[download this pattern as an envelope design here]
’the folk has thus preserved, without understanding, the remains of old traditions that go back sometimes to the indeterminably distant past, to which we can only refer as “prehistoric”…’ Had the folk beliefs not indeed once been understood, we could not now speak of them as metaphysically intelligible, or explain the accuracy of their formulation.
— Ananda Coomaraswamy, “The Nature of ‘Folklore’ & ‘Popular Art,’” Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society, 27, Bangalore, 1936.
Carl Schuster, a little-known art historian, spent about thirty years of his working life wandering the world, often by foot, talking to traditional (or “primitive”) people in remote places, collecting and/or recording the things they made, or that their ancestors had made. What he found was – perhaps – something like a universal language – a sophisticated, complex system of symbols and practices by which people told the story of who we are and where we come from. An aggressive cancer prevented him from putting the whole story down on paper, but some of it was published 20 years later by Edmund Carpenter, in a 12 volume set titled Materials for the study of Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art: A Record of Tradition & Continuity. (Later, it was condensed into a single volume called, simply, Patterns That Connect.) This article is based on an initial inquiry into those two texts.
Schuster began by pursuing an interest specifically in Chinese peasant embroidery. This earned him a PhD in art history. As he branched out, geographically and conceptually, he finally collected an enormous record of objects, patterns, and designs, from weaponry to tatoos, to tools, furniture, architecture, and even labyrinths. He was particularly interested in how particular themes and designs seemed to crop up, again and again, in different places, at different times, despite barriers of language, geography, history, and culture.
One of the most common patterns he found was based on these symbolic icons that clearly represent individual people, arranged “to depict descent…linked arm-and-leg with diagonally adjacent figures…a graphic representation of the puzzle of procreation itself….” (p. 48-49)
Variations on the same pattern occur all over the world, in textiles, on pottery, in tattoos and body painting, on buildings, etc.
Body decoration suggests an interesting relationship between sophisticated social notions of genealogy and heritage, and the practical arts of survival. Schuster collected examples of primitive “clothing” like this fur quilt, pieced together from many skins of many animals, all of the same species and thus of similar enough size that the skins could be fitted together into a single, useful whole
(The rest of the article, with illustrations, is downloadable as a pdf file here]. There is also more information about Schuster on Wikipedia.