Tuesday, April 27, 2021


Environmental & Science Education
Art and Environment 
Nature of Science
Edward Hessler

The universe is made of stories, not atoms.--Muriel Rukeyser

In the beginning of their abstract to an astounding paper published (full paper behind a firewall) in Nature (11 December 2019), Maxime Aubert (Griffith University) and 13 other authors of various professional affiliations write, "Humans seem to have an adaptive predisposition for inventing, telling and consuming stories. Prehistoric cave art provides the most direct insight that we have into the earliest storytelling, in the form of narrative compositions or ‘scenes that feature clear figurative depictions of sets of figures in spatial proximity to each other, and from which one can infer actions taking place among the figures."

The authors close the abstract by telling us that in this research they "describe an elaborate rock art panel from the limestone cave of Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 (Sulawesi, Indonesia) that portrays several figures that appear to represent therianthropes hunting wild pigs and dwarf bovids.... This hunting scene is—to our knowledge—currently the oldest (~44000 years old) pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world."

Ewen Calloway wrote an accompanying essay about the significance of this paper and historical antecedents in Europe for the same issue of Nature. Under references, you can link to the complete abstract, learn more about the authors and make use of the Sections panel to the right to view more of the paper. It is where I found the link to the hunting scene above.

The New Yorker has a lovely, please-don't-miss-it-essay, on this remarkable painting--it is about storytelling--by their versatile staff writer Adam Gopnik in the January 6, 2020 issue ("Good Old Days" in the print issue). A few excerpts. 

--"The first storytelling picture!" is "a tale of the hunter and the hunted, of small and easily mocked pursuers trying to bring down a scary...beast."

--There are eight hunters and they are "the earliest known examples of mythical depiction, which runs forward to Egyptian wall paintings and, for that matter to modern animation. Theriantropes reflect the practice of giving to humans, the powers of animals, a shamanistic rite that seems tied to the origins of religion...."

--There are good reasons to believe that the paintings were made by women and Gopnik discusses the evidence. "Early man may have thrown spears, but early women made the pictures telling how."

--And I love this comment on the nature of science. "Significant scientific discoveries do two things at once: advance the narrow field of fact and extend the imaginative field of wonder."

--Gopnik references a debate between Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and their contemporaries at Marvel Cinematic Universe. Scorcese/Coppola argued that the people at Marvel degrade "cinema by pulling it away from the real world of ambiguity and the 'complexity' of people." They encapsulate their displeasure by referring to the Marvel work as "despicable." Gopnik calls attention to the old pictures and that they "seem to belong, whether we want it or not, more to the Marvel universe. ... A human with the strength of a bull! Another with the cunning of a crocodile!"

--Gopnik closes with this idea, "People, then and now, tell tales about the brave things they are about to do, or just did, or are thinking of doing, or thought they might do...if they were not the people they are but had the superpowers we all wish we had."

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