Before Art: Lower Paleolithic

Museums as Therapy
12 min readJun 1, 2021

“The existing literature on prehistoric art often discusses a handful of artefacts as potential ‘firsts’ of visual art forms. Three of the most prominent examples are the Makapansgat pebble, the Berekhat Ram figurine, and the Tan Tan statuette… Although these alleged cases of early art-like objects cannot be readily dismissed, the lack of academic consensus surrounding their significance rather renders them as archaeological oddities.” (Mendoza Straffon 2019, most recent overview of the origins of visual art).

In 2014, another artefact was added to this list of “oddities”, namely, an engraved shell from Trinil, Java. We start our discussion on what was there before art by describing these four objects. We continue with arguably the most important, but also the most aesthetic, tool of the Lower (and Middle) Paleolithic — the hand axes, and conclude with objects called manuports. Where possible, we also discuss emotions that can potentially be evoked by the artefacts in question.

Makapansgat pebble

The earliest artefact is the Makapansgat pebble dated around 3 million years ago (img. 1.1). The pebble weighs 260 grams and is about 8.3 x 7 x 3.8 cm in size. It was found in 1925 in a cave in South Africa and is believed to have been brought there by early hominids due to its resemblance to a face. No artificial (i.e., anthropogenic) modifications were found on the pebble.

1.1. Makapansgat pebble (First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone)

“The distinctive markings of the cobble, especially the most prominent ‘eyes’ and ‘mouth’, seem to have prompted its collection at least several kilometers from the site, either by australopithecines or by some of the earliest hominins.” (Bednarik 2015).

This artefact is also known as the “pebble of many faces” (img. 1.2). Multiple faces were recognized on the pebble by its first researcher, Raymond Dart (Dart 1974).

“As Dart pointed out, the face most readily perceived in the object by modern humans resembles human features, which could not have been recognized as such by australopithecines. However, when the stone is turned over, it presents a face resembling a reconstruction of an australopithecine face, wearing a friendly if somewhat mischievous grin. Perhaps this was the orientation Australopithecus would have preferred, although I feel that the staring eyes are far more prominent, and in combination with a striking color led to the object being picked up.” (Bednarik 1998, most recent study of the Makapansgat pebble)

1.2. Multiple faces of the Makapansgat pebble (Dart 1974)

Since the Makapansgat pebble was not modified by hominids, it cannot be considered as a work of art and, thus, we cannot talk about emotions evoked by art in this case. Still, this “oddity” can naturally trigger a range of emotions, such as surprise, amazement, admiration, joy, interest, etc. The causes of those emotions could be the striking natural shape of the pebble, its extremely old age, the idea that it could indeed be recognized by our very early ancestors and taken from its place of origin to a cave, etc.

Pseudodon shell from Trinil

The Pseudodon shell DUB1006-fL (img. 2.1) from Trinil, Java, is a fossil freshwater mussel shell that has the earliest known anthropogenic engraving dated between 540,000 and 430,000 BP. Based on the location and dating, it is believed that the engraving was made by Homo erectus, an early predecessor of Homo sapiens. Experiments suggest that a shark tooth could be used to make the engraving; that it “was probably made on a fresh shell specimen still retaining its brown periostracum, which would have produced a striking pattern of white lines on a dark ‘canvas’”; and that “a single individual made the whole pattern in a single session with the same tool.” (Joordens et al. 2015, the first and only study of the shell)

2.1. Engraved Pseudodon shell DUB1006-fL from Trinil (Joordens et al. 2015)

The story of the discovery of the engraving is worth mentioning here. The shell is a part of an assemblage of fossil shells (img. 2.2) excavated in 1890s at the Trinil site, Java, by the Dutch paleoanthropologist Eugène Dubois (who was the first in the world to discover the remains of Homo Erectus). Since their discovery, the shells

“have been stored in boxes… They have been inspected in the 1930s of the last century. But even though they were handled, people never found this engraving and that’s because it’s hardly visible. It’s only when you have light from a certain angle that it stands out. So it’s not surprising that it hasn’t been found before… My interest was to look at the possible marine influence in Trinil and I thought that there should be some marine shells as well. I didn’t find those, but I did find many freshwater shells that looked a bit odd, because they were so similar in size and it looked like something out of a factory almost. What happened then was that also by coincidence an Australian colleague on his way to Ethiopia stayed over in the Netherlands. So he spent one whole day making photos of all the shells from Trinil in the Dubois collection and while he was inspecting those photos, that’s when he saw the engraving.”

— says Joordens in her interview. (Callaway 2014, news about the shell with an audio interview)

2.2. Pseudodon shells from Trinil (Joordens et al. 2015)

From the art history perspective, Joordens says:

“If you don’t know the intention of the person who made it, it’s impossible to call it art… What was meant by the person who did this, we simply don’t know. It could have been maybe to impress his girlfriend, or to doodle a bit, or to mark the shell as his own property.” (Callaway 2014)

Still, as opposed to the Makapansgat pebble, the shell from Trinil was artificially modified by early hominids. However, similarly to the Makapansgat pebble, it is the historical context around the shell (i.e., its antiquity, the history of discovery, etc.) that could evoke emotions, such as surprise, interest, amazement, etc. If we remove the historical context and look at this artificially modified object without any prejudice, we will only see a scratched shell. Below, with some exceptions, we will observe a similar pattern for other earliest decorations created by hominids: there, emotions are evoked mainly by the corresponding context rather than the object itself.

Venus of Tan-Tan

3.1. Venus of Tan-Tan, front (Bednarik 2003)

The so-called Venus of Tan-Tan and Venus of Berekhat Ram are the only two known Lower Paleolithic artefacts that seem to resemble human figures. It is suggested that early hominids could recognize this resemblance, collect these objects and even accentuate them further by carving using stone tools. The traces of carving were detected on both artefacts.

The chronologically earliest object, the Venus of Tan-Tan (front — img. 3.1, back — img. 3.2), was found in 1999 in Morocco in an archeological deposit. No dating of the artefact nor of the deposit as a whole has been performed, but both are attributed to the Middle Acheulean, which occurs between 500,000 and 300,000 BP in this region. Bednarik analyzed and described this object:

“The Tan-Tan figurine consists of a moderately metamorphosed quartzite… It is 58.2 mm long, a maximum of 26.4 mm wide, and 12.0 mm thick and weighs roughly 10 g.” (Bednarik 2003, the only study of the object)

3.2. Venus of Tan-Tan, back (Bednarik 2003)

So the object is very small, only 6 cm in length. Bednarik’s analysis suggests that the main form of the artefact, including its “arms” and “legs”, is a result of natural processes. However, he also found that horizontal grooves, that emphasize the anthropomorphic character of the object, were formed partly naturally, partly artificially by percussion using a stone tool (dotted lines in imgs. 3.1–3.2). It could even be that this object was once painted using red pigment.

The Makapasgat pebble was not modified, the Pseudodon shell from Trinil has a few scratches, the Venus of Tan-Tan is one step further: it resembles (although vaguely) a human figure. Still, emotion-wise all three objects seem to share the same pattern: it is their historical context that is fascinating, while the visual objects themselves can hardly evoke strong emotions.

Venus of Berkhat Ram

The last and most recent artefact in the list of archeological “oddities” is the Venus of Berekhat Ram (img. 4.1). It is a pebble resembling a female body dated 280,000–250,000 BP. Goren-Inbar, who found the object in 1981 on the Istraelian part of Golan Heights, described it as follows:

“The scoria pebble is rounded and partially weathered; its dimensions are: length — 35 mm, width — 25 mm, thickness — 21 mm; it weighs 10.33 g” (Goren-Inbar 1986, initial report on the object)

So the Venus of Berekhat Ram is even smaller than the Venus of Tan-Tan, only 3.5 cm in length.

4.1. Venus of Berekhat Ram (d’Errico and Nowell 2000)

The object was studied by three independent groups of scholars, all of which confirmed that some grooves, especially those that emphasize “arms”, were made artificially (Goren-Inbar 1986, Marshack 1997, d’Errico and Nowell 2000). The most recent and complete study of the object (d’Errico and Nowell 2000) found not only artificial grooves (horizontally shaded areas in img. 4.2) but also areas of possible abrasion, e.g., on the “chest” and “bottom” of the object (fully shaded areas in img. 4.2):

“Our results suggest that areas of the figurine other than the circular groove were purposely modified by humans. In particular, as already suggested by Goren-Inbar and Marshack, two elongated ‘u’ shaped grooves could have been made to indicate the arms of a human body and different areas were possibly modified by abrasion, perhaps to suggest breasts.” (d’Errico and Nowell 2000)

4.2. Antropogenic modifications of the Venus of Berekhat Ram (d’Errico and Nowell 2000)

Although the artificial nature of modifications on this artefact is not questioned anymore by scholars, there is still a debate whether the object has any symbolic meaning (i.e., whether it indeed represents something, e.g., a female body) or whether it was purely utilitarian (d’Errico and Nowell 2000). Whichever is true, the object does not seem to be visually appealing to evoke emotions on its own, without its historical context.

Hand axes

“A handaxe is a prehistoric tool made using a stone flaking technique called knapping. Handaxes are generally considered to be the longest-used tool in human history and were likely used to dig for roots, to butcher animals, or to chop wood. They have been discovered over all of Africa, much of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Most were produced between 1.8 million and roughly 35,000 years ago.” (Berlant and Wynn 2018)

5.1. 500,000–300,000 BP, flint, 13.2 x 7.9 x 3.5 cm, found in West Tofts, Norfolk, England (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge). 5.2. ca. 300,000 BP, flint, 13.6 x 9.4 x 2.5 cm, found in Greenhithe, England (The British Museum). 5.3. ca. 500,000 BP, iron stone, 23.5 x 11.5 cm, found in Kathu Pan, South Africa, now in McGregor Museum, South Africa (Magid and Wynn 2018).
5.4. 800,000–300,000 BP, gneiss, 26.6 x 12.7 x 5 cm, found in Mauritania, now in Tony Berlant Collection (First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone). 5.5. 800,000–300,000 BP, hornfels, 12 x 8.8 x 2.5 cm, found in Niger, now in Tony Berlant Collection (First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone). 5.6. ca. 780,000 BP, flint, 20 x 10 x 5 cm, found in Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel (Magid and Wynn 2018).
5.7. 1.7 Ma, basalt, 31 x 14 x 8.3 cm, 3.6 kg, found in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, original study Diez-Martín et al. 2015 (Diez-Martín et al. 2019). 5.8. 1.76 Ma, phonolite, 28 x 16 cm, found in Kokiselei, Kenya, original study Lepre et al. 2011 (Magid and Wynn 2018). 5.9. 700,000–200,000 BP, flint and quartzite, 12–26 x 7–13 x 2.5–4.2 cm, 0.27–1.24 kg, found in Aisne, France (The Met)

Hand axes are also the first prehistoric artefacts that not only have a fascinating historical context (similarly to the previously discussed objects), but are also visually appealing on their own, even though they were made and used as tools, not as decoration or art. Many hand axes have a balanced symmetrical shape (imgs. 5.2,5.3,5.6,5.9), some are made of unusual materials and emphasize natural patterns of those materials (imgs. 5.3–5.4), some “frame and highlight interesting features in the stone, such as a crystal, a fossil, or a hole” (Berlant and Wynn 2018, imgs. 5.1,5.5), etc. These objects are likely to evoke our emotions (e.g., joy, admiration, amazement, surprise, etc.) on their own, even if their historical context is put aside. To add back a bit of this context, two of the oldest hand axes, 1.7 and 1.76 million years old, are shown in imgs. 5.7–5.8.


6.1. Quartz crystals from Singi Talav (Moncel et al. 2012)

Above, we discussed all artefacts that scholars mention in their discourse on the origins of symbolic behavior in the Lower Paleolithic. For completeness, we also need to touch on objects that, similarly to the Makapansgat pebble, are assumed to have been noticed by early hominids due to their outstanding visual properties, collected and transported away from their place of origin without a clear utilitarian purpose. Such unmodified objects are called manuports.

Different scholars consider different archeological objects to be manuports. We will mention just a few of them to give an idea of this phenomenon. d’Errico et al. (1989) reported on six quartz crystals found at Singi Talav in India (img. 6.1). The crystals are very small, their length varies from 8.3 to 26.8 mm. According to different sources, the crystals’ age is estimated to be 350,000–160,000 or even ca. 800,000 years. The nearest possible source of the crystals is 3 km away from Singi Talav.

6.2. Pebbles from Qesem Cave (Assaf 2018)

Assaf (2018) reported on

“unusually small, colorful and round flint pebbles unearthed at Qesem Cave, a late LP [Lower Paleolithic] site in Israel (dated to 420,000–200,000 BP). These rounded, shiny, colourful objects (n=17) are smaller than the smallest pebbles used in the lithic industry on-site. Moreover, they do not show any traces of use… It should be clearly stated that flint pebbles are non-existent within the rock formation of the cave itself…” (Assaf 2018, img. 6.2)

6.3. Pebbles from Wonderwerk Cave (Beaumont and Vogel 2006)

Also, two exotic pebbles were found in the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa: one is a reddish, rounded 15-mm-wide chalcedony pebble dated more than 276,000 years ago, another one is a rounded 21-mm-long chert pebble with natural markings dated 513,000–478,000 BP (Beaumont and Vogel 2006, img. 6.3).

Even if the hypothesis behind the above objects is correct, i.e., they were indeed collected by early hominids due to their outstanding visual properties, these objects were not modified artificially and, thus, do not have much to do with art. Still, such objects may signal early symbolic behavior of our ancestors, which makes them important to art history. With this, we finish the discussion of the Lower Paleolithic artefacts made before art.

References (alphabetic)



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