Skip to main content

Research Repository

Advanced Search

Does Group Contact Shape Styles of Pictorial Representation? A Case Study of Australian Rock Art

Granito, C.; Tehrani, J.J.; Kendal, J.R.; Scott-Phillips, T.C.

Does Group Contact Shape Styles of Pictorial Representation? A Case Study of Australian Rock Art Thumbnail


T.C. Scott-Phillips


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.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Aug 9, 2022
Online Publication Date Sep 15, 2022
Publication Date 2022-09
Deposit Date Sep 17, 2022
Publicly Available Date Mar 22, 2023
Journal Human Nature
Print ISSN 1045-6767
Electronic ISSN 1936-4776
Publisher Springer
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 33
Issue 3
Pages 237-260


Published Journal Article (2.4 Mb)

Publisher Licence URL

Copyright Statement
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit

You might also like

Downloadable Citations