Ancient Art and Human Nature

We tend to see artistic expression as a relatively modern development. While most people are familiar with cave paintings and prehistoric statuettes (like the famous Venus figurines), we don’t generally imagine sophisticated notions of art emerging until thousands of years later, with the advent of organized civilizations. Even the oldest examples of prehistoric art “only” go back 35,000 years ago, whereas humans have been around since 200,000 years ago – suggesting that we’ve spent most of our existence devoid of the abstract thought and cultural creativity that largely defines humans today.

Therefore, while anatomically we’ve existed since that time, most scientists believe that we didn’t arrive at behavioral modernity – i.e. how we are todayuntil 50,000 years ago. It was at this point that we began to exhibit the development of creativity, symbolic conceptions, ideology, and possibly language. But a recent discovery may shake up this theory, and possibly our whole understanding of human nature.

Both the BBC and the New York Times covered an exciting and recent discovery that suggests a far earlier development of “modern” artistic behavior than previously known. The Blombos Cave in South Africa (pictured above), which has long produced important archaeological finds for decades, yielded a prehistoric workshop containing artistic supplies that dates back to 100,000 years ago – well before previous discoveries of art. As an excerpt from the Times article notes:

Of special importance to the scientists who made the discovery, the ocher workshop showed that early humans, whose anatomy was modern, had also begun thinking like us. In a report published online on Thursday in the journal Science, the researchers called this evidence of early conceptual abilities “a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition.”

The discovery dials back the date when the modern Homo sapiens population was known to have started using paint. Previously, no workshop older than 60,000 years had come to light, and the earliest cave and rock art began appearing about 40,000 years ago. The exuberant flowering among the Cro-Magnon artists in the caves of Europe would come even later; the parade of animals on the walls of Lascaux in France, for example, was executed 17,000 years ago.

Ten years ago, researches discovered bones crafted into tools and fine-tipped stones. A year later, they discovered 70,000 year-old blocks of ochre, which could be used as pigment. Both findings suggested a rudimentary possibility of modern intelligence, but there still wasn’t anything solid enough to suggest these things were actually used for art – until deeper digging revealed a trove of art tools, including red and yellow pigments, containers made out of shells, and the grinding cobbles and bone spatulas used to create paste.

The archaeological team – hailing from Norway, South Africa, France, Australia – believes that the materials were purposefully hoarded, perhaps with the intention of being retrieved at a later time. Based on the absence of evidence of long term settlement, the team also determined that these artisans were probably nomadic and didn’t stick around for long (which may explain the lack of any actual art – so far).

Besides this already remarkable indication of cultural development, the findings suggest many other crucial advancements:

The cave people in South Africa were already learning to find, combine and store substances, skills that reflected advanced technology and social practices as well as the creativity of the self-aware.

The paint makers also appeared to have developed an elementary knowledge of chemistry and some understanding of long-term planning earlier than previously thought.

The article goes on to note that this could push back the origin of language as well, since demonstrating such social practices and creativity may have precipitated the development of advanced communication. Some researchers believe that there might be even older examples of this innovation out there, as the tools seemed to have been relatively well-established among the ancient artists of this cave.

I don’t think you don’t have to be a humanist to appreciate the beauty and marvel of this discovery. Just imagine our “primitive” ancestors first developing these tools and engaging in the prerequisite of invention: debating, sharing ideas, and experimenting in the process. Imagine their first attempts at mixing colors, or the first things they tried to craft or draw. To look at what we have today and think of where we came from is awe-inspiring.

The BBC link above includes a video discussing the findings. Below are some of the picture posted on the Time’s article:

    

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