The Eyes Have It: Human Perception and Anthropomorphic Faces in World Rock Art

By Watson, Ben | Antiquity, March 2011 | Go to article overview

The Eyes Have It: Human Perception and Anthropomorphic Faces in World Rock Art


Watson, Ben, Antiquity


Introduction

Anthropomorphic faces with prominent eyes are widespread in the prehistoric rock art of hunter-gatherer societies. Although they are not as common as some other recurrent forms of imagery, particularly anthropomorphic figures, zoomorphs, certain abstract-geometric shapes and patterns, and hand stencils and prints, they are found everywhere from the caves of south-western Europe, such as those at Le Portel and Trois Freres, France (Lorblanchet 1989: 131), to the rockshelters of northern Australia and the painted Wandjinas of the Kimberley (e.g. Crawford 1968, 1973; Mowaljarlai & Malnic 1993; Doring 2000). Some faces with prominent eyes appear in very similar forms in widely separated regions, depicted in frontal view, typically exhibiting a high degree of symmetry and playing down other features such as noses or ears or excluding them entirely. Examples include the archaic face petroglyphs of the Australian arid zone (Edwards 1968; Dix 1977; David et al. 1992; McDonald 2005) (Figure 1); those in several parts of North America, such as the many petroglyphs attributed to the prehistoric Salish of the Northwest Coast (e.g. those at Puget Sound and Georgia Strait) (Hill & Hill 1974; Leen 2009) (Figure 2); those in Mongolia in Khanbogd sum territory, Umnugobiaimag (Tseveendorj et al. 2007) (Figure 3); those throughout Siberia and the Russian Far East at Sikachi-Alyan and Sheremetyevo, Khabarovsk region (Figure 4); the Makemake faces on Easter Island (Lee 1992) (Figure 5) and others elsewhere in the Pacific.

The similarity of such face motifs in widely separated regions is a phenomenon that has not been adequately explained. What was it that led humans to produce them in such similar ways throughout time and space? Without resorting to diffusionist explanations, one means of understanding recurrent rock art imagery is by recourse to neuroscience and perceptual psychology (Alpert 2009; Watson 2009). This paper follows this approach and argues that understanding human perception and recognition of faces may help to explain the manner in which faces are often portrayed. In particular, it suggests that the human sensitivity to eyes and certain configurations of eye shapes has significantly influenced the ways in which face motifs have been made.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

An ethological approach

The approach adopted is partly ethological, seeking understanding of characteristic behaviours of Homo sapiens and the role these behaviours play in the human species' evolutionary history. The study of animal behaviour is based largely in evolutionary theory and concerned in part with certain ubiquitous behavioural patterns or tendencies that are relatively stable in the human species (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1975; Hinde 1982). Of particular interest in the present context are those that relate to visual stimuli. For example, experiments with infants have demonstrated the predictable reaction of smiling at face-like configurations (Kagan et al. 1966). Other studies have demonstrated that certain visual configurations relating to predatory animals, the curves of a snake, the stalking pose of a predatory cat or eye-spot patterns, can evoke universally appropriate responses in humans such as fear or excitement, and may be employed in art to evoke similar responses (Coss 1965). Dissanayake (1998: 490) states that, visual arts throughout time and space exploit emotionally captivating and cognitively interesting features that ancestrally were (and may still be) relevant to vital interests, and to subject matter of biologically-important concern" Such features include the eyes, particularly the schema of two facing eyes, either in isolation or as a prominent aspect of facial depictions.

The perspective taken is complementary to existing evolutionary and behavioural interpretations of rock art, but is explicit in demonstrating how human perceptual and behavioural predispositions are relevant to the understanding of a specific motif type found cross-culturally. …

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