Engineering and Art, Which Came First?


Anthropologists often use ochre processing as a proxy for the origins of human symbolic thought. That’s partly because ochre is relatively difficult to make, requiring a few steps and at least two kinds of tools. As the researchers write, ochre comes from “rocks containing a high proportion of iron oxides, often mixed with silicates and other mineral substances, which are red or yellow in color, or are streaked with such shades.” Ochre itself is made by pulverizing the rock with one kind of tool and then reducing it to a powder between two grindstones.

There are many aesthetic uses for ochre, including as fabric dye, paint for cave walls, or a stain for rocks and other materials. All these artistic or cosmetic uses imply symbolic thought. But early humans used ochre for utilitarian purposes, too. The powder was mixed with other adhesives to keep weapons snugly attached to their hafts. Put simply, ochre was a key ingredient in glue.

The question that has long raged among archaeologists is whether people first began using ochre as a tool for engineering or as a substance for making art. In other words, does symbolism start with science or aesthetics? By examining 23 ochre-processing tools from Porc-Epic Cave, researchers figured out that the answer is that both emerged at the same time, in the same workshops.

A fascinating article, the full story is here.


  1. says

    Oh, I don’t know. It’s not exactly difficult distinguishing the practical from the fanciful, which I expect they did just fine. A matter of language difference between now and then, I expect the concepts were clear enough.

  2. Kengi says

    This was a community that devoted a significant amount of time and resources to producing not just material needed for hunting and survival, but in producing a wide range of art supplies. An artist supply factory, complete with a supply chain for it, 40,000 years ago in what is now Ethiopia.

    That’s a place high on my time-machine destination wish list.

  3. Dunc says

    It’s not exactly difficult distinguishing the practical from the fanciful

    Only if you come from a culture which looks at the world in those terms and regards the distinction as both meaningful and important. It’s an essentially Modernist viewpoint, and you don’t have to go very far to find people who would disagree (e.g. William Morris).

  4. says


    It’s an essentially Modernist viewpoint

    Maybe it is to you. I’m Lakota, and I expect I see things a bit differently than you do.

    …fuckin’ William Morris. :snort:

  5. says

    Anyroad, Dunc, you are free to believe whatever it is which is so important to you to believe. I didn’t exactly invest in some big ass argument, I only said I thought ancient peoples probably didn’t have trouble with a couple different concepts. *shrug*

    If it’s vital that you believe they absolutely did, have at it.

  6. rq says

    I think the act of creating something practical has always had an element of the artistic to it -- like, if you’re going to make a better [thing], you may as well make it look nice! (Alternatively, if your [thing] is shit, it better look twice as nice…)
    I dunno, I’ve always felt a little confused about the insistence of separating the artistic from the engineering -- it’s all creative, and to get to any practical idea, you have to go through a slew of impractical ones, including that very first flight of fancy that makes you say ‘hey, what about…?’ In the meantime, while you’re creating that amazing new adhesive for your favourite hunter’s stone ax because ochre is just so darn practical an really makes that resin stick, your neighbour is devising pigments of various colours from the very same materials because ochre just has these amazing colours that make the imagination come alive.
    (It’s like that rather negative saying about a certain nation of people I know: where you find two people, you will have three political parties, but in a more positive light -- two people can look at the same item and see three different uses for it simply because they’re two different people and they each prioritize different things in a particular item (differences of opinion give rise to a variety of ingenuity?).)
    I suppose, though, there is value in looking at things from the viewpoint that some things NEEDED to be made as a matter of pure, physical survival (better glue for the hunting implements, please) and some things were made because it was PRETTY or FUN (I mean, you paint your face and wash it off, and it’s such a transitory thing…). I have no doubt that humans, since the beginning of humanship, have realized the distinction. At the same time, I’m really not surprised that it’s been discovered that the aesthetic and the scientific evolved together -- creating’s creating. Besides, what else are you going to do with a bunch of leftover ochre?
    Anyway. Practical things are practical, fanciful things are fanciful, but sometimes you have to be fanciful to get to the practical.

    (Did the first ochre get mixed into resin as an artistic accident? “Oops, um sorry I’m so clumsy, I think I dropped my ochre in your resin again…”)

    I think that’s enough, rq.

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