of small itinerant bands meeting in large numbers during auspicious times of the year, to increasingly large sedentary communities thereafter. We can see how that process developed at Göbekli Tepe with the construction of large monoliths, often engraved with animals, where people not only engaged in seasonal ritual activities but were also building semi-permanent shelters adjacent to the ritual site. A couple of thousand years later at Çatalhöyük, we eventually find a permanent settlement where a few thousand individuals inhabited houses where art objects were integral to each building. Fascinatingly, the ancestors interred under the floors of the buildings were not necessarily family members of the householders and were often exhumed to embellish the remains in various ways i.e. the ancestral vestiges became art objects.  Some archaeologists refer to the close assimilation of art objects with everyday life as “entanglement”, which nicely sums up how crucial art behavior was to the social cohesion of the first settled communities.

The connecting thread, here, is to be found in the idea that the arts acted as a signaling device, in the sense that they provided a means by which individuals coming together in large groups could display benign intentions. Such signaling became so indispensable to binding large communities that it was subject to exaggeration and intensification by becoming what is referred to as a costly signal (an honest indicator of worth). By integrating ritual with the arts, the effects of that signaling were intensified to the extent that the activity became a “super costly signal”. An obvious feature of such behavior is that the signal had to be regularly renewed and repeated to ensure ongoing conformity. For example, the same ritual object was invariably created many times, whether this took the form of statues or stone monoliths.  We might say that those artifacts became “coalition costly signals” which were useful in furthering group selection. This was probably achieved incrementally, by trial and error, deriving from the enjoyment that sprang from making and doing things together. In effect, this was a culturally evolved procedure involving engagement with materials and activities that became increasingly coupled with psycho-social feelings of well-being.

What’s more, the arts seem to have hastened the development of technical abilities and the rise of agricultural communities as, when groups assembled together, they required skills to craft monumental structures and make agrarian produce to service large numbers of people. In addition, by assembling together in large groups where assorted marriage partners could meet, the gene pool became more diverse, which led to a healthier sustainable population. However, as foragers began to transition to ever more settled hierarchical communities, the arts increasingly became a means of endorsing established doctrinal religions. This all goes to show that the arts should be regarded as fundamental to the evolution of human adaptation that had, and continues to have, profound effects on how we live and relate to one another.


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