cupules — the oldest surviving rock art

cupules are the earliest surviving rock art we know about in the world, but this does not necessarily make them the first rock art produced.
the oldest rock art we know about in every continent are linear grooves and cupules, especially the latter. it can date from middle and even lower palaeolithic times in the three old world three continents, so it is very considerably older than the celebrated upper palaeolithic art of south-western europe. this has become evident despite the considerable bias against such forms of rock art, which have often been ignored by researchers, misunderstood or explained as utilitarian rock markings. however, cupules are such a ubiquitous feature in world rock art that they were made in many periods, and considerable experience is required to estimate their age (bednarik 1997a, 2000). numerically they are probably the most common forms of surviving rock art in the world, and they can be found not only in very early and archaic traditions, but also in very recent ones. in india, for example, cupules occur in the pleistocene, but most are from the holocene, and they were made from acheulian to historic times. in many parts of europe, cupules are particularly numerous in the metal ages. it is therefore false to assume that cupules are always an indication of archaic traditions.
it is also very doubtful that all cupules were made for similar purposes, and it is even possible that some of those found on horizontal surfaces were used for some utilitarian process. however, there are distinct differences between cupules and grinding hollows. the latter occur on near-horizontal surfaces only and are well over 10 cm in size, whereas cupules are frequently found on vertical walls and rarely exceed 10 cm diameter.

figure 2. cupule panel on broad arrow creek, northern territory.
cupules rarely occur singly, they usually form groups, sometimes numbering in their hundreds or even thousands on a single panel (fig. 2). in some traditions they tend to be arranged systematically, for instance in rows or multiple rows, while in others they were made randomly. in the few cases where ethnographic meanings have been secured for cupules, in north america, east africa and australia, they suggest that their function was often, though certainly not always, ceremonial or symbolic. for instance, mountford (1976: 213), who witnessed the making of cupules in central australia in the 1940s, reports that these were made as an increase ritual for the pink cockatoo (kakatoe leadbeateri). the particular rock the cupules were hammered into was thought to contain the life essence of these birds, so the mineral dust rising from the activity was believed to fertilise the female cockatoos and thus increase their production of eggs, which the aborigines valued as food. this example tells us nothing about the purpose ofcupules anywhere else, but what it does tell us is much more important: that it is entirely futile to speculate about the meaning of rock art in the absence of reliable ethnographic information. researchers who speculate about meaning on the basis of their own perception of rock art are merely examining their own cognition.

an ethnographic example of non-ceremonial cupules comes from southern kenya, where odak (1988) has described geometric assemblages of cupules. they are claimed to have been used in board games such as the boa game, but even in that region cupules were probably also used for other purposes (e.g. in ore processing). it is simply unwise to generalise about meaning and purpose, which applies to all rock art.

extract from © robert g. bednarik’s paper
president, international federation of rock art organisations