The Berekhat Ram Figurine: A Late Acheulian Carving from the Middle East

Article excerpt

The human capacity for recognizing categorical forms and their defining characteristics extends to a recognition of natural forms and shapes that may suggest these categories. The issue is raised below by the analysis of an archaic figure from the Levant in which a natural form was apparently intentionally modified to produce an enhanced human image.

Early symbolling capacity

There is analytical evidence for imagery apparently made by modern humans in the Levant during the Middle Palaeolithic at c. 54,000 b.p., 15-20,000 years before modern humans began manufacturing imagery in Europe (Marshack 1996a). There are reports of a bone flute from Sloevina (Turk et al. 1995), of manufacture of beads by Neanderthals during the Chatelperronian at Arcy-sur-Cure, and the recent suggestion of evidence for an apparent Neanderthal visit, carrying fire, to the cave of Bruniquel, France, to build a stone 'structure' that contained a burnt bear bone, at c. 46,000 b.p. (cf. Balter 1996; Berkowitz 1996). There is the recent report of an anatomically modern human presence, including the presence of rock art and ochre, in northwestern Australia at c. 75,000[greater than]100,000 BP (Fullagar et al. 1996).(1) Suggestions for early symbolling or image-making in different parts of the world have increased in recent years (Bednarik 1991; 1993; 1995; Bahn 1991; 1996; Mania & Mania 1988) though the reports have been largely descriptive rather than analytical. The accruing suggestions do, however, document a growing effort to argue for a range of 'archaic human' and/or early pre-Upper Palaeolithic symbolling capacities and behaviours of a type that I have advocated for some decades (cf. Marshack 1976; 1981; 1988; 1989; Duff et al. 1992). There have also been arguments against an early symbolling capacity, either on grounds of a species difference or the uncertain validity of the evidence being offered (cf. Chase 1991: 200; Stringer & Gamble 1996: 207).

Within this on-going debate there has been little archaeological or theoretical discussion concerning a possible level or range of early symbolling capacity, either linguistic and/or visual and behavioural, among 'archaic' human groups migrating out of Africa with diverse and developing Acheulian technologies. One reason is that the hominid dispersal has been tracked primarily by lithic and skeletal evidence; the limitation in this evidence has discouraged discussions of 'symbolling,' except for noting an early African and European use of 'ochre' (cf. Marshack 1991) and a beginning for intentional 'burial' in the Middle Palaeolithic.

Hominids began migrating out of Africa as early as c. [greater than] 1.8 million years ago, carrying an 'Oldowan' and 'Clactonian' technology, while later groups left carrying developing Acheulian technologies. Archaic humans may also have crossed into southern and eastern Asia prior to the African development of an Acheulian industry (Huang et al. 1995; Wood & Turner 1995; Larick & Ciochon 1996a; 1996b).

Given this, analytical evidence for an early symbolling capacity would be as important for understanding developments during hominization as the data concerned with measurable skeletal morphologies and tool typologies. The possibility would be important on theoretical and evolutionary grounds since it was probably from some level or range of extant early capacity that selection occurred for a subsequent increase or differentiation of that capacity. If there was evidence for a range of symbolling capacity in the 'Acheulian' broadly defined, there may have been selection for an increase or retention of that capacity among the Neanderthals in Europe (cf. Marshack 1988; 1989), while selection for a variant increase may have occurred in Africa or the Middle East near the time of the 'branching' of anatomically modem humans.

An Acheulian technology reached 'Ubeideiya in the Levant, Israel, c. 1.4 million years ago and Dminisi in Eurasia, Georgia, within that time range. …