Caveman’s pebble takes its place in the history of modern art

What is art? It’s a debate that goes back if not to the dawn of time then certainly to the dawn of modernism, when Picasso and the Cubists shocked the world.

Now the question of whether a three-million-year-old rock can be a work of art has led the British Museum to change the title of an exhibition.

The rock at the centre of the debate is the Makapan Pebble, also known as the Stone of Many Faces. It is believed to have caught the fancy of an ape-like creature, who took it back to the tribal cave. It provides the chronological opening of the museum’s exhibition of South African art. The display’s title has now been changed from Three Million Years of Art to Art of a Nation, amid uncertainties about the rock’s place in art history. So why was a three-million-year-old pebble regarded as art?

The argument of the museum curator John Giblin involves the pebble having one side showing a human skull and two other aspects appearing to be faces with features similar to the early humanoid finder, an Australopithecus africanus. Therefore, it was collected because it had face-like features, showing a degree of self-awareness. Mr Giblin told The Art Newspaper: “The unknown individual who picked up the pebble some three million years ago might be considered one of the world’s first creators of ‘found art’, a practice that is well established among contemporary artists.”

So that pebble, a reddish brown jasperite with tinges of quartzite, is an artwork, created by Mother Earth.

Not all experts agree. One Australian prehistorian told The Art Newspaper that the rock was best described as palaeoart. Another scholar said that the pebble should not be considered art, even though its characteristics might have been recognised by apes.

Since its rediscovery in 1925 in a cave in Pretoria, the pebble has never been put on display. When South Africa: The Art of a Nation opens on October 27, one can anticipate fevered discussions about the question once posed by Duchamp’s urinal. Or some, as suggested by Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, may simply decide that an ostrich left the pebble in that cave.