Prehistoric Gestalt: Earliest Example of Visual Illusion Found in Israel

Nested arcs engraved on a bone and a stone 53,000 years ago at Quneitra create the impression of continuous lines, whole circles and balance where none exist, the archaeologists say

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Golan Heights: Israel-Syria border
Golan Heights: Israel-Syria border, at least one area where art began to develop.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A bone and a rock engraved with lines and concentric arcs about 53,000 years ago, found in the Golan Heights, evince new principles of artistic expression in “early art,” argue the Israeli archaeologists who discovered and studied them.

Although the artworks are part and parcel of engraved artifacts going back half a million years and predate the development of artistic expression as a hallmark of human culture, they stand out among Stone Age artifacts up to that point, say Dana Shaham, Anna Belfer-Cohen, Rivka Rabinovich and Naama Goren-Inbar.

Whether or not the artist meant to achieve any such thing, looking at the engravings creates a number of visual illusions, the team explains in . For instance, the eye of the beholder extends nested concentric semicircles carved into an aurochs’ leg bone into circles, Shaham explains. Insofar as is known, this was a first in prehistoric art.

Neither of the artifacts seem to have had utility, supporting the postulation that the carvings were made for art’s sake.

The engravings found at Quneitra, which lies in the Golan Heights on the border between Israel and Syria, were made on an aurochs’ leg bone and a flat rock, and have been dated to the Mousterian period (defined by the character of stone tool technology, which ran from roughly 130,000 to 40,000 years ago).

The Quneitra stone: Concentric arcs and straight lines that give the impression of balance where there is none
The Quneitra stone: Concentric arcs and straight lines that give the impression of balance where there is noneCredit: Gabi Laron

The maker or makers weren’t exactly prehistoric , but their work evokes a sense of more than we are actually seeing.

Technically, the flat stone is incised with four nested semicircles and surrounding vertical lines. But the semicircles we think we observe are actually comprised of short straight lines, as demonstrated by U.S. archaeologist in 1996. The arcs were not engraved with one bold movement but painstakingly. The short lines create the illusion of sweeping arcs as we complete the images in our minds.

The results suggest that illusion was part and parcel of artistic creation since its beginnings, the team suggests.

Creation by who? No skeletal remains have been found at Quneitra, which was inhabited by either Homo sapiens or Neanderthals during the Middle Paleolithic period typified by the Mousterian culture. In any case, argument rages over whether Homo sapiens and Neanderthals were the same species, so let's let the species of the maker go.  

Credit: Gabi Laron

Before Adam

Artistic manifestations at least of some sort clearly predate sapiens-kind itself. The oldest-known engraving (to date) is a categorically unnatural zigzag incised on a by hominids in Java, Indonesia. Homo sapiens didn’t exist yet. Researchers assume the maker was Homo erectus, “Although it is at present not possible to assess the function or meaning of the engraved shell, this discovery suggests that engraving abstract patterns was in the realm of Asian Homo erectus cognition and neuromotor control,” wrote Josephine Joordens et al. in Nature in 2015.

We don’t know why they did it. We can’t figure out what our neighbor is thinking, let alone a prehistoric extinct species. Maybe a bored erectus observed that applying a sharp hard point to a mollusk left a mark; liked making marks or the mark itself; and did some more. Maybe its meaning runs deeper: maybe the maker was marking this as his (or her) shell.

Whatever the impetus of the maker (or makers), in the millennia following the shell there are multiple examples of categorically manipulated artifacts in the archaeological record, although they are sporadic and rare. The list includes, for instance, an elephant tibia found in Germany from about 400,000 years ago, featuring two groups of parallel lines. A quarter-million years ago, some hominin critter engraved serpentine marks onto a rib; and, from about the same time frame, we find the controversial “,” found in Israel — which is either an erotic female figurine or coincidentally suggestive pebble, depending who you ask. Africa brings the famous example, among others, of an ocher block decorated with lines found at , from about 70,000 years ago.

Venus of Berekhat Ram
Venus of Berekhat Ram: Figurine or fiction?Credit: Israel Museum

We can reasonably categorize early engraved artifacts with no evident utility as art. But art was apparently not characteristic of our early human culture.

The two artifacts found at Quneitra fit into that category of Stone Age “early art,” Shaham explains. Yet they are distinctive from preceding “artworks” in a number of ways, including the introduction of arcs into the engraving repertoire, and the illusory visual effects.

The appearance of artistic manifestations as a constant component of human culture is considered to be a hallmark of several subsequent Upper Paleolithic (Late Stone Age) societies, starting around 40,000 years ago, Shaham explains.

“The record of earlier artistic manifestations is rather scanty and varied, yet crucial for studies of human behavioral evolution,” she says. “Thus, the engraved bone retrieved from the Middle Paleolithic site of Quneitra, about 53,000 years before present, is an important contribution to the record.”

Seeing is believing

The prehistoric Quneitrans lived on the edge of the water, a paleolake or marsh, Prof. Goren-Inbar tells Haaretz. The artifacts were found in the same archaeological layer, just a meter apart. They could feasibly have been made by the same individual: the two images are essentially similar.

The interesting aspect from the team’s perspective is the implications of the Quneitra artifacts for the understanding of the relationship between early artistic manifestations and their perception by the beholder: the articulation of graphic depictions in principles of visual perception.

See that in 3D? it is an illusion.
See that in 3D? it is an illusion.Credit: art_of_sun / Shutterstock

Gestalt theory of visual perception proposes that what we think we see depends not only on sensory input but also on the prevailing conditions. We see a “whole” shape from individual, disconnected components: .

Say you look at a picture of four equidistant dots with no lines between them. You see dots, but your mind’s eye sees a square. A more advanced example is that any image we perceive as three-dimensional is our mind interpreting a two-dimensional drawing.

Did the Quneitra artists intend for the beholder to perceive perfect arcs from small straight lines? That would be pure speculation. Nobody is suggesting the bone and stone depict a 3-D maelstrom. But the images are the earliest examples known so far of graphic illusion. (Shaham qualifies out that earlier ones may yet be found.)

Another visual illusion on the stone plaque results from the set of straight lines on the right. In fact, they are cut by a notch or missing piece of the stone. The lines start at one end, continue to the missing bit, and pick up again after the missing bit. Yet our perception is of uninterrupted lines. Also, the concentric arcs motif is perceived as a unified, closed motif, but actually only the three inner arcs compose a closed unit, the team writes: “The apparent higher arcs of this motif are open lines that do not meet, yet they are perceived as being closed.”

On the bone, one visual illusion is again that of circles, which we perceive when looking at the concentric arcs made up of short lines. Another optical effect the bone produces is seeming symmetry. The three sets of slightly curved lines aren’t in the middle of the object, but go further leftward than right. However: “The composition as a whole is perceived as rather symmetrical, or at least balanced, even though it actually is not,” they write.

Though the specific optical effects created by these early artworks may differ, the team argues that they share a quality, which they dubbed the “complementary effect” — an attempt to balance the composition, to close open motifs, and to continue to complete broken lines, Shaham explains. “These artistic manipulations seem to articulate cognitive perceptual properties of the human mind at large.”

There is a huge argument over whether or not Neanderthals (who lived in Europe and Israel) made art and had symbolic capabilities. Either way, the great explosion of prehistoric art apparently only began around 40,000 years ago, after modern humans arrived in Europe and the Neanderthals were going extinct once and for all.

And their art was magnificent. In southwest France, for example, we find exquisite carved figurines and figurative cave paintings of extraordinary beauty. The animals capering on the cave walls at Chauvet and Lascaux, to name but two sites, seem alive.

“We cannot possibly say when art began. Origin is a long process of appearance and disappearance,” Shaham qualifies.

But perhaps archetypes of our imagination really do go back that far to Quneitra, and perhaps even further. If we draw four dots, we all see the missing square. Something in the structure of our minds processes external symbols into more than the sum of the parts — and maybe that something is primeval, going back to the forefathers of our forefathers. Predators are probably able to extrapolate glimpses of fur and eyes into visions of dinner, so maybe even falcons and puddy tats can do it. But they can’t draw.