Universiteit Leiden

nl en

‘Visual art has been a form of communication since its inception’

Visual art played an important role in the development of cooperative human behaviour. This is the finding of Larissa Mendoza Straffon, a PhD candidate in archaeology, whose dissertation explores the biological and psychological foundations of visual art.

Intelligent man, intelligent art

In her dissertation, Mendoza Straffon brings together two modern ways of viewing the historical function of visual art. On the one side, you have archaeology, which, supported by physical discoveries, views visual art chiefly as a by-product of man’s cognitive skills, especially language. According to that theory, the degree of complexity in visual art is equal to man’s cognitive abilities. The more intelligent humans become, the more complex their art becomes.

75,000-year-old beads made from seashells, found in South Africa. They constitute evidence that visual art has existed for longer than has been assumed.
75,000-year-old beads made from seashells, found in South Africa. They constitute evidence that visual art has existed for longer than has been assumed.


Alternatively, you can also view visual art through a biological, evolutionary lens. Under this view, the production and use of arts are characteristics that are adaptable according to the circumstances. In that way they acquire an evolutionary function. For instance, one of the models says that visual art is a form of ritualised behaviour that serves to promote social cohesion within a group.

100,000 years old

Mendoza Straffon has brought these two worlds together and studied the degree to which existing evolutionary models are confirmed by recent archaeological finds. For a long time the oldest known objects of art were 30,000-year-old cave paintings. But since then new discoveries have been made, such as 100,000-year-old beads and shell jewellery, and traces of red ochre of a similar date, which was probably used to paint bodies and objects. Visual art thus developed over a much longer period of time.

Communication signal

‘The trick is to view visual art as a communication signal,’ she says. It seems that at the same time that this mini-explosion in visual art was occurring, some 100,000 years ago in the Late Pleistocene period, humans also started organising themselves in groups. In this process art acquired a function. When groups started interacting with each other, they needed signals. Certain body paintings or jewellery, for example, would indicate what group a person belonged to, whether he was a friend or foe, whether you could expect conflicts or not, and so forth.’

Less aggression

As people were better able to predict each other’s behaviour, cooperation between groups became easier. Mendoza Straffon: ‘Conflicts were reduced, and because people had a better idea of what to expect, there was less aggression among them. In this way, visual art played an important role in the evolution of cooperative human behaviour and progress was possible in all sorts of areas.’

Art has a function

The development of visual art does not proceed strictly in sync with the development of human cognitive abilities. Mendoza Straffon rejects the widely accepted idea that art is something independent that has no particular function. ‘Visual art has been a form of communication since its inception,’ she emphasises. ‘That explains the relation between art’s complexity and the cognitive abilities of the person who produces it, as well as the great diversity in functions that visual art has acquired over time.’

PhD defence

M.S. Mendoza Straffon, 10 September – Art in the Making: The evolutionary origins of visual art as a communication signal

(1 September 2014)


This website uses cookies.  More information.