Definition, Description & History of Cupule Rock Art.

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Examples of Cupules (c.7,000 BCE)
Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Works.



What Are Cupules?
What is the Definition of a Cupule?
Must Be Man-Made Rock Art: Must Not Be Utilitarian
When Were Cupules Made?
What Are the Main Characteristics of Cupules?
Where Do Cupules Occur?
What Are the Oldest Known Cupules?
Cupule Art Could Be Much Older
How Were Cupules Made?
What is the Purpose of Cupules? Why Were They Made?
Are Cupules a Genuine Type of Prehistoric Art?

The oldest known Stone Age art.
A cupule at the Auditorium Cave at
Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh, India.
It dates from (290,000-700,000 BCE)

For details of arts & culture
during the Pleistocene and
Holocene epochs, see:
Irish Stone Age Art
Mainly megalithic architecture.

For details of the earliest ivory
carving of a human figure, see:
Venus of Hohle Fels.

What Are Cupules?

Cupules are the earliest known prehistoric art, have been found on every continent except Antarctica, and were produced during all three eras of the Stone Age - Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic - as well as in historical times. They have been described as the most common type of rock art. The actual term "cupule" was invented recently by the world-famous archeologist Robert G. Bednarik, in an attempt to provide a consistent name for a phenomenom which hitherto had been called "pits", "hollows", "cups", "cupels", "cup stones", "pitmarks", "cup marks" - even "pot-holes". Much of the information about cupules contained in this article is gratefully derived from Bednarik's cogent analysis of the existing manifestations of this extraordinary art form.

To see how cupules fit into the evolution of cave art around the world, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.)

What is the Definition of a Cupule?

According to Bednarik and his colleagues (2003), a cupule is a hemispherical petroglyph, created by percussion, existing on a horizontal or vertical surface. This definition includes three criteria:

1. As a petroglyph (example of rock art), it must have been created by human hand. This criteria can be established by eliminating all available natural explanations.

2. While it may occur on any surface (horizontal, inclined or vertical), the cupule must have been produced by a number of percussion-blows. Thus, providing the state of its surface has not been over eroded by the effects of weather, its rock structure should display some microscopic signs of percussion, such as crushed particles, and surface bruising. Where very soft rock is involved, there may be signs of macroscopic tool marks.


3. It must have been made intentionally, and must possess some non-utilitarian or symbolic function, even though an additional utilitarian function may be present. Although often impossible to determine archeologically, this is a cupule's critical defining characteristic.

In short, cupules are hemispherical, cup-shaped, non-utilitarian, cultural marks that have been pounded into a rock surface by human hand.

Cupules Must Be Man-Made Rock Art

Identifying a true example of cupule art requires the elimination of all natural causes. The latter includes archeological and geological features such as:

Meaning, fluvial abrasion hollows created by the scouring action of rocks and pebbles in moving water.

Lithological Cupmarks
For example, pit markings on tesselated sand-stone pavements caused by cumulative underground stresses.

Solution Phenomena
For example, pitting caused by localised granular or mass erosion. This category also includes gnammas (rock-holes enlarged by chemical weathering) and tafones (hemispherical hollows typically evident in sandstone, dolerite, limestone, rhyolite tuff, and granitic rocks).

A term invented by the archeologist Clegg (2007) to denote relatively sizable sandstone depressions also known as Opferkessel.

When identifying man-made cupules, such identification is usually assured when there are traces of the tools employed in making them, or where the hollows are arranged in such patterns that intentionality is clearly evident. The same applies to dense concentrations of cupule-like hollows on vertical walls of caves or shelters.

Cupule Art Markings Must Not Be Not Utilitarian

There are a wide range of man-made cup-like hollows which must also be distinguished from true cupules. Here are some examples:

Grinding Hollows
These are deep circular hollows or depressions, functioning like mortars for pestels, used for grinding materials like food, medicines, pigments and the like. They tend to be wider and deeper than cupules and generally occur only on horizontal surfaces.

Game Holes
In different parts of the world (notably Africa) rows of small depressions have been created in connection with various games. These are not to be confused with real cupules.

Lithophone Hollows
Also excluded are holes found on rocks with lithophonic properties, where their function is solely related to the communication of sound or musical notes.

Peck Marks
Also excluded are tiny depressions caused by pecking.

Spoor Engravings
Small depressions forming part of engravings of animal tracks and human footprints are not to be seen as cupules.

Rock Metates
A metate (also called a quern stone) is a stone slab with a ground depression, which functions as a grinder of materials, like foods.

Other Man-Made Holes
There are quite a few other types of anthropic and utilitarian hollows that should not be confused with true cupules, such as rock depressions serving as storage holes, as well as cup-like indentations caused by modern machinery, among many others.

When Were Cupules Made?

The oldest cupule-bearing rock is the rounded cobble discovered in the primordial Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, dating to approximately 1.7 million BCE. Although not unlike one or two examples from the much later Upper Paleolithic era, the Oldowan specimens are probably utilitarian hollows rather than exemplars of cupule art. Be this as it may, true cupules have occurred from the earliest tool-making cultures. Indeed, the oldest art on every populated continent consists of linear grooves and cupules. In Australia, for instance, the oldest Kimberley Rock Art and Burrup Peninsula Rock Art features various types and patterns of cupules.

Cupule art dates from as early as the Lower Paleolithic era, pre-dating the more celebrated Gravettian and Magdalenian cave painting by hundreds of millennia. However, cupule-making is not just a type of Paleolithic art. In India, for example, home of the Bhimbetka Petroglyphs - the world's earliest art - cupules were also made during the era of Mesolithic (10,000-6,000 BCE) and Neolithic art (6,000-2,000 BCE onwards) as well as the preceding Upper Paleolithic. In Europe, many cupules have been dated to Neolithic megaliths and other sites of megalithic art from both the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, and even the Middle Ages.

Curiously, despite its evident longevity and worldwide prevalence, cupule art is - according to Bednarik - one of the least investigated forms of petroglyphs (except where little figurative art exists), as well as one of the least understood.


What Are the Main Characteristics of Cupules?

Cupules are typically found in groups, often numbering several hundred (even a thousand) in a single location. Singletons are highly unusual. Almost all specimens are between 1.5 and 10 centimetres in diameter, but larger examples have been found. Average depth is between 10 and 12 millimetres (less on very hard rock) although examples over 100 mm deep have been found. They can occur on horizontal, sloping or vertical rock-surfaces, but very rarely on overhead rock ceilings: a notable exception being at Grotte Boussaingault in France. As a rough guide, cupules found on surfaces with an incline less than 45 degrees comprise over 50 percent of all known examples.

A significant percentage of cupules occur on boulders rather than rock floors or cave walls, as exemplified by specimens found at Sai Island, Sudan; La Ferrassie, France; Auditorium Cave and Daraki-Chattan, India.

Many cupules, including the oldest specimens at Bhimbetka and Daraki-Chattan, occur on very hard, erosion-resistant rock types,such as quartzite, gneissic granite and even crystalline quartz. However, given the extreme antiquity of the genre, taphonomic logic dictates that this is only to be expected.

It is noteworthy that some cupule-sites have been re-worked by later artists, sometimes several thousands of years later. For instance, one cupule at Moda Bhata, India, created about 7,000 BCE, was re-pounded about 200 CE.

Where Do Cupules Occur?

In general, cupules exist in nearly all of the world’s petroglyph-rich zones.

They have been discovered throughout the Americas, including: the United States, especially in the west; in Canada (Herschel Petroglyph site, Saskatchewan); in Mexico (Cerro Calera); Costa Rica, Panama (Chiriqui site), Colombia (Roca de Los Afiladores, Roca de Las Cúpulas, Roca de Las Espirales, Roca La Familia and Roca Del Mangón); Brazil (Caiçaras or Riacho Santana, Piauí); Argentina (Cueva Epullán Grande); Peru (Lungumari Puntilla, Toro Muerto complex); Bolivia (Achocalla, Inca Huasi, Lakatambo, Toro Muerto, Cochabamba); Guyana, Suriname, and Chile. Outside the Americas, cupules exist throughout the continent of Asia, including India, Inner Mongolia, eastern Siberia, China, Nepal and especially Japan - in fact, the Japanese trove is probably the best classified of all cupule art. In the Middle East, cupules have been discovered across the Arabian peninsula. In Europe, there are a great many specimens, and Estonian cupules comprise all the locally known rock art. In both Macedonia and Ireland, cupules constitute over half of all known petroglyphs. Other European sites have been found in Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark and Scandinavia. In Africa, cupules are widespread from the Sahara to South Africa, including tribal art sites in Kenya, Botswana, and elsewhere. In Oceania, cupules have been discovered on many Pacific islands, Papua New Guinea, New Ireland, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. A huge number occur in Australia, mostly in the north, and Tasmania, but none in New Zealand.

What Are the Oldest Known Cupules?

The earliest known cupule art, dating to between 290,000 and 700,000 BCE, are in central India. Two quartzite caves in the Madhya Pradesh region of central India - Auditorium Cave at Bhimbetka and another rock shelter at Daraki-Chattan - have disclosed a number of cupules sandwiched between a solid upper level stratum of the Middle Paleolithic and a lower level belonging to the Lower Paleolithic Acheulian culture. Due to the immoveability of the former, the cupules at Bhimbetka have been assigned a minimum age of 290,000 years, which is equivalent to the latest date ever known for Acheulian debris. The Daraki-Chattan cupule specimens (nearly 500 in total) are thought to date from the same period, if not earlier. Archeological investigation has confirmed they were made by humans who used chopping tools similar to the Oldowan culture of the early Lower Paleolithic.

In Europe, the oldest known cupule art (and also the earliest rock art) is the series of 18 cuples discovered on the underside of a limestone slab covering the Neanderthal grave of a child in the French cave of La Ferrassie. Although part of a Middle Paleolithic Mousterian graveyard, this particular funerary art is dated between 70,000 and 40,000 BCE (Bednarik). Other European cupules exist in several other late Mousterian sites as well as locations associated with early Aurignacian art (40,000-25,000 BCE) and Magdalenian art (15,000-10,000 BCE).

Cupules are relatively common in African art, but we have no clear evidence of their antiquity. A recent archeological discovery of quartzite cupules in the southern Kalahari (Korannaberg region) has revealed fossils and tools dating from the Acheulian period of the Middle Stone Age, but precise dating of the petroglyphs has not yet occurred. The same is true of a large cupule reported from Sai Island, Sudan, which may be around 200,000 years old.

In Australia, the tradition of cupule-making dates back - in all probability - to the early colonization period from 60,000 BCE onwards. However, the known cupule-sites are mainly shelters made from sandstone, which is much less climate-resistant than granite or quatzite. So it seems unlikely that much paleo-art has survived. Even so, several sites could prove to be tens of thousands of years old. Leading candidates for the oldest cupule art in Australia include: a group of cupules in the granite rock shelter of Turtle Rock, situated in northern Queensland; the scores of cupule panels in the granitic region of the Pilbara; the cupules found deep in the limestone caves of southern Australia. Any or all of these petroglyphs could be between 30,000 and 60,000 years old. We await positive tests.

Cupule Art Could Be Much Older

All of the oldest known cupules appear on extremely hard and highly weather-proof rock. Given the huge physical effort needed to create such hollows, logic dictates that they are unlikely to have been the earliest art created - rock-artists would surely have carved on softer (easier) rock before moving on to the really hard types. Therefore, we may yet discover weather-protected cupules in softer rock with a much greater antiquity.

Also, according to Bednarik, due to Homo erectus' success at crossing the open sea to colonize islands - a facility dated to 830,000 BCE - he "clearly had language". And since language is a system of symbols, such an attribute is quite consistent with the creation of petroglyphic symbols in the form of cupules during the same period.

How Were Cupules Made?

The technology of cupules has in part been confirmed in a recent series of research experiments conducted by the Indian archeologist G Kumar, designed to replicate cupules found at Daraki-Chattan, India. In the course of five experiments, details were recorded of the hammer-stones used, the time needed to create each cupule, and the number of percussion strikes required.

Cupule 1, worked to a depth of 1.9 mm, required 8,490 blows involving 72 minutes of actual working time. Cupule 2, worked to a depth of 4.4 mm, required 8,400 blows involving 66 minutes of actual working time, before the tester reached exhaustion. Cupule 3 required 6,916 strikes to reach a depth of 2.55 mm; Cupule 4 took 1,817 strikes to attain a depth of 0.05 mm (then abandoned); Cupule 5 required 21,730 blows and reached a depth of 6.7 mm.

The experiments clearly demonstrated that pounding a cupule out of hard rock required a colossal expenditure of energy. Given that Daraki-Chattan has over 500 cupules, one can readily appreciate the serious nature of the endeavour. Cupule-making was no trivial exercise - at least not where hard stone was involved.

What is the Purpose of Cupules? Why Were They Made?

No paleo-expert has yet produced a convincing explanation of the cultural or artistic meaning of cupules: nor should we expect one. Cupules are first and foremost a pattern of behaviour - a pattern common to nearly all known prehistoric cultures around the globe - and this cultural behaviour of our earliest ancestors can only be comprehended after a great deal more research into the worldwide beliefs and values of Paleolithic Man.

Of the current theories, most associate cupules with fertility rites, or "increase ceremonies". For instance, Bednarik cites a report by the learned archeologist Mountford, who witnessed the making of cupules in central Australia in the 1940s as an increase ritual for the pink cockatoo. The rock out of which the cupules were pounded was believed by Aborigines to contain the life essence of this bird, and the mineral dust rising into the air as a result of this pounding was believed to fertilise the female cockatoos and thus increase their production of eggs, which the Aborigines valued as a source of food. Bednarik uses this example to demonstrate how futile it is to theorize about the meaning and purpose of ancient art without an understanding of the ethnographic beliefs of its creator.

Are Cupules a Genuine Type of Art?

This question is based upon the rather dubious assumption that we know what art is. Allowing for the moment that we do, our definition of art would certainly be wide enough to include a non-utilitarian cultural activity practised worldwide by people of almost every race and colour. Its ubiquity alone, never mind the huge effort required, commands our attention. One could go further and say that cupule-creation is a much more powerful cultural expression than a pickled tiger shark or a skull decorated with platinum and diamonds, both of which are icons of contemporary art, courtesy of Damien Hirst.

The last word on the subject belongs to Bednarik himself who admits that he finds it "difficult to see [cupules] as an artifact of our taxonomy." Our only option, he says, is to "consider them as the surviving traces of specific behaviour patterns. In some form or fashion, they represent an endeavour of penetrating into rock in a very specific way".

• For information about later cultures, see: History of Art.
• For the earliest painting and sculpture, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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