9.29.2010

Cavemen Art Galleries

If we want to know anything about our earliest human ancestors and their hominid relatives, we traditionally only had two sources: fossilized bones and stone tools. Recent advances in genetics led to a third source, our DNA. After around 60,000 to 40,000 years ago however, another source helped teach us about humans: art. Some of the earliest artists, as far as we can tell from the evidence they left, were stone and ivory carvers. All over Europe, the Middle East, and Asia as far as Siberia and Japan, we find figurines carved in soft stone (mostly limestone), bone, and sometimes mammoth ivory dating to around 25,000 to 35,000 years ago. Many of these figurines are female 'Venus' figures with exaggerated body parts associated with fertility. These may be representations of a goddess (Mother Earth), or maybe totems to ensure fertility or help find food, or maybe they are just the first pornographic material.

Whatever they represent, the idea that they 'represent' anything is what makes them significant. The use of abstract symbolism is what makes humans uniquely human, and this suggest that we were speaking languages, another use of abstract symbolism, at least by this time.

The oldest known artwork comes from the Blombos Caves where archaeologists recently discovered pieces of carved iron ore that date to about 75,000 years ago. Iron ore comes in different varieties depending on the chemical composition, but one of the most common types is a reddish to brown rock known as hematite. Hematite was used to make ochre, a red or yellow pigment, by flaking, grinding and mixing with charcoal and bone marrow (the binding agent). More recently, other archaeologists have found evidence of a sophisticated ochre manufacturing operation in the same cave dating even early around 100,000 years ago. Here early humans made the red ochre dye for body or face paint (the first cosmetics) and possibly other decorative artwork.  There is even evidence of ochre processing as early as the birth of the human species some 165,000 years ago, in another cave along the coast of South Africa not to far from the Blombos Caves.

Archaeologist also find a rather abrupt change in the type of tools and cultural artifacts humans were using as well, which partly the new art styles. Not only do the knives and weapons get more sophisticated, but we also find evidence of sewing needing for textiles.  The cave dwellers of Europe were exploring deep and dark sections of caves where they painted very realistic images on walls. These hidden images suggests that they had a light source, probably candles in the form of animal fat.

Spotted horse and stenciled hands
at Pech Merle
In 1879, a Spanish archaeologist, Marcelino de Sautuola, was excavating Altamria Cave in northern Spain, when his twelve year old daughter, who was with him, spotted paintings on the ceiling and cried out "Toros!". In addition to bulls and cows, there were paintings of bison, deer, and other animals in red and black.  Charcoal was used to make black pigment and the red pigment is ochre from hematite.

Another cave full of wall paintings was discovered by two teenage boys in 1922 near the town of Cathrerets, France (not far from Toulouse). This cave came to be known as Pech Merle. The paintings on the walls of this cave, dating from about 25,000 BC to about 15,000 BC, include very lifelike painting of horses, reindeer, and woolly mammoth.

Cave bear from Chauvet
In 1994, cave explorers found 32,000 year old paintings at the Chauvet cave in southeastern France. These were thought to be the oldest paintings found until more paintings were recently discovered at Fumane cave, near Verona, Italy that are believed to be 35,000 years old. More cave (and rock) paintings from this period were also discovered in other parts of Europe, North Africa, and as far as South Africa.

The drawings spoke highly of the artists' skill. If anything were needed to show that early humans beings were our intellectual equals, this would do. These early humans are sometimes referred to as Cro-Magnon, named after the cave site of Cro-Magnon in the Dordogne Valley of southwestern France. This was one of the places where, in 1868, such bones were first found. Cro-Magnon, the people, were originally thought to be a less developed form of human, but they were, in fact, fully-loaded versions of homo sapiens. Their bone structure and brains are more-or-less identical to ours. They are no less developed, or evolved, then every human alive today. In the last several thousand years, we have gained enormous knowledge and experience, but we are not any more human than those ancient cave artists. We like to think the we have evolved, and continue to evolve, to perhaps provide us with the illusion that we are born smarter than our cavemen ancestors, but unfortunately we have not changed much since our cave dwelling days.


Another cave known as Lascaux in nearby southwestern France, there are clear depictions of bows and arrows being used to hunt reindeer. How old the bows and arrows are is uncertain, but they were in use by 20,000 B.C. at least.

Further Reading

Andy Coghlan. 2009. "Ivory 'Venus' is first depiction of woman". New Scientist #2708 (May 13).

R. Dale Guthrie. 2005. The Nature of Paleolithic Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Amazon)

Christopher Henshilwood, et. al. 2011. "A 100,000-Year-Old Ochre-Processing Workshop at Blombos Caves, South Africa" Science, 334: 219-222 (Oct. 14)

John J. Shea. 2011. "Homo sapiens is as Homo sapiens was: Behavioral variability vs. 'behavioral modernity' in Paleolithic archaeology" Current Anthropology, 52 (1)
Also reported in ScienceDaily, Feb. 15, 2011: "Earliest humans not so different from us, research suggests."
Judith Thurman. 2008. "First Impressions: What does the world's oldest art say about us?" New Yorker. June 23.

Contrary Reading

Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. 2009. The 10,0000 Year Explosion. Basic Books

Peter Tyson. 2009. "Are We Still Evolving?" PBS Nova

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