The Elements of Evolution – Expression


Language is necessarily symbolic – a honeybee dancing directions to her hive mates is exemplary. Cleaner fish symbolically advertise their services to other fish, who reply with their own symbolic gestures.

Animals in the wild create their own artistic flourishes in their constructions. Male bowerbirds build an elaborate stage displaying personalized preferences of materials, upon which they perform to prospective mates elaborate dances of their own design: art as a display of vitality.

Like the primates before them, the earliest hominids expressed themselves by body language, gestures, and vocalizations. With opposable thumbs and increasingly versatile vocal cords, hominids evolved the means to give symbolism and creative expression fuller flower. Hominid language developed alongside adaptive refinements in symbolic manipulation and its articulation, culminating in writing.

Complex toolmaking and language coevolved. ~ English anthropologist Natalie Thaïs Uomini & English psychologist Georg Friedrich Meyer

The same areas of the brain are active during language processing and toolmaking. Both share conceptual similarities, such as the need for structured planning. Language skill and dexterity with tools co-develop in young children.

Chimpanzees are identically constrained over complexity in both tool use and language. Their performance in both areas are those of a 2-year-old child.

As products of materials science, technology and artistic expression are inseparably intertwined. Both advanced as stone and metal work progressed. Their only distinction is utility: as a tool or for an individualized statement.


The urge of artistic expression was inherent in hominins that fashioned the earliest tools. They began inscribing as soon as they had the means.

The known record of hominid artistic expression starts with carved elephant bones by Homo erectus in the Lower Paleolithic (the Old Stone Age). The Middle Paleolithic presents bracelets, beads, rock art, and ochre pigment for body paint. By the New Stone Age (Upper Paleolithic), representational art abounds, sculpturally and illustratively. Figurines and imagery ubiquitously represent natural forms. While simple symbols are frequently apparent, elaborated abstractions in art arose much later, during the Mesolithic.

Abstract Art

The prevalence of certain geometric patterns in the symbolic material culture of many prehistoric cultures, starting shortly after the emergence of our biological species and continuing in some indigenous cultures until today, is explained in terms of the characteristic contents of biologically determined hallucinatory experience. ~ archeologists Tom Froese, Alexander Woodward, and Takashi Ikegami

Evidence of symbolic imagery reaches back to the earliest artifacts. There is a long tradition, beginning at least 100,000 years ago, of painting with red ochre in geometrical patterns. These patterns are often variations of selfsame themes.

Similar symbolic patterns recurrently occur around the world: a cave painting 73,000 ya in South Africa, Japanese Jomon pottery from 4000 bce, and many works in between, as well those to the present day. English mathematician Alan Turing described these patterns in the 1952 article “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis.” Turing patterns comprise various geometric forms, including a diffusion of spots, spirals, traveling waves, and maze-like grids. They appear in innumerable natural forms, from galactic formations to animal skins.

Turing patterns emerge from distributed activity of nonlinear, dynamic, reaction-diffusion systems that exhibit local excitatory and sparse inhibitory connectivity. A reaction-diffusion system is a mathematical model which explains how a concentration of one or more substances changes spatial distribution on a surface under the influence of local chemical reactions which transform the substance(s) and their spreading out.

In the human mind, Turing patterns can reputedly appear which resemble the cellular structures of the brain. These patterns supposedly become more accessible under the influence of hallucinogens.

When these visual patterns are seen during altered states of consciousness they are directly experienced as highly charged with significance. ~ Tom Froese, Alexander Woodward, & Takashi Ikegami

Then again, artistic incorporation of Turning patterns may simply be an abstracted reflection of Nature.

Cave Paintings

Neanderthals drew on the cave walls where they lived. Cro-Magnon continued the practice. Some of the most striking prehistoric art works are cave paintings found in western Europe as early as 37,000 ya. Even earlier figurative paintings – at least 39,900 years old – have been found in a limestone cave on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. They include hand stencils like those found in Europe.

Drawings and engravings in caves and on rocks dated 14,000–10,000 years old have been found in China, Japan, Australia, South Africa, and South America.

Cave paintings were made with manganese, naturally occurring in various black minerals, and red ochre, found in clay imbued with hydrated iron oxide.

European cave paintings most often depict animals in action, primarily in profile. Some even show action lines that indicate motion: prehistoric animation.

Made entirely from memory, the images show meticulous observation of the subject matter.

One striking aspect of these animal figures is that they are full of life. The animals depicted are almost never in postures of pain or suffering. The intimation is admiration; not illustration of meat on the hoof, even as most drawn European cave animals were herbivores: aurochs, bison, deer, horses, ibex, mammoths, et cetera.

Depictions are of individual animals, somewhat randomly placed, not scenes from Nature. Seldom is interaction among animals shown.

Plants, birds, and human forms are infrequently depicted in Upper Paleolithic art. When they do appear, the imagery is schematic rather than naturalistic.

Some of the most impressive cave paintings merge the natural form of the cave wall with the depiction. In this case, cave surfaces were not treated as blank canvases. Artists chose subject matter and technique to match the substratum. Such thoughtful incorporation appears in 10–15% of the many thousands of cave images found.

Geometric forms are sometimes found alongside, or accompanying, representational figures. These symbols remain inscrutable.

 Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave

Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France presents a contrast in cave painting conventions. This cave has hundreds of animal paintings from 32–30 TYA, depicting at least 13 distinct species, including some rarely or never seen in other Paleolithic cave art. Rather than filling the walls exclusively with herbivores, various carnivores appear: bears, cave lions, panthers, and cave hyenas. Animal interactions are shown. Woolly rhinoceroses are depicted butting horns.

Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc artists employed some unique techniques. In several places, walls were scraped clear of debris, leaving a smoother and lighter surface for art-work. A 3-dimensional quality, along with suggested movement, was achieved by etching around the outlines of certain figures.


Beginning at least 8,000 years ago peoples around the world toiled to create geoglyphs: artistic designs that may cover hundreds of meters. Ancient geoglyphs have been discovered in Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, California, Iowa-Wisconsin, England, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Kazakhstan.

Ancient Russians created an enormous geoglyph of a moose in the Ural Mountains 6,000 years ago. The moose is 275 meters long and up to 10 meters wide, formed by digging ditches and filling them with stones.

The Uffington White Horse (shown below) is a stylized running horse 105 meters long, created by carving through turf to reveal the white chalk underneath. The horse was created 3,000 years ago.

The Paracas Candelabra (shown below) was created on the side of a mountain at Pisco Bay, Peru in 200 BCE. The 200-meter-high design is cut 0.6 meters into hard soil, with stones around it. The representation is likely a lightning-rod trident belonging to the creator god Viracocha, known throughout South America in ancient mythologies.

The Nazca Lines in Peru were scratched in the desert beginning 2,000 years ago. There are over 800 straight lines running up to 48 kilometers, 300 geometric figures, and 70 biomorphs (animal and plant designs). One figure is a huge monkey with a spiral tail. The drawings were made by removing rocks and earth to create a negative image (as with the Uffington horse).

Geoglyphs are only appreciable from on high. Many can be seen from space. The engineering and effort involved in these ancient geoglyphs suggests deep cultural significance.

The conventional guesses about geoglyphs is that their construction relates to religious rituals. A more radical hypothesis, dating to the 1960s (naturally), is that some were intended as billboards to extraterrestrials.

Musical Instruments

Music may have long been part of the hominin experience. The first unequivocal evidence of musical activity came from Geißenklösterle Cave in Germany. There a flute was found, made of a swan’s bone 42.5 TYA.

Beginning 80 TYA, the Isturitz Cave in southwest France was occupied for some 70,000 years. Over 20 bone flutes were found there, made 40–26 TYA. Some of the flutes were designed to be played 2-handed. They had chamfered holes to maximize acoustic efficiency. Some of the flutes appear polished by frequent use.

The existence of music in the Stone Age is attested by various instruments besides flutes: whistles, scrapers, and bullroarers. A bullroarer is a weighted airfoil (rectangular slat of wood) attached to a long cord. Swinging it in the air produces low-frequency sounds that travel long distances. Varying the rotation and twist in various ways alters pitch.

Drums of wood and skin were likely made, through rarely ever preserved. Calcite (carbonate crystal) sheets have been found in caves that show traces of percussive use.


Numeracy begat prose. Writing originated with accounting records. Tokens of tallies provided proof of quantities involved in transactions.

With practice, symbolic systems were extended to convey any message. Invariably the form and structure of a written language mirrored its spoken progenitor.

Various accounts date the origin of Chinese logograms. A logogram is a symbol representing a word or its portion. A morpheme is the smallest semantic language unit.

Isolated pictures and graphs have been found in China that date back 8,000 years. According to legend, Chinese characters were invented by Cangjie ~2650 BCE: a bureaucrat for the legendary Yellow Emperor, who is credited with initiating Chinese civilization.

By the 6th century ce the Japanese had adopted Chinese ideograms. With their cultural inclination toward refinement, by 712 the Japanese had trimmed the ideograms to a more manageable number – from 10,000 to around 2,000 – and overlaid a phonetic system, where each symbol represents a syllable.

Cuneiform script, which emerged in Sumer around 3600 BCE, started as complex pictographs, which were iteratively simplified into fewer and simpler strokes via abstractive subtraction.

By 2800 BCE, the Egyptians had a set of 24 hieroglyphs to represent syllables with a single consonant of their language. Vowels went unwritten. Egyptian trade exposed others to their hieroglyphs. This begat experimentation into simpler script systems.

That early writing systems comprised ideograms owes to the mind processing written words as pictorial representations (pictograms). The later evolution of letter alphabets thus represents an advance in language abstraction.

Proto-Sinaitic script emerged in the Sinai 1850 BCE. It was an intermediate between Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Phoenician alphabet to come.

By 1200 BCE, the Phoenicians were using an alphabet with 22 letters. Being a maritime trading culture meant the alphabet was dispersed.

The Phoenician alphabet was adopted in Greece during the 1st millennium BCE. The Greeks added vowels, which the Phoenician phonetic alphabet lacked.

The legacy of Alexander the Great was cultural diffusion, especially the Greek alphabet. His empire abetted the spread of the alphabet throughout southwest Asia, all the way into India.

The influence of ancient Greece upon neighboring Italy was profound. The Greek alphabet was adopted and modified by the Etruscans who ruled early Rome. The Etruscan alphabet was adopted and further modified by the ancient Romans. Colonial expansion spread the Latin alphabet throughout the Roman Empire: whence the Romance languages, all with the same alphabet.

Except for the Chinese, the earliest written languages were dropped in favor of borrowing another. In the 1st century ce, the Egyptian ditched hieroglyphs for an alphabet derived from the Greeks (whence Coptic script), even as the grammar remained much the same.

Dispersal and Retention

Written language was first disbursed by civic culture, especially trade, and later by religion. Prose became the fountain for slaking the thirst of knowledge.

Often language spread at the point of a sword. Without that, military victories were short-lived.

The yoke of arms is shaken off more readily by subject peoples than the yoke of language. ~ Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla

Languages imposed by empires have lingered or been overthrown depending upon civic and cultural dynamics. Settlers who shuck off imperial obligations retain their native tongue. This happened consistently with descendants of colonists from European empires whose foreign rule was overthrown. The revolutionists were not the indigenous people. The royalist language was their own.

Newly independent colonial countries sometimes want to retain links with their former metropolitan power because of culture, trade, or even defense. French has hung on in sub-Saharan Africa, and Spanish in the Philippines, for this reason.

Sometimes a country persists with an imperial language not because it gives a link, but instead because it provides a means to transcend the past. Russia’s elite adopted French in the 18th and 19th century. Many countries maintained or adopted English in the 20th century.