Check out this report on PLOSONE about a rock dated from 13,800 years ago carved with a series of semi-circles arranged together:
Or shorter version here on the LAT: http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-human-campsite-paleolithic-20151202-story.html
Of course we don’t know what this really portrays but we do know that it is different from other carvings and paintings of that period, which are mostly lovely beasts and some humanoid figures. The paleoarcheologists who did the work to find the stone say their best hypothesis is that these marks represent huts, which we are pretty sure were common back in prehistoric days, gathered in a village about the size expected of a local population then. And maybe it is such a rendering of their social domain.
Or maybe the marks map out local peaks where ancestors were interred. On our recent trip to Ireland we climbed Knocknarea and stood beside Queen Maeve’s tomb thought to date from around 4 or 5000 years ago.
A large passage tomb, it is shaped like the marks on the stone as well, but more interestingly, from the top of that mountain we could look out over the surrounding coastal plain to a series of low mountains and peaks, and the information signs pointed out that cairns, smaller than the Queen’s of course, stood atop most of those peaks.
Maybe someone wanted to document where the bodies were buried, so to speak, as a mnemonic for reciting the old stories around the village fire. Or maybe the marks are poorly rendered stars of the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, from where some say we all came, so they mark the way home.
The scientists say that without more evidence and especially without better clues as to the artist’s intent, any hypothesis cannot be conclusive. Amen. It is a fine mystery.
In my readings over the past several months I have run by the word ‘intention’ several times. The concept is important, no doubt, but I fear that we are now using it to demarcate specifically human capacities, and that would be wrong. Birds sing, humans intentionally make music, as Peter Marler suggests in his essay, “Origins of Music and Speech: Insight from Animals” in The Origins of Music (a book I am excited to be reading). I know other animals also intend some actions. Maybe the mocking bird that claims our yard with his song does so intentionally especially when a rival dares to utter a peep. Maybe a politician claims the high ground of demagoguery intentionally, or maybe he is just an unconsciously self-righteous prig, er, well, let me not resort to name calling here, but I have my doubts about using some simple or undifferentiated concept of intentionality to characterize human-specific actions.
Let me regress again to my 10 year old self and wonder if I go to the bathroom intentionally, unlike infants who respond unconsciously (instinctively?) to pressure in their bladder and bowel. I watch the steers out my kitchen window grazing. They seem to empty one or both quite nonchalantly, even as they continue to graze, but I notice they never back up after doing so. A sign of intelligence, that, like a dog that refuses to soil its own space or a wolf pack on the hunt. Whatever the degree of their intention there, the operation of some value seems apparent.
Marler presents a clear, coherent and knowledgeable discussion of the possible relationships between human communication and that of other animals. He ends up focusing on the incredible creativity and the seeming pleasure of novelty as some bird species sing learned songs that are quite novel and individual and unconstrained by innate structure and function. Our mocking bird sings astoundingly some summer mornings when no other bird is to be heard.
I can certainly take it as a performance of pleasure, the same as when I used to dance about with no known pattern but the finding of new motion or as my wife paints to create a new space. So maybe that rock with the huts did initiate a new glyph learning curve that brought human structures into the imagination and memory of the people (or something else equally wonderful). Travel on.