This is a full text html version of the following paper:

FELIKS, J. 2006 (submitted 2004). Musings on the Palaeolithic fan motif. In P. Chenna Reddy (ed.), Exploring the mind of ancient man: Festschrift to Robert G. Bednarik, 249–66. Research India Press, New Delhi.*

*The figures are arranged as they appear in the published print version even though Figs. 4 & 5 were misaligned at the editorial stage. The paper is Chapter 23 in Exploring the Mind of Ancient Man.

CLICK ON THE THUMBNAILS to go to each of the fully enlargeable seven figures.


John Feliks

For much of the past century, human beings prior to 35,000 years BP have been generally regarded as greatly inferior to modern Homo sapiens. However, the early human chronicle is undergoing dramatic revision. A growing list of capabilities once attributed only to our species is now being traced as far back as Acheulian times and our ancient predecessor Homo erectus. A major breakthrough in this transition was Robert Bednarik’s theory that a graphic marking motif, essentially the “fan” motif, began to be developed by Homo erectus as early as 350,000 years ago. In this paper, I offer studies that support Bednarik’s theory and the linked ideas of language and self-awareness during the Lower Palaeolithic. The paper consists of seven figures. Figure 1 demonstrates hominid interest in the fan motif as evidenced in the archaeological record. Figures 2 through 5 suggest a greater number, quality and consistency of the earliest known fan motifs associated with Homo erectus at Bilzingsleben. Finally, Figures 6 and 7 link the fan motif to the outspread human hand. I suggest that early interest in the fan motif reflects both symbolism and human self-awareness prompted by familiarity with the hand.


Our own species has long seen itself as the pinnacle of creativity. Apart from basic survival skills, most other innovations, from technological to artistic, have been regarded as the sole domain of Homo sapiens. However, our place as the only great innovators is no longer set in stone. New archaeological evidence and increasingly important reinterpretations of prior evidence are starting to show that most of the significant cognitive leaps traditionally associated with Homo sapiens were first achieved by Homo erectus during the Lower Palaeolithic.

This paper supports the idea of sapiens-like abilities in Homo erectus, including language, by proposing a higher level of quality and complexity in the Bilzingsleben artifacts than previously considered. It also offers a means of approaching the difficult question of early hominid self-awareness by associating the fan motif images of Homo erectus with those of Homo sapiens, suggesting a shared awareness of the human hand.

Just a few years ago, some of the ideas offered here would have been regarded as highly improbable. However, I believe they will blend well with the new picture of Homo erectus that has been emerging during the last decade, for these ancient predecessors are now being seen as capable navigators; cooperative builders of large freestanding shelters; and the makers of composite tools, necklaces, and figurines. Truly, these people set the stage for what we term “modern behavior.”  


Towards a recognizable motif

Scholars such as Oakley, Marshack, Dissanayake, Mania and Mania, and Bahn have contributed to the emerging image of a sapient Homo erectus. However, this particular paradigm has been forwarded in recent years mainly through the efforts of Robert Bednarik. Bednarik has long suggested that the capabilities and accomplishments of Homo erectus have been greatly underestimated (Bednarik 1993; 1995; 1997: 45; 2000: 12–13, 16–18; 2003a: 100). One 

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of the seminal arguments for advanced pre-sapiens cognition was Bednarik’s 1995 Concept-mediated Marking in the Lower Palaeolithic. Bednarik proposed that even at such a remote time in antiquity as the Acheulian, early humans were creating marks on bone artifacts that seemed to indicate marking “strategies” (groups of markings that were intentionally planned out in relation to one another, as opposed to random markings). These included fanlike patterns.  Of particular significance were the mammal bone engravings from Bilzingsleben, Germany, found in association with Homo erectus (Mania and Mania 1988). Bilzingsleben is a Lower Palaeolithic site firmly dated to c. 350,000 years before the present. Contrary to the popular image of Homo erectus as a simple-minded “ape-man,” the Bilzingsleben markings indicated a much higher order of intelligence, such as an ability to understand the abstract concept of convergent lines. The artifacts featured sets of angular lines that did not touch each other but if extended into imagined space would meet. Bednarik noted that markings made by later peoples [e.g., Neanderthals] exhibited convergent lines intentionally joined, which he interpreted as more succinctly representing a true “motif” (Bednarik 1995: 613). In this paper, however, I hope to demonstrate that the Bilzingsleben engravings are unquestionably true motifs of a consistency and complexity often surpassing those of later traditions, strengthening not only Bednarik’s theories of Homo erectus intelligence, but the evidence for Homo erectus language, as well.


Terminology and format

To facilitate ease of comparison, and to focus on issues other than “implied” or “true” motifs, I will treat both categories as “true” motifs. My focus will be on the concept of “angles” rather than whether or not angled lines visually meet. Therefore, I will use the term “fan motif” to refer to any motif that consists of radial lines, implied or otherwise. I will also use the term “fan motif” to refer to any “object” that is characterized by radial lines (e.g., a scallop shell, the human hand). The paper revolves around seven comparative studies in figure form. One of these studies features unique on-the-page tests that the reader will be able to do for him or herself using a pencil and a ruler. Another test can be done with a protractor. [Note: All graphics presented were either redrawn by the author or are original to the author.]


The search for evidence of symbolism
and self-awareness

Lower Palaeolithic people left no easily identifiable visual images. Consequently, assessing their mental abilities including whether or not they had symbolism or self-awareness is no easy task. It necessitates an interdisciplinary approach taking into account the work of researchers in many fields. Since two of the issues at hand are the origins of art and symbolism, this approach will include not only scientific perspectives, but artistic sensibility as well. With these tools in hand, I will attempt to show that both symbolism and self-awareness are reflected in the graphic markings of Bilzingsleben. And, while slightly outside current beliefs in traditional archaeology, I hope to support the evolving idea that the cognitive abilities of Homo erectus were roughly equivalent to those of modern Homo sapiens.

Before exploring the Bilzingsleben artifacts, a word must be said about a generally agreed upon sign of self-awareness in the archaeological record, the act of personal adornment. Regarding how such might be detected in the Lower Palaeolithic record, Bednarik points to the evidence for beads (Bednarik 2000). From the perspective of traditional archaeology, beadwork is well established for the Upper Palaeolithic beginning roughly 40,000 years ago, and with definite style conventions (e.g., White 1993). The abundance of evidence makes body adornment and the associated concept of self-awareness well accepted ideas in regards to Homo sapiens and Neanderthals after c. 40,000 years BP. But similar material is now being discovered in Middle Palaeolithic contexts. It is notable that the recently discovered snail shell beads from Blombos Cave, South Africa, dated at 75,000 years BP (Henshilwood et al. 2004) are the exact same genus as the prior discovered snail shell beads from Üçagizli Cave, Turkey, dated at 40,000 years BP (Kuhn et al. 2004).

 The Blombos beads are Nassarius kraussianus and the Üçagizli beads are Nassarius gibbosula. The materials could be interchanged without attracting much attention. The fact that these two sets of beads and how they were pierced for suspension are virtually identical despite a 35,000-year age difference strongly suggests a similar human consciousness at work.

In contrast, possible beads from the Lower Palaeolithic are quite rare. These include Coscinopora fossil sponges with natural holes containing material suggesting they may have been strung, and disc-shaped crinoid columnals.

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That Homo erectus may have had personal ornamentation and, thus, self-awareness has been resisted by traditional archaeology. Bednarik sees this as due in part to misinterpretation of evidence and unreasonable expectations that symbolic materials would be more common if higher intelligence were indeed present. But as Bednarik argues, rarity in older contexts may say more about preservation matters than the capabilities of early people (Bednarik 1994, 1995, 1997, 2003a. see also Wynn 2002).

On the question of how self-awareness came into being in the first place, most modern ideas revolve around the co-evolution of hand, eye, and brain. Recently, Tallis has suggested that knowledge and use of the hand were the primary agents responsible for creating our uniquely human sense of self (Tallis 2003). I agree with Tallis. Certainly, in the modern world, few human beings who have ever looked at their hands, or touched their own hands and bodies would question that these actions immediately give one a reinforced sense of “self.”

Ever since Darwin, it has been believed that human traits became possible when our ancestors began walking on two feet, allowing more creative use of their hands. As Donald (1993), Wilson (1998), Dissanayake (2000) and Tallis (2003) explain, releasing the hands from their role in locomotion freed them up for other uses from technology and art to gestural communication (see also Harrod 2003). The advent of Acheulian age handaxes is also regularly cited as a sign of “human” cognition (recently Wynn 2002, 2003, Mithen 2003, Harrod 2003, Hodgson 2004). Oakley (best known for exposing the Piltdown Man hoax) even suggested that handaxes were perhaps “symbolically” connected to the human hand (Oakley 1981: 208).

Perhaps the greatest cognitive benefit of freeing up the hand was increased ease in studying the hand itself.

Further, as Homo erectus people were paying closer attention to the tools they were fashioning, they, no doubt, also began to pay closer attention to the hands that were fashioning the tools. Eventually, they began to study their hands in a contemplative manner. During this stage, startling realizations of self occurred when the hands were viewed in their most attention-grabbing position, with the fingers and thumb outspread in the shape of a fan. (Nowadays, this psychological effect is taken for granted, but it is testable via EEG, PET, fMRI, etc.) In other words, self-awareness came about not by simply using the hand, even in complex ways (for this was already in progress for millions of years), but, rather, by “musing” upon the hand—a representative extension of the self—with the “fan” position having the greatest visual and cognitive impact.

The most often observed motif and its implications

The earliest definite signs that humans were actually “thinking” about their hands are the hand stencils and prints painted on cave walls during the Upper Palaeolithic (certainly Gravettian age, c. 28,000 years BP, e.g., Cosquer Cave [Bahn and Vertut 1997: 75], and probably Aurignacian age, e.g., Chauvet Cave, c. 32,000 years BP [Clottes 2002: 2]). Hand stencils were always produced with the fingers spread out like a fan (rather than as a fist or a salute). The hand motif spans the entire Upper Palaeolithic, and in places is so common as to dominate all other art (Bahn and Vertut 1997: 158).

Although we have no evidence of hand stencils or prints from the Lower Palaeolithic, reference to the hand could have taken other forms. I suggest that while in the process of becoming increasingly self-aware, including via study of the hands, early humans would have been unconsciously memorizing the angles of the hand’s fan motif, the characteristic angles of fingers and thumb, and that when these people first began collecting fossils (discussed below), and engraving motifs onto bone artifacts, they naturally gravitated toward a motif that was already well ingrained in their minds. Engraved artifacts from Bilzingsleben, etc., collected fossils and shells, and even the Lower Acheulian collected quartz crystals (Bednarik 2003a: 93) all feature the basic angles characteristic of the outspread human hand. I am not necessarily suggesting “representation” of hands per se. Rather, that the most commonly observed motif by all human beings for millions of years, carried about by them wherever they went, involved in whatever they did, was certain to show up in some expressive form. That expressive form could have included collecting motifs that reminded them of the hand (albeit, unconsciously), or creating their own via what I will later call “representation of angles.” The outspread hand was the perfect influential motif—portable, and ever-present.

During the Acheulian, the fan motif was not only the most often collected (as fossils) and humanly crafted (as engravings), but also, without peer, the most often observed, being the form of the ever-present human hand. This

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Figure 1. Timeline: Radial/fan motifs through the Palaeolithic. These are examples of radial "motifs" either collected or created by several different species of human beings. All fan motifs are displayed radiating upwards to facilitate comparison.

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fact may have contributed to early interest in fossils featuring the fan pattern. To demonstrate the importance of the fan motif to all Palaeolithic peoples (see also Feliks 1998a: 116), I consolidate under one umbrella examples of artifacts featuring this motif whether deliberately created by early peoples or collected ready-made from nature.

Kenneth Oakley, the eminent British physical anthropologist, geologist, and paleontologist, made the astute observation that Acheulian people collected, and in various ways, re-worked fossils that specifically featured radial motifs. This fits intriguingly well with Bednarik’s observation regarding focus on engraved radial motifs by the same peoples. In the publication that first drew attention to the West Tofts handaxe (featuring a centralized fossil scallop shell), Oakley wrote [my emphasis]:

    “I suggest that it was the fine fan-shaped markings of the Cretaceous fossil shell which appealed to the mind of the maker of the West Tofts hand-axe, about a quarter of a million years ago. Three other examples of fossils worked as artifacts by Acheulian people in Europe are on record. In all these specimens a conspicuous feature of the fossil structure is the radiation of lines from one or more centres” (Oakley 1973: 60).


Testing for “radial motifs” as opposed to “parallel lines”

Many of the lines on the “four” Bilzingsleben artifacts first published in English (Mania and Mania 1988) have been, and still are, considered by writers in archaeology to be “parallel” lines. However, shortly after beginning my numerous sets of geometric studies, I discovered that these, too, were convergent, i.e., “radial” lines, thus making Bednarik’s “motif” theory even stronger. In Figure 2, I offer an on-the-page test replication opportunity whereby the reader can instantly perform the very tests I applied to images of the artifacts to prove their radial nature. I very much encourage the reader to physically do these tests rather than to simply look at the radial lines I provided. To do the tests: 1.) Place the point of a pencil on one of the 10 pivot points provided. 2.) Using the other hand, place a straight edge such as a ruler against the pencil. 3.) Fan across the corresponding artifact image. Disclaimers: Working only from published photographs and line drawings, the geometric studies of Artifact 1 were especially difficult because different images of the same artifact yielded different line angle results. This effect was no doubt due to the beveled nature of the edge containing the markings combined with the publishing photographers’ original camera angles, focal lengths, etc. I do not consider any of the geometric studies in Fig. 2 to be the final word on angles in the Bilzingsleben artifacts, but rather as demonstrations that this type of study can yield worthwhile insights into the minds of the people who created them. The pivot points I have provided for each of the artifacts are simplified consolidations offered in order to make the pencil/ruler tests immediately accessible to the reader. The tolerances I applied in deciding whether or not to include certain lines in a particular fan motif will be readily discernable. Convergence points actually occurred in many different places when extending the lines out as far as 1000mm (100cm). “Some” of the lines appear to be truly parallel, e.g., lines #18, 19, and 20 of Artifact 1. Still, the whole point of this figure is to illustrate the general idea that these were probably “intended” (using this word very loosely) as radial lines referring to points of convergence. [Note: While the recently discovered 1.4 million year old engraved bone from Kozarnika Cave in Bulgaria is still undergoing evaluation, I suggest that it too contains a subtle fan motif with three lines converging at a point about seven times the length of the engravings].


What might the convergence or pivot points of
the Bilzingsleben radial fans represent?

Testability: Replicative experiments using blank duplicates of the Bilzingsleben artifacts would be very informative in answering this question, and would also benefit us toward gaining an understanding of the artistic mind and capabilities of Homo erectus. The more exactly matching the blank objects are made (including not only size and shape, but weight, color, and texture), the more complete and accurate an impression would be gained by experimenters duplicating the artifacts. This would include gaining a sense not only of what was cognitively and dexterously necessary to produce the markings, but other impressions such as emotional responses elicited by working the details on objects of certain characteristics. Impressions and intuitions are as much a part of the scientific process as is logic, and often result in unanticipated insights (see also Feliks 1998b: 129). This is one of the great values of replicative archaeology.

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Figure 2. The Bilzingsleben radial fans. To test with a straight edge: Holding a pencil in one hand, place its point on one of the 10 pivot points provided. With the other hand, hold a straight edge against the pencil, then fan across the selected artifact image to confirm radial positioning of the engraved lines. It should be noted that these convergence points are simplified. They have been averaged out or consolidated for easier viewing. (a & b) Artifact 1 (after Bednarik 1997:41; line numbering as per Steguweit 1999). (c, d, f & g) Artifacts 1, 2, 3 & 4, respectively (after Mania and Mania 1988:93-5). (e) Detail of Artifact 2 showing example of duplicated composite line motif (after Mania and Mania 1988:94).

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While all four artifacts would produce interesting results in replicative tests, I am thinking in particular of Artifacts 1–3. Duplicating the unusual positioning of the marks on Artifact 1, for instance, being on the beveled “edge” rather than a larger flat surface (Bednarik 1995: 607) might reveal that certain body positions were necessary, or perhaps the use of propping objects. Regarding Artifact 2, attempting to duplicate the composite lines while retaining awareness of and adherence to the larger perfectly radial fan motif (expounded below) would reveal much about the mental concentration abilities, determination and deliberation of the person who created the pattern. It could be said similarly for the doubled lines and impeccably referenced angles of Artifact 3 (also discussed below). It should be kept in mind that these extremely complex combination motifs were created 350,000 years ago. In the meantime, I suggest the following ideas for what the Bilzingsleben radial fan pivot points might represent. I list them roughly in order from unconscious internal references to external references:

1.) Physical reference 1. The points could represent the physical body of the artist doing the engraving. This seemsfeasible when one compares to the similar non-converging fan motifs created by the chimpanzee Congo during the late 1950s. Desmond Morris, Congo’s researcher observed: “in many cases, if the fan was projected downwards the lines would have met at a point that was approximately the centre of the chimpanzee’s body, as it sat at its picture-making” (Morris 1962: 95. see also Wynn 2002: 392–3, and Lenain 1995: 210–11). The physical body is one of the most natural points ofreference for creating fan patterns, though by no means the only way a creative human being might approach the matter.  

2.) Physical reference 2. The points could represent the centralizing effect of the generally radial sense of vision elicited by the comfortable (i.e., minimal strain) field of view experienced either by turning the eyes or turning the head. The outer angle of this field is roughly correspondent to the shape of a scallop shell or the outspread human hand (see #s 4 and 5 below), each of which were observed by Lower Palaeolithic peoples. A further similarity between the human field of view and both scallop shells and the outspread hand is that the eyes, when scanning a horizontal or vertical field, scan the field in broken movements creating radial sight lines, which, if drawn on paper resemble sections of a fan, scallop shell, or the outspread fingers. To immediately test this, notice how your eyes move while reading the text on this page.

3.) Intuitive mental references. The points could represent the “sense” that life radiates around the self or that all stimulation (e.g., audible, visual, tactile) is radially drawn in toward the self, i.e., that the self is the center of the universe like the hub of a wheel. This is sometimes referred to as “egocentric space.” This is the space in which “the things of the world are arranged around oneself, with oneself located at the 0, 0, 0 coordinate” (Tallis 2003: 53).

4.) Hard-wired mental references. The points could echo internal visual sensations such as phosphenes (Bednarik 1995: 614; Hodgson 2000) or influences from the structure of neurons or the nervous system in general (J. Greve, pers. comm.). Likely, such patterns are reinforced in the mind by observing similar patterns in the physical world of organic forms. Sacks suggests that the two may share similar restrictions upon how they take shape (Feliks 2003: 113; see also Sacks 2002: 109; 1999: 289). This might help explain human attraction to certain patterns (see also Hodgson 2004).

5.) Consciously observed and duplicated references, or cryptomnesic references. As noted earlier, Acheulian people (Homo heidelbergensis, for certain) were drawn to fossils of a radial nature. That radial fossils were consciously studied is indicated by the fact that five of them had been creatively reworked. As seen in Fig. 1, these fossils clearly suggest points of convergence, focal points around which the fan rays pivot. (See also Feliks 1998a, b—the “natural representations” and “fossil depictions” theories.)

Easily assumed for Homo erectus at Bilzingsleben is observation of the human fingers and thumb, suggesting points of convergence. One notable piece of evidence that the human hand may have influenced the Bilzingsleben fan motifs relates to the nature of its radial lines. The radial lines characteristic of the outspread fingers and thumb are, themselves, not seen as referring back to the point where they converge. Rather, the hand’s fan motif appears only to “suggest” convergence of lines. Therefore, the engraved fan motifs of a non-converging style on the Bilzingsleben artifacts seem a perfectly natural response had human hands indeed inspired them. [Note, also, that non-converging radial lines are characteristic of the Acheulian-collected and “framed” fossil scallop shell (Fig. 1b, Figs. 7c, d). See Feliks 1998a for detailed geometric studies.] Cognitively, engraved fan motifs consisting of lines that

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do not converge may, in fact, represent a more advanced conceptual technique than fully connected motifs. As Bednarik himself reminds us, greater complexity of thought is sometimes represented by apparently simpler actions (Bednarik 1995: 613; 2003a: 99). Each type of radial motif implies a “focal point.”

While both fossils and hands were observed consciously, there is also the equally valid point that they were remembered and ingrained subconsciously as well, and that their characteristic “motifs” were duplicated cryptomnesically (see “race cryptomnesia,” Feliks 1997a: 12–13; 1997b: 10–11; 1998a: 116; 2000; 2003; Bradshaw 1998: 126; Bradshaw and Mattingley 1995). [Cryptomnesia is “the unconscious influence of memory that causes current thoughts to be (wrongly) experienced as novel or original inventions” (Taylor 1965: 1111). Cryptomnesia shows itself most dynamically in creative acts.]

6.) Contemplative reference points. These could be responses to certain geometric aspects of the medium of expression (Bednarik 2003a: 99; 2001/1990; 1995: 612–14; 1988: 99). Bednarik has shown, for instance, that the radial motif on Bilzingsleben Artifact 3 relates to the shape of the object’s corner. In the case of the “side fan” of Artifact 1, the angles suggest, instead, mental focus upon a “central” point. This is not without precedent in the Acheulian (see Figs. 1b, c, d, e, g). Consider Feliks 1998a: 114–16, where it is demonstrated that the umbo or beak of the Spondylus scallop fossil in the West Tofts handaxe, and the fossil’s radial lines point directly at the “centroid” focal point (where all three vertices of a superimposed triangle meet). See Fig 1b for a miniature reproduction of that particular study. [It is notable that later, from the Châtelperronian onward, nearly all of the radial brachiopod and scallop shells pierced or grooved for stringing as personal ornaments have this preparation done at the point where the rib lines converge. In other words, the focus was on the radial pivot points.]

7.) Arbitrarily chosen references or “artistic points in space.” The artistic impulse can be influenced by many different things, from single inspirations to all manner of influences in combination. But it should also be remembered that, oftentimes, artistic decisions involve deliberately avoiding obvious associations for the sake of originality.

"Straight edge theory"

Referring to Artifact 1 (Fig. 2a–c), Mania and Mania mention the straightness and regularity of its engraved lines constituting fan-like patterns. Their microscopic analysis showed the lines to be of identical cross-section and groove diameter, which allowed the conclusion that they were all deliberately engraved with the same tool and probably in the course of one single process (Mania and Mania 1988: 93; laser analysis confirmation, Steguweit 1999). Bednarik noted that the lines were “straight…evenly cut and evenly spaced” (Bednarik 1995: 607). While discussing Artifact 3, Bednarik referred to the lines as being “amazingly straight” (Bednarik 1988: 97) or as exhibiting “extraordinary straightness” (Bednarik 1995:607). I suggest that not only are the lines remarkably straight, but the perfection of their radial relationship to one another is comparable to modern standards (see test, Fig. 2f). Regarding two straight lines in tandem on the same artifact, Bednarik suggested that it would be impossible to create such a perfectly spaced second line “freehand,” pointing out that the lines were engraved simultaneously via two side-by-side minute projections on the same burin point (Bednarik 1988: 97). Due in large part to Bednarik’s efforts, today, other options relating to early human capabilities can be considered. With the perspectives we now have, I suggest that “freehand” is not the only way that a Homo erectus artist may have created such lines (or any lines, for that matter). There is also the possibility that they could have used a straight object as a guide.

Evidence that Lower Palaeolithic people were aware of the concept of “straightness” dates to 50,000 years earlier than Bilzingsleben, at the site of Schöeningen, Germany. Here, small spruce trees had been felled, de-barked, and de-branched to create perfectly straight spears. These spears are said to greatly resemble modern javelins (Thieme 1999). In a broader sense, this may indicate not only a developed eye for straightness, but a general “interest” in straightness, as well.

Straight edge technology is something that could quite easily have been discovered and employed 350,000 years ago. Not only is it a simple technology, but also, early hominids were approaching it for millions of years while in the process of using stone tools for survival purposes. The linear scraping of bones would have been a pre-conscious priming stage in that the direction of tool movement was willingly restricted or guided by an external object. As to the question of what might have motivated Homo erectus people to try similar actions in a different context, I would appeal to artistic temperament. People in creative frames of mind are regularly inspired to try things, usually

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prompted by seeing common everyday objects in new ways. And, where many in archaeology have suggested bone scraping as one likely beginning of deliberate marking (most recently, Hodgson 2003), I suggest that guided marking or engraving using a “secondary” object would not have been far behind, especially since applicable objects such as flat bones were conveniently at hand. In fact, I would point out that Artifact 2, the flat rib bone of a large mammal, is about the same dimensions as a modern day ruler. It is 286mm in length by 36mm in width by approximately 7mm in thickness. In inches, that correlates to 11 1/4" by 1 3/8" by 1/4". Sketch those dimensions as a rectangular figure on a piece of paper, and a sense of immediate recognition will likely occur. To get a physical sense of the artifact, simply hold a ruler.

Now that the mental abilities of Homo erectus are increasingly being assessed much higher than before, it seems reasonable that the designation of an engraved line as “early” in human evolutionary terms should no longer necessitate the assumption that it must have been done freehand. If early peoples such as Homo erectus were able to string necklaces, build extremely large structures such as those at Terra Amata, navigate bamboo rafts across miles of open sea (e.g., Bednarik 2003b; 1997: 34), and make 3-component composite tools (discussed below), not to mention, create fire, they would certainly have been able to understand and use the simple and mentally fascinating technology of a straight edge.

Testability: If we consider it likely that Homo erectus was capable of using a straight edge then analogical testing with chimpanzees might be useful. For instance, can a chimpanzee draw a line with the aid of a straight edge that is similar in thickness to Artifact 2? Can a chimpanzee draw multiple lines with a straight edge? Radial lines? Regarding testing of archaeological evidence: The lines on Artifacts 1 and 3 appear “straight.” But a primitive straight edge such as Artifact 2 might produce lines with a slight detectable wave or bump. If similar waves or bumps could be detected in any two Bilzingsleben engraved lines, it would support the possibility that a straight edge could have been used. Failure to find such curvatures, however, would not rule out the straight edge possibility, as other factors could contribute to variability of the lines (consider Bednarik 1988:97).

[Not only does Artifact 2 have a ruler’s straight edge quality, but the spacing of its six engraved lines, /  // / /  /, is a measurable sequence (60–20–40–40–60mm) expressible in the ratio 3:1:2:2:3 (Mania and Mania 1988: 94). This ratio is startlingly transparent and can be readily compared with modern analogues. For instance, expressed in the language of musical scale degrees, the ratio and its reverse translate perfectly into two quite playable six-tone scales. The first ratio becomes 1, #2, 3, #4, #5, 7, and, in the key of C, would be played as C D# E F# G# B. This is known as “Augmented Scale X” (Kadman 1995: Fig. 46). Reading the sequence from the opposite end of the artifact, /  / / //  /, the ratio would be 3:2:2:1:3 or 1, b3, 4, 5, b6, 7, which, in classical Indian music is known as “Raga Takka.” In C, that would be played as C Eb F G Ab B. Another comparison quantifies in musical terms Mania and Mania’s observation that the engravings are “rhythmic” (1988: 94–5). In point of fact, the ratios translate into “exact” rhythmic units. Ratio 3:1:2:2:3, for instance, equates precisely to dotted quarter, eighth, quarter, quarter, dotted quarter, eighth. Lower Palaeolithic intent aside, musical tests such as these can inform upon characteristics as specific as language rhythm and structure.]

Early intricate art: a perfect radial motif
consisting of duplicated sub-motifs of a composite nature

While the lines on Artifact 2 are always referred to as “parallel,” closer inspection reveals them to be, in fact, convergent, i.e., “radial” (Fig. 2d). [In this study, I exclude the outer line that does not participate in the radial motif.] The radial positioning of lines on this artifact is absolutely remarkable considering how perfectly the radial pattern is maintained despite the composite nature of four of the lines that make up the larger fan motif (Fig. 2e). The fact that each of these four radial lines actually consists of three overlapping zigzagged segments which are consistent from one composite line to the next despite variation in line angle and length is, in my opinion, no less than astounding. Not only does the artifact clearly show a “composite motif” duplicated four times in a row, but also, this is accomplished as part of a larger, perfect fan motif (consider Wynn’s 2003 criteria for intelligence). Hence, Artifact 2 represents an indisputably complex multi-element combination motif, which, if we evaluate by the old paradigm’s estimation of the intelligence of Homo erectus people, would be comparable to creation of a Bach fugue. Either this is the work of a rare Lower Palaeolithic genius (which is not impossible) or it is simply more evidence that Homo erectus in general had intelligence not far removed from that of modern Homo sapiens. A reminder: Much of what we regard as our own species’ “higher intelligence” is actually a matter of our easy cultural access to accumulated

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knowledge via all manner of “external memory storage” (Donald 1991: 308–33). An up-to-date picture of Homo erectus would consider that 400,000 years ago (i.e., 50,000 years earlier than Bilzingsleben Artifact 2) three-component composite tools had already been invented, as known from the Schöeningen, Germany site (Thieme 1997). In this light and other evidence, there is no reason not to consider that Homo erectus was the first to consciously create a “composite artistic motif.”

The earliest motif
duplicated on two separate artifacts

The fan of Artifact 3 and the side fan of Artifact 1 are, for all practical purposes, duplicates of the same motif, including the same size. tn_musings-p258-feliks06.jpgWhile there are variations in line length and number of lines, these follow the same basic radial pattern and are even contained within the same 20º outer angles. Another reason for grouping the motifs together involves the process of duplication. I suggest that most people alive today would have difficulty reproducing either motif by memory, especially if attempting to do so with the same materials originally used by Homo erectus (see tests proposed earlier). The similarity between these two motifs is so great as to suggest the possibility that one of them was being viewed as the other was being engraved. I believe it possible that the same “artist” created both motifs. However, if different artists created the motifs, then I believe the only acceptable conclusion is that this

Figure 3. Duplication of a motif on two separate artifacts from the same archaeological site. (a) Motif only, from Bilzingsleben Artifact 3, a self-contained doubled motif, (after Mania and Mania 1988: 94). (b) Motif only, from Bilzingsleben Artifact 1 (after Bednarik 1997: 41). (c) Artifact 3 motif in context of the entire artifact. (d) Artifact 1 motif shown in general context. The motifs are the same size (measurements approximate). Note also that the widest angles of the motifs are each 20º, testable with a protractor.

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represents communication occurring between two different people by way of a graphic symbol 350,000 years ago. [Visual similarities to the human hand may not be coincidental, as discussed below.] If considered as a possible symbol, it would have great implications for the idea of Lower Palaeolithic language. Deliberate markings are often considered indicative of language even without the added bonus of duplicated motifs (e.g., Mania and Mania 1988: 95; 2003: 32). Additional support for language, and symbolism in general, is provided by “straight edge theory.” This is because any line engraved with the aid of a straight edge would be directly symbolic of the straight edge itself, with analogues in abstract reasoning and language potential.

It is notable that the positional contexts in which these two motifs are engraved are quite different, in fact, opposites. Specifically, the motif on Artifact 3 radiates from the end corner of the artifact, whereas the motif on Artifact 1 radiates from the center of the artifact. The motifs being otherwise alike, this observation suggests deliberation of design independent from the medium.

While some of Morris’ analogical conclusions regarding chimpanzee art as it may relate to the development of human art have been questioned in recent years, the Bilzingsleben radial fans make a comparison with his ideas worthwhile. Consider the following:

 “Just as Congo settled for a basic theme (the fan pattern, for instance) and then rang the changes through a number of variations (split fan, centrally-spotted fan, curved fan, reversed fan, etc.) …without losing sight of the basic motif, so will a human artist use a similar progression as part of his basic method of working” (Morris 1962: 162).

Consider also in regard to the Bilzingsleben fans Morris’ wonderfully described moment of inspiration when Congo came up with an innovative new idea:

 “On the day in question, Congo had drawn several normal fan patterns in the usual way…and then, as the next blank card was placed in front of him, a strange intensity seemed to overtake him and with soft, almost inaudible grunts he began laboriously to make a fan, starting each line at a near and central point and spreading it away from him. As each line was marked out, he could be seen carefully studying its course, so that it radiated away in a fresh direction from those already made.

The fan was therefore similar in appearance to any normally produced one, but had been drawn completely in reverse. This astonishing performance can only be explained if one assumes that Congo had reached the stage where he had a fan image [Morris’ emphasis] in his brain and that he was virtually experimenting with a new way of producing it” (Morris 1962: 97–8).

If such a description is applicable to the mind of a chimpanzee, how much more can we safely ascribe to hominids that were physically like us in every way except for a differently shaped skull? Such creativity is easier still to ascribe when we keep in mind that these people are credited with other technical innovations we’ve traditionally ascribed to ourselves alone.



The two separate fan motifs of Artifact 1 may seem difficult to reconcile with each other owing to differences in their orientation and degree of line compression.

But these foci are diversions from noting a significant similarity. On closer examination, it is seen that each shares the same angles and angle spacing as though from different locations along the length of a single fan motif. This single motif was likely a template image in the artist’s mind (e.g., as per Morris 1962: 97–8), thus further supporting Bednarik’s idea of “concept-mediated” markings.

Another early example demonstrating duplication of a motif on the same artifact is the Tata fossil nummulite mentioned earlier which Bednarik (1995: 612–13; 2003a: 99) observed featured the very same deliberate artistic action taken on both sides of the fossil:

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 “In adding an engraved line on each face at right angles to the natural line and so dividing the circle into four equal quarter-segments, the ‘artist’ was clearly reacting to the natural line as well as to the circular outline: these are not randomly positioned marks. Not satisfied with the mere possession of an object with ‘aesthetic’ qualities, the artist improved them, commented upon them” (Bednarik 1995: 612).

Dissanayake would refer to such artistic improvement to natural objects as “making special,” “elaborating,” or “enhancing” (e.g., Dissanayake 1999: 39–63, 2000: 132–4). “Commenting upon” or “enhancing” natural objects is clearly a most important aspect of the origins of art. We do not know that the four Bilzingsleben mammal bones discussed in this paper were not “special” to certain Homo erectus people before they were engraved. But the obvious enhancements ensure that we in modern times will pause long enough to consider them, and, at the very least, regard them as “artistic” or “concept-mediated.”



All of the artifacts presented by Mania and Mania (1988) are characterized by identical angles. This consistency is so close that images of the artifacts can be superimposed on top of one another in countless ways that show the angle qualities do not clash. The individual elements in this particular superimposition study are not in scale to one another. This was simply to present them in a certain layout. Since angles remain the same at whatever the scale, many such arrangements are possible, and would make the point similarly.

Figure 4. Superimposition study #1: Angle consistencies in two separate motifs on the same artifact. (a) Detail, Bilzingsleben Artifact 1 “side fan” and portion of “central fan” (after Bednarik 1997: 41). (b) “Side fan” superimposed over the artifact’s “central fan.” Both sections are pictured at the same scale.

Figure 5. Superimposition study #2: Angle consistencies of four Bilzingsleben engraved artifacts. Note: These items are not drawn to scale. (a) Artifact 1 (after Bednarik 1997:41). (b, c & d) Artifacts 2, 3 & 4, respectively (after Mania and Mania 1988:93-95). This is only one possible arrangement example. Since angles remain the same at any size, other arragements would produce similar results.

"Representation of angles" theory

Each of the Bilzingsleben artifacts presented by Mania and Mania (1988) feature radial motifs whose widest angles hover around 20º (Artifacts 1–4), with a maximum angle around 35º (the central fan of Artifact 1). This is the exact

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angle range of slightly to moderately out-stretched human fingers. Since these particular angles were observed on a daily basis by virtually every hominid for thousands of millennia, it is certain that they would have been etched into the hominid mind, as noted earlier, and then, likely, reflected in the graphic marking motifs of Homo erectus. [This idea of hand observation can be understood in a modern context by realizing that stretching the hand into a fan shape is something everyone does each day, either deliberately or as an unconscious reflex action. Often, during brief unoccupied moments, this process is noticed, and one looks directly at the resulting fan motif.] tn_musings-p261-feliks06.jpgThe fact that hands were directly involved and visible during the engraving process further suggests that observing them would have reinforced not only the graphic fan images being created, but also the fan image template already present in the mind.

Figure 6 is not meant to suggest representation of the human hand, rather, representation of its characteristic angles. I am suggesting deep-rooted conscious or unconscious abstraction (see Feliks 1998a: 116, “race cryptomnesia”)—perhaps more significant than iconic representation. The most important fact: In all of the Bilzingsleben fan motifs, none of their angles extend beyond those of moderately spread fingers.

Figure 6. Superimposition study #3: Comparing Bilzingsleben Artifact 1 with thumb and finger angles. (a) Artifact 1 (detail after Bednarik 1997: 41). (b) Artifact 1 (after Mania and Mania 1988: 93). (c) Finger and thumb angles in moderately spread hand. It isnotable that although there are many lines in the “central fan” of Artifact 1, none of their angles extend beyond those of moderately spread fingers. (This is, in fact, true of each Bilzingsleben artifact discussed in this paper.) Also, the “side fan” of Artifact 1, when viewed in relation to the “central fan,” roughly corresponds with angles of the thumb. (d) Left portion of Artifact 1 (detail after Mania and Mania1988: 93) showing coincidental outline similarity with thumb. I am not suggesting deliberate conscious representation of a human hand, rather, representation of particular angles prompted by familiarity with the hand. Note: items a, c & d are drawn to the same scale.

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This figure demonstrates that interest in the fan motif can take many forms, yet still relate to angles of the human hand. For instance, the most prominent lines in Fig. 7a match finger angles exactly. This motif (the same as Fig. 1h), if superimposed over hand-like motifs from the Upper Palaeolithic (such as Figs. 1v and 1w), matches so perfectly as to essentially disappear in them. Regarding a different kind of similarity, the radial lines of Fig. 7c are non-convergent, just like human fingers. Fig. 7e has five radial lines, equal to the five digits of a human hand. Fig. 7f features angles quite similar to moderately spread fingers.
tn_musings-p262-feliks06.jpgWithout making too much of these observations, I suggest that such motifs may have prompted early people to “think,” albeit, perhaps intuitively or cryptomnesically, of their hands. [I have considered the possibility of cryptomnesia as a “minimum” influence on how the hand’s angles could have inspired the graphic marking of early peoples, as well as their interest in naturally radial objects. Related to this idea, Bradshaw (1998) has noted that unconscious influences are now known to permeate all aspects of human information processing, including object recognition (Bradshaw and Mattingley 1995).] Still, with so much evidence of higher cognitive abilities now coming to light, there is, in fact, no longer any reason to assume that early people

Figure 7. Superimposition study #4: Finger and thumb angles superimposed over early “palaeoart” objects. Note: these items are not drawn to scale. The artifact motifs are very small (enlarged here) as compared to a human hand. However, angles remain the same regardless of the length of lines comprising them, and the human brain makes the scale translation effortlessly. (a) Engraved antelope bone, Micoquian, Prolom 2, Crimea, Ukraine (detail after Bednarik 1995: 614). (b) Finger and thumb angles in moderately spread hand. (c) Spondylus scallop fossil in the West Tofts handaxe, Norfolk, England, Acheulian (detail after Feliks 1998:115). (d) Geometric studies showing focal point at “centroid T,” as per shell’s centering in the artifact. This is identical to the point of convergence observed when angles of the hand are superimposed, as in “(c)” (after Feliks 1998: 115). (e) Micraster echinoid knapped into a scraper, Saint-Just-des-Marais (Oise), France, Acheulian (after Oakley 1985: 28). (f) Millericrinus crinoid columnal, Jordan River, Israel, Acheulian (after Goren-Inbar et al. 1991: 134).

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such as Homo erectus were incapable of either recognizing or deliberately creating two-dimensional iconic images (Feliks 1998a: 111–16; 2000; 2003), including hand-like images. This recommended change of perspective is quite appropriate, for, in addition to reasons already covered in this paper, there are at least two three-dimensional objects confirmed to have been enhanced by Homo erectus, presumably to make them look more like human “figurines” (Bednarik 2003a; 2003c).

The archaeological record indicates that early people were interested in two kinds of fan motifs, those they obtained ready-made from nature and those they created themselves artistically. Upper Palaeolithic people linked these two categories symbolically through painted hand stencils and prints, sending a clear message of self-awareness. In this paper, I have offered a possible means by which Lower and Middle Palaeolithic people could have sent the same message. Collected or engraved fan motifs featuring angles characteristic of the human hand are a sign that Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Neanderthals, and Homo sapiens shared not only similar interests, but also similar awareness, both of themselves and the world they lived in.


Inspired by the work of Robert Bednarik, Mania and Mania, and others, I have sought to reassess long-held popular notions regarding the mental abilities of early peoples, Homo erectus, in particular. I have provided openly testable evidence that the cognitive abilities of these ancient predecessors were not far removed from our own. This evidence included examples of duplicated graphic motifs, abstraction, graphic markings suggesting straight edge technology, and evidence of complex intricate design.

Even with evidence for ancient seafaring and the building of large freestanding shelters, many still believe it unlikely that Homo erectus had self-awareness or language. This is primarily due to a perceived lack of evidence for symbolic behavior. Extending the work of others, I have hoped to demonstrate that evidence from the artifacts of Bilzingsleben alone suggests that Homo erectus had symbolic capabilities much greater than previously imagined. For instance, fan motifs resembling the human hand duplicated on separate artifacts suggest not only
self-awareness, but also, communication by way of graphic symbols. They may also represent “abstraction” of the hand image, lending support to the idea of early language. Certainly, by the time Homo sapiens began producing countless hand images on cave walls, self-awareness and language had already been long incorporated as essential traits of culturally preserved human cognition, a process likely begun and developed by Homo erectus.

As new evidence continues to surface, and prior evidence is viewed in a new light, we are starting to see that Homo erectus people were much more like us than we had previously thought. In fact, since we ourselves developed an interest in the very same motif as they, we have a rare opportunity to understand our early ancestors by way of a shared symbol. The fan motif is a valuable link between them and us, especially if it was, from the beginning, associated with the human hand.


I would like to thank the following scholars for contributions to and/or support of my work during the past year. In alphabetical order: Robert G. Bednarik, Ellen Dissanayake, Peter Faris, Jörn Greve, Adrienne Mayor, and Oliver Sacks. In addition, I wish to thank the following: Bradley Bloom, Gary Borowski, Pietro and Sharlet DiGiorgio, Shekinah Errington, Walter Everett, Oveda Feliks, Gerry Hermann, Linda Ostach, Toi Roberts, Jameson Ruel, and Richard Zerndt.


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