Image-making is a nearly universal human behavior, yet the visual strategies and conventions to represent things in pictures vary greatly over time and space. In particular, pictorial styles can differ in their degree of figurativeness, varying from intersubjectively recognizable representations of things to very stylized and abstract forms. Are there any patterns to this variability, and what might its ecological causes be? Experimental studies have shown that demography and the structure of interaction of cultural groups can play a key role: the greater the degree of contact with other groups, the more recognizable and less abstract are the representations. Here we test this hypothesis on a real-world dataset for the first time. We constructed a balanced database of Indigenous Australian rock art motifs from both isolated and contact Aboriginal groups (those often in contact with other groups). We then ran a survey asking participants to judge the recognizability of the motifs and to provide interpretations. Results show that motifs from contact Aboriginal groups were more likely to be judged as inter-subjectively recognizable and also elicited more convergent descriptions than motifs from isolated groups. This is consistent with the idea that intergroup contact is likely to be an important factor in the cultural evolution of pictorial representation. We discuss the implications of these findings for the archaeology and anthropology of art, and the parallels with language evolution.
Granito, C., Tehrani, J., Kendal, J., & Scott-Phillips, T. (2022). Does Group Contact Shape Styles of Pictorial Representation? A Case Study of Australian Rock Art. Human Nature, 33(3), 237-260. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-022-09430-2
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