Neurosciences unlock the secret of the first abstract engravings

Long before Lascaux paintings, humans engraved abstract motifs on stones, shells or egg shells. the earliest are 540,000 years old. For the archaeologists who discovered these objects, the question is whether they are the result of unpurposive behaviour, the simple desire of imitating nature or endowed with meaning. An unprecedented collaboration between archaeologists and researchers in cognitive neuroimaging is providing answers to this question for the first time. These prehistoric abstract patterns are processed by the same brain areas that recognize objects. They also activate a region of the left hemisphere that is well known in the processing of written language. The results of this interdisciplinary collaboration reinforce the hypothesis that our ancestors attributed meaning to their tracings, perhaps even symbolic. They are published in Royal Society Open Science.

Neuroscience at the service of archaeology

From Paleolithic paintings to the invention of writing, the production and perception of symbolic representations has been a major aspect of the human cognitive activity. But to date, there is no consensus on the emergence of symbolic behaviours among our ancestors. For some, there would have been a sudden cognitive revolution contemporaneous with the arrival of modern populations in Europe 42,000 years ago. For others, the discovery of personal ornament, pigments and abstract engravings at African sites older than 100,000 years would show that symbolic practices appeared earlier and would be the consequence of the origin of our species in this continent. For others, Neanderthals and other so-called archaic populations also had symbolic behaviours. A small group of abstract engravings has been discovered in African and Eurasian sites older than 40,000 years. To clarify the nature of these engravings, researchers from the Neurofunctional Imaging Group (Neurodegenative Diseases institute University of Bordeaux – CEA – CNRS) and the PACEA laboratory (University of Bordeaux – CNRS – Ministry of Culture) have mapped the regions of the brain involved in the perception of the oldest Palaeolithic engravings.

Top: Engraving discovered at the Blombos site (South Africa) dating back 75,000 years before the present. Center: Example of visual categories used in the experiment. Bottom: Lateral and inferior views of brain activations caused by the perception of engravings located in the occipital lobe and the ventral part of the temporal lobe (LH: left hemisphere, RH: right hemisphere, Inf: inferior view). These activations are comparable to those caused by the perception of everyday objects.

The first brain mapping of the earliest known graphic expressions

Using functional brain imaging techniques, the researchers compared the brain areas that were activated when participants were shown the outlines of the oldest engravings with those that were activated when presented with other types of representations. The human visual system is organized hierarchically, with so-called primary areas that analyze the elements that make up an image (contrast, colour, orientation) and secondary areas that make it possible to distinguish the different visual categories. Indeed, some brain areas are more specialized in landscape analysis, others in object or writing analysis. The brain areas activated by the prehistorical engravings were compared to those activated by objects, words, landscapes, an ancient alphabet. Result: the perception of Palaeolithic engravings activates the same cerebral zones as objects, while it does not affect the activity of zones related to the perception of landscapes or an ancient alphabet. This confirms that the oldest abstract engravings have visual properties similar to those of objects to which meaning can be attributed. In addition, the engravings activate a brain area lateralized in the left hemisphere, known for its involvement in written language processing, which reinforces the idea that these engravings had the potential to serve as a means of communication for the first humans.


Mellet E, Salagnon M, Majkic ́A, Cremona S, Joliot M, Jobard G, Mazoyer B, Tzourio-Mazoyer N, d’Errico F. 2019 Neuroimaging supports the representational nature of the earliest human engravings. R. sci.6: 90086.

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