Talk by Cordelia Mühlenbeck


  • Date: May 4, 2016
  • Time: 02:00 PM - 03:00 PM (Local Time Germany)
  • Speaker: Cordelia Mühlenbeck
  • University of Chemnitz
  • Location: MPI SHH Jena
  • Room: Villa V03
  • Host: Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution
  • Contact:
On the origins of artistic behaviour and aesthetic universals
Art in all its various forms, such as painting, sculpture, music, as well as in everyday areas such as design or architecture, is a fundamental expression of modern humans. Among the oldest artefacts that play a role in regard to the origins of artistic behaviour are the remains of stones and other objects with engravings and colourful markings. In my previous work, I analysed the evolution of modern humans and the related theories about their cognitive capacities, to show what the background of the emergence of these first marked objects could have been. Furthermore, for some reasons these early marked objects can be regarded as the beginning of symbolic behaviour, because they had a benefit for the individuals’ visual perception, and most likely also as an informative reference for others. To get information about the perception of these markings and their representation in shape and colour, I conducted three eye-tracking studies in a cross-species (humans, orang-utans) and cross-cultural (Namibian hunter-gatherers and German town dwellers) comparison. The aim of the studies was to investigate the visual perception of marked and unmarked objects (study1), symmetrical and asymmetrical patterns (study 2), and different colours combined with an auditory stimulus (study 3). Furthermore, in studies 1 and 2 an aesthetic preference test was carried out with the two human cultural groups in order to obtain information on whether there could have been shared underlying aesthetic preferences for designing and highlighting the objects. The results show that both human groups, despite their different cultural and ecological habitats, preferred markings and symmetrical patterns in their visual observation, but orangutans did not. Regarding the aesthetic preference, however, the human subjects showed no consistent preference, neither in terms of the marked objects, nor in terms of the symmetric patterns. Also, the three groups showed a very different spatial perception of the objects in relation to the background. The results of the third study, which was only conducted in a species-comparison, show that no consistent colour preference was visible for the human subjects, only a consistent avoidance of yellow. In the orangutan group no preference or avoidance was visible. Combined with an auditory stimulus, the visual perception of the colours remained constant for both groups. These studies show that humans respond differently to visual signs than other primates, and that they recognise them as such in their perception. This is an indirect indication of the origin of marking behaviour and is consistent with the theories of cultural transmission of knowledge through the invention of material symbols.
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