Cupules: Early Rock Art?

Prehistoric Cup-Shaped Petroglyphs
Dated to at least 290,000 BC

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Cupules in Paleolithic Cave

What Are Cupules?

Cupules are cup-like petroglyphs created in rock surfaces. They are one of the world's most mysterious cultural phenomena.

These cup-shaped hollows date to "at least" 290,000 BC, have been found on every continent bar Antarctica, and were made by hominins throughout the Stone Age - yet we still know almost nothing about who made them and why.

They have been described as the most common form of rock art, although the sheer lack of information about their scientific properties - never mind their purpose - has made archaeology wary of calling them prehistoric art in any real sense. See also Archaeology Glossary.

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Who Invented the Term "Cupule"?

The actual word "cupule" was first coined by the eminent archaeologist Robert G. Bednarik - arguably the leading authority on this type of petroglyph - in order to provide a universal label for a phenomenon which up to now had been referred to as "hollows", "cups", "cup marks", "cup stones", "pits", "pitmarks" - even "pot-holes".

A good deal of the information about cupules contained in this article, is gratefully taken from Bednarik's lucid writings on these strange creations.

Definition of a Cupule

How do we define cupules? What exactly consitutes a cupule? Answer: a cupule is a hemispherical hollow, created by human percussion on a horizontal or vertical surface in the rock, for non-utilitarian purposes.

As you can see, the definition of a cupule includes three basic criteria in answer to the questions What? How? and Why?

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Cup-Shaped Marks That are Not Cupules?

The following rock hollows cannot be called cupules.

(1) Any naturally occurring geological features, such as:

(2) Any hollows that are mainly utilitarian, such as:

When Were Cupules Made?

These abstract markings were almost certainly created by hominins in India, as early as the beginning of the Acheulean tool culture, around 1.6 million BC.

Sites of the oldest Stone Age cupules include the Auditorium Cave at Bhimbetka, and the Daraki-Chattan rock shelter, central India.

However, at present, there is insufficient scientific research into India's Lower Paleolithic (between 2 million and 1 million BC) to fix the precise antiquity of these cupules.

In Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas and Australasia, the cupule tradition began in the Paleolithic, and continued into the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age periods, and even into the Middle Ages.

In short, cupule-making is the longest-lived cultural tradition of rock carving.

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Characteristics of Cupules

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How are Cupules Made?

The technology of cupule-making has been replicated to a degree in a series of research experiments conducted by the Indian archaeologist Giriraj Kumar.

During the course of five experimental-tests, details were taken of the hammer-stones used, the number of percussion blows needed, and the time it took to create each cupule.

The tests demonstrated that hammering a cupule out of hard rock requires a huge expenditure of energy.

When you remember that the Daraki-Chattan rock shelter has over 500 cupules, one can readily understand the commitment needed to complete the task.

Cupule-making did not contribute to hunter-gathering activities, yet it must have required the involvement of strong men.

For cupules to be worth such a sacrifice, they must have had enormous value to the community involved.

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Where are Cupules Found?

Answer: cupule sites occur almost everywhere there is a reasonably large population of rock carvings.

But, for various reasons, by far the largest quantity of Middle Paleolithic cupules are found in Australia - see, for instance, Kimberley Rock Art - while almost all of the Lower Paleolithic cupules are found in India.

Scientists believe that the first hominids to colonize Australia originated in southern Asia. There is therefore a strong connection between early paleolithic art in Australia and early Stone Age art in India.

Early Indian Petroglyphs (EIP) Project

Due to this connection, an international collaboration known as the Early Indian Petroglyphs (EIP) Project, was initiated by Robert G. Bednarik and Giriraj Kumara, to investigate India's most ancient cupules. The EIP is a collaboration between the Rock Society of India, Agra (RASI) and the Australian Rock Art Research Association (AURA), supported by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR).

Which are the Oldest Cupules?

The earliest known specimens, dating to at least 290,000 BC, are found in two paleolithic caves in central India.

The Auditorium Cave at Bhimbetka and the Daraki-Chattan rock shelter near Bhanpura both have a quantity of cupules sandwiched between a solid layer of the Middle Paleolithic, above, and a layer belonging to the Lower Paleolithic Acheulian culture, below.

Due to the solid status of the former, the cupules in the Auditorium Cave have been assigned a minimum age of 290,000 BC, which equates to the latest date ever known for Acheulian debris.

The cupules at Daraki-Chattan (some 500 in total) are believed to be at least as old, if not older.

Researchers have confirmed they were made by Homo erectus who used chopping tools similar in style to the ancient Oldowan culture of the early Lower Paleolithic.

In Europe, the earliest known cupule is the group of 18 found on the underside of a stone slab covering the grave of a Neanderthal child in the French cave of La Ferrassie, which dates to between 70,000 and 40,000 BC.

Other examples occur in several other locations associated with early Aurignacian art (40,000-25,000 BC). See also: World's Oldest Art.

Cupules are relatively common in African culture, but we have no firm evidence of their age.

Recent archaeological investigations into cupules in the Korannaberg region of the southern Kalahari, has unearthed fossils and artifacts dating to the Acheulian period which ended around 200,000 BC, but no firm dating of these petroglyphs has occurred. The same applies to a large cupule found at Sai Island, Sudan.

In Australia, cupule-making likely began during the early colonization period of the continent, from 60,000 BC onwards.

However, the known cupule-sites are mostly made of sandstone rock, which is far less climate-resistant than quartzite or granite.

Also, many sites are in the open, making erosion even more likely. Thus it is unlikely that much of this mysterious rock art has survived.

Even so, several sites are likely to be between 30,000 and 60,000 years old, notably those in the granitic region of the Pilbara, and the karst caves of southern Australia.

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Cupules May Be Older Than We Think

Nearly all of the earliest cupules are found on very hard, weather-proof rock.

Given the colossal physical effort required to create them, it's only logical to assume that they won't be the oldest cupules created.

Hominids would surely have started by hammering on softer (easier) rock, before progressing to the really hard types.

Thus, we can assume the process began even earlier than our present dating suggests.

Why were Cupules Made?

What was purpose of cupules? What light do they shed on Stone Age culture around the world?

No paleo-anthropologist or other expert on Stone Age petroglyphs has yet come up with a convincing rationale for cupules.

Bednarik considers that no such explanation is possible until we have gathered a lot more data on the scientific properties of cupules around the globe.

This cultural behaviour of our ancestors, H.erectus and H.neanderthalensis, as well as H.sapiens, can only be comprehended after a great deal more study into the precise circumstances of the cupule site, its contents, geology and role in local Paleolithic culture.

All we know for sure, is that cupule-making is the longest established, universal form of cultural behaviour. And it takes a massive amount of work.

These two facts alone, suggest that something relatively important was going on - something about which we (clearly) know absolutely nothing.

There are theories, of course. Most current scientific theories, associate cupules with fertility rites, or increase ceremonies.

Bednarik cites a report by the archaeologist Charles P. Mountford (1890-1976), who witnessed cupule-making in central Australia in the 1940s, as an increase ritual for the pink cockatoo.

The rock out of which the cupules were hammered was thought 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 local female cockatoos and thus boost their production of eggs, which the Aboriginals valued as a source of food.

Bednarik quotes this example to demonstrate how pointless it is to theorize about the purpose of ancient art without sufficient knowledge of the ethnic beliefs of its creator.

Are Cupules a Form of Art?

No one knows.

We can speculate of course, but only as far as our knowledge goes, which isn't saying much.

Cupules are often found at sites that also harbour other types of rock art, like engravings, with which cupule makers were no doubt familiar.

Indeed their skill at making cupules may well have helped them create petroglyphs of animals, and the like. Or was it the other way around? Maybe they were rock artists who also created cupules.

Bednarik himself admits that he finds it difficult to see cupules as an artifact according to our understanding of the term.

Instead, he proposes we think of them as the surviving traces of specific behaviour patterns. He says "In some form or fashion, they represent an endeavour of penetrating into rock in a very specific way".

To see how cupules fit into the evolution of Paleolithic culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).


(1) "Scientific study of the cupules in Daraki-Chattan Cave, India." Rock Art Research 2019 - Volume 36, Number 2, pp. 148-156. Giriraj Kumar, Robert G. Bednarik.
(2) "The Oldest Known Rock art in the World." - Robert G. Bednarik. Anthropologie - Vol. 39, No. 2/3 (2001), pp. 89-98.
(3) "A short ethnography of the cupule." Robert G. Bednarik (2010).

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