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This review appeared in Volume 1 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

The Passion of Origin

by Jean-Marc Lemelin

Les origines de l'art et la fonnation de l'esprit humain. By Emmanuel Anati.
Translated from Italian by Diane Ménard; Preface by Yves Coppens. Editorale Jasa Book Spa/Albin Michel: Milan-Paris, 1989 (256 p. with 182 illustrations in black and white and 41 colour plates) (ISBN 2-226-03708-X)

"Semioticians should be inspired to roll up their sleeves and to put their theories to the test by working out an interpretation of prehistoric art." (Anati p.170)

For at least three decades countless books have been devoted to documenting and analyzing the numerous features which differentiate civilizations, cultures, arts, genres, and particular works. Such approaches consider that identity can only be defined in terms of specificity: for example,"literarity" would be what makes literary works specific. In contrast, only very few books have attempted to explore what the variety of human cultures, activities and productions may have in common. Emmanuel Anati's endeavour is one of these rare exceptions as was the work of his mentor and colleague André Leroy Gourhan (e.g. 1943, 1965). Anati is primarily concerned with developing "a phenomenology of art and conceptualization" (p.187) in the context of a "total history", that is a history encompassing the disciplinary territories of prehistory and including preliterate cultures in its purview. In his eyes the existence of some twenty million graphic remains -- a number which keeps increasing every year as new discoveries occur- does not justify the exclusive restriction of historical research to cultures which have produced written archives. Anati's unique knowledge and visionary grasp of the global archeology and anthropology of rock art foster a new paradigm encompassing biology, zoology, and palaeontology with little overlapping, if any, with the physicomathematical paradigm.

In the first two chapters of the book Anati explores the roots of his approach and the methods and concepts he uses. He presents a fascinating and often surprising inventory of the "visual heritage" of the five continents, focusing upon parietal art rather than on artifacts. At the time the book was written a total of 780 geographic zones with significant rock art concentrations had already been identified "including thousands of sites and over twenty million graphic items." (p.13) Among these, 144 zones of particular richness and importance have been further delineated in 77 countries.

Global distribution of rock art regions and sites (E. Anati. The State of Research in Rock Art. Bulletin of the Centro Camuno di Studi Preistorici, vol. 21 p. 13-56 (1984), reproduced in Les origines de l'art(p. 16)

Curiously, the main sites are in regions which are now desertic or semi-desertic. (p.15) A data base is currently being created with a view to establish in a more or less distant future a worldwide inventory of rock art. Benefitting from technological advances such as photography, infra-violet rays, carbon-14 dating and computer processing, this data base will be the crowning achievement of over 360 years of prehistoric art research since Peder Alfsonn, a Norwegian, first attempted to record prehistoric art in Sweden in 1627.

However, Anati states his conviction that modern technology would be of little significance in this endeavour if the whole project were not conceived and completed in the framework of a "total history". "Total history means exactly what it says: It is not the history of kings, politicians, condottieri or generals but the history of the human condition including its ideological, conceptual and material dimensions, and all the problems -- existential, economic, and social -- which have been the concern of mankind since its origins." (p.32)

In the chapters titled "La Dimension de l'intellect" (Ill) (The Intellectual Dimension) and "Le language visuel" (IV) (Visual Language), Anati develops his main hypotheses. Distinguishing Homo sapiens neandertalensis (middle paleolithic) from Homo sapiens sapiens (superior palaeolithic), he contends that only the later, who appeared approximately 40 thousand years ago, belong to "the new human species from which all present humans originate" (p.29) and with which prehistoric art coincides. Earlier manifestations of intelligence included the production of signs which can be assumed to have numerical values (200,000 years ago) and funeral rituals (70,000 years ago) whereas the use of fire goes back at least 500,000 years. Moreover, Anati doubts that Homo sapiens evolved simultaneously at various places. According to his views -- with which Yves Coppens, the author of the preface, agrees -- human beings as such originated in Africa: Australopithecus lived indeed only in Africa 4,000,000 years ago; America and Oceania were inhabited neither by Pithecanthropus (1,500,000 years ago) nor by Neandertalensis and Proto-sapiens. Humankind's original matrix includes the capacity to produce rock art, that is visual language, which is itself inseparable from verbal and musical languages. Thus, prehistoric art is considered as having a single origin.

"Some have suggested that there might be several sources for the development of artistic production. But current research and recent discoveries seem to indicate a single origin, thus going back to an earlier hypothesis that had been abandoned. Present datings suggest a process of diffusion of rock art; however, the conditions in which this phenomenon would have occurred remain unclear, although the simultaneity of the diffusion of Homo sapiens sapiens and rock art appears to be a more and more plausible hypothesis." (p. 60-61)

Thus, a single matrix, a logic or a grammar would account for the various forms of languages. But Anati envisions a verbal language grammar rather than a visual or perceptual grammar as the foundational human competence. Before introducing the features of such a logic or grammar, he divides the mass of prehistoric visual art in the world "into 4 fundamental categories reflecting the mentalities of 4 distinct types of cultures: (1) archaic hunters, (2) evolved hunters (using bows and arrows), (3) herders and breeders, and (4) populations with a mixed economy, usually engaged in agricultural activities." (p.66)

In the following 4 chapters "Origin of art," "Order and logic," "Constants," and "Paradigms and archetypes," Anati analyzes in more detail the grammar of rock "texts" on the assumption that parietal art can be truly considered a "writing" anticipating literate writing, and in which abstractions preceded figurative drawing. For him, the necessary components of art are: space and natural supporting surfaces, individual creators, acts of engraving or painting, time, a type of sign including its syntax and grammar, its vocabulary and alphabet, and finally a logic that arts and languages, then writings, all have in common. (p.95) He further distinguishes, going from figuration to abstraction: pictograms, ideograms, and psychograms. Pictograms are anthropomorphic or zoomorphic representations as well as representations of real or imaginary objects. (For me these would be the equivalent of animate or inanimate common concrete nouns.) Ideograms include signs such as arrows, sticks, tree-shaped graphs, phallic or vulva signs, disks, etc. (These would be similar to abstract nouns, verbs, morphological marks or particles, such as prepositions, conjunctions, and adverbs.) Psychograms can not be identified either as objects or symbols. Together with paintings of hands and feet, geometric drawings and "blanks," they could be seen, in my opinion, as signatures of proper names (orality). Thus -- but Anati does not go this far -- there would be an open or figurative class of "nouns" and "verbs", which could vary infinitely, and a closed or abstract class including a constant number of particles relating to proper names. The latter would be to the former like pregnancy is to saliency. In fact, if themes, associations, styles, and places are examined, there seems to be an evolution from archaic hunters to mixed economy populations, going from abstraction to figurative drawing and from simplicity to complexity (table p. 184). As Anati purports to show, there are always the same significant paradigms and archetypes of an "original universal language" which appear through the various forms of vernacular languages:

"We may suppose that the original universal language is necessarily the same universal language which is still buried within us. If the key could be found, it could be revived. This language would enable us to understand one another by overcoming linguistic barriers, since it is founded upon a primary logic that preceded the separations and specializations of the various languages, a logic which theoretically should be encapsulated in all languages and should prove to be equally comprehensible in all of them: (p. 200-202)
But does Anati really mean that it might be possible, by extracting from rock art the pristine universal grammar, to restore the time before Babel, before the Great Flood, and to regain the paradisal state that is assumed to have been lost?

In the last two chapters, "About the roots of conceptuality" (Sur les racines de la conceptualité) and "Some major directions in the last 40,000 years" (Quelques grandes tendances des 40,000 années), and in the conclusion, Anati takes his speculations to the extreme limit by stating that the nature of humans cannot be modified -- except at the risk of losing it -- but can only be studied and understood, a position which implies some form of hegelianism, if not straightforward platonism (p. 205). For Anati, language, art and religion have a single root (p. 209). Their differences can only proceed from the fact that they are fundamentally identical, from their basic lack of real difference.

He even goes so far as to postulate the "human capability of transforming cultural factors into biological ones" (p. 235) -- i.e., the genetic transmission of acquired characteristics and to claim that conceptuality has thus become biological.

In this context, he also asserts that the end of the mechanical age -- which encompassed technology from the arrow to the motor- coincides with the return to the sources of imagination. Life and death, survival of the species through the search for food and sex, through predation and generation, remain the fundamental concerns of humans. For him "our survival after death, our eternity, consists of belonging to our species" (p. 233). But is it not the case that the phytogenesis of the species depends upon the ontogenesis of the individuals through sexual reproduction?

A reflection on Anati's ambitious project may lead to the following considerations. His whole enterprise presupposes, among other things, that myths are determined by rituals. Religions as liturgies and faiths, as rituals and ceremonials, consist of automatisms and habits: myths could be considered to be nothing but reason's compulsory confessions. If religion, art and language come, as Anati claims, from the same source, it would be in order to ponder this single source: for metapsychology in Freud's sense of the term -- guilt is the acknowledged foundation of both murder and incest. When Anati reflects upon the diffusion of art and the expansion of the range of Homo sapiens sapiens, he only considers transcendent factors (e.g. climate, geological transformation, environmental changes); he does not envisage the possibility of a transcendental or immanent lack, such as human incompleteness and finiteness for instance; nevertheless he takes account of the change in family structure which occurred during the Mesolithic age (p. 217).

True enough it requires some intellectual courage to raise the problem of origins, but it does seem dubious that a "total history" can solve it, mainly if the argument involves esthetics considerations. Is the origin of the quest anything more than the quest of the origin? The passion of origins -- let them be biological, metapsychological, phenomenological or genealogical -- is certainly not alien to the origin of passion; it has to do with affects and therefore with unrepresentability. Anati ;seems at times to suspect that this is the case when he discusses psychograms:

"It looks as if they had been created as the result of impulsions, of violent outbursts of energy, which might express sensations such as heat and cold, light and darkness, life and death, love and hate, or even more subtle perceptions. These signs appear to be the most difficult to interpret, in spite of the fast that it might be precisely through them that a true understanding of the art of origins and the recursive mechanisms of our unconscious is possible".

Another issue is the sort of logic or descriptive and explicative grammar of archaic art proposed by Anati. This grammar which is also applicable to ancient, classical and modern art, is probably too contextual; or rather, Anati fails to show how the referential context is also anaphorical or co-textual, and how the anaphorical context is a component of the deictic situation of enunciation. His descriptive grammar should be completed by a completed by a enunciative and semio-narrative grammar which would make it possible, for instance, to assess the orientation and punctuation of rock art's paintings and engravings.

On the other hand, Anati does not seem to appreciate the relevance for his project of perceptive or cognitive grammars focused on vision (e.g. Arnheim 1969; Langacker 1986). Because he holds that discovering is nothing but rediscovering (p. 227), the sort of conceptuality he endeavours to trace back is markedly in the realm of proprioceptive grammars according to which imagination generates schematization in a process consisting not only of "imaging" in the perceptual sense, but also of "imagining" in the primal creative sense. This is why "soul", "body" and "flesh" might have been a more appropriate vocabulary for Anati's project than "mind" (esprit) with its Hegelian connotation.

Finally, Anati's grammar is general rather than universal, precisely because of his views on vocabulary (p. 64 and p. 185) which do not recognize that the lexical open class is arbitrary, but that the lexical closed class is definitely not so. This remarks applies also to the comparative dimension of his enterprise. However, a general grammar can still be more fundamental than a supposedly universe alone; it provides the conceptual means to "think" the incompetency -- i.e. the notion of origin as loss, or the notion of fault as origin -- which is at the root of the notions of competency and performance, and the indifference -- i.e. identity without identification which is at the root of difference.

Anati's approach and method ultimately suggest that there is no gap between orality and human animality. He tacitly indicates that semiosis is framed and articulated by deixis. Les origines de l'art et la formation de l'esprit humain addresses the crucial issue of the nature and origin of poiesis in the broader context of the rejuvenated project of a global science of humankind, a nonhuman or ordinary science.


Arnheim, Rudolph (1969) Visual Thinking. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Langacker, Ronald (1986) Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Leroi-Gourhan, André (1943) L'homme et la matière . Paris: Albin Michel.

Leroi-Gourhan, André (1965) Le geste et la parole. Paris: Albin Michel.

Jean-Marc Lemelin is Associate Professor of French at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is the author of La puissance du sens (1985) (ISBN 2-920602-03-9), Le grand princeps (1988) (ISBN 2-920602-05-5), Signature (1989) (ISBN 289031-081-7) and Oeuvre de chair (1(990) (ISBN 2920602-06-5)

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