Month: October 2020

Red ochre revolution

It’s impossible to put an exact date on when art emerged in prehistory, especially since we don’t know if the first attempts were on rock, or some other, less enduring medium, such as wood, bone, in the dirt, or even on the skins of the makers. At best we know ancient people were using ochre pigment at least 300,000 years ago and that our species was not the first to take advantage of the vibrant colours offered. We can only guess at how and why they were using it. It is still used today in a number of different ways across the world.

The “Creative Revolution” – fact or fantasy?

Much has been made of the “creative revolution” (known as the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution hypothesis), which seemed to want to trace the origins of creativity to a single location in place and time, namely Europe 40,000-45,000 years ago. But looking beyond Europe we can now see that migrating groups of humans inherited the creative spark from much older ancestors, perhaps in a land far away. For example, the First Australian’s were using ochre 65,000 years ago according to recent evidence. By the time we see the earliest evidence of rock art in Australia some 28,000 years ago, it was already developed and distinct, suggesting it was not a young practice even then. Most of the earliest rock art in Australia that survives are petroglyphs (engravings in rock) and these are notoriously difficult to accurately date. Nevertheless, I don’t think it is such a giant leap to say the First Australian’s were making art before they arrived in Australia.

In Indonesia, the oldest known figurative art is about 44,000 years old (hand stencils discovered there could be as old as 52,000 years). In Spain, the oldest art is about 64,000 years old and might have been made by Neandertal’s. In a cave in South Africa, modern humans were creating art on stones of silcrete about 73,000 years ago, and engraving lines in to pieces of ochre at least 100,000 years ago, possibly much earlier. Neandertal’s were using ochre pigment in the Netherlands about 250,000 years ago and in Olorgesailie in East Africa, circa 307,000 years ago, early humans, possibly very early Homo sapiens, were using red and black pigment.

Even if the very first artistic work was discovered and it was recognised as such, there would be little agreement on its meaning or its significance. We might not be able to date it reliably or associate it with one particular species of hominin. Many might not even accept it as the first art. Some will refuse to give up the search for the elusive piece of indisputable evidence of the beginnings of symbolic behaviour. All we do know now, is the prehistory of art and the origins of the human creative mind is much older than previously thought and the idea of a creative revolution is becoming less tenable. No one single group of people can claim to be more related to the first artists. All humans are creative and we have been for a very long time.

Note: Most of the dates listed are based on confirmed dates using reliable dating techniques. Many more ancient sites exist than I haven’t listed, but their dates are either controversial or the exact dates are not able to be reliably established.


Further reading/references

Prehistoric use of Ochre

Australian Rock Art of the Pleistocene

A Journey to the Oldest Cave Paintings in the World

A Radical New Theory About the Origins of Art

Two Baobabs and a Boab

Three species of Adonsonia. In most parts of the world the common name for these bottle-like trees is Baobab – the first two sketches are the African Baobab (A. digitata) and the Giant Baobab or Grandidier’s Baobab (A. grandidieri) respectively. In Australia they are mostly known as Boab’s (A. gregorri), but it is also known by a number of different names in different Australian Aboriginal languages. The Boab is native to the Kimberly region in the far northwest of Australia and is a wonderfully mysterious tree. No one really knows how or why it came to be in Australia, as they were not considered to be part of the Gondwana supercontinent. The three possible scenarios put forward by scientists for their occurrence is either they were brought here by the first people in Australia; the seeds floated across the Indian Ocean from Madagascar, or, while unlikely, it is still possible, the genus Adonsonia started in Australia and migrated to the rest of the world.

I will defer to First Australian wisdom in this one: Boab’s have always been here.

Boab Tree
Image Credit: By Summerdrought – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35827546

Great Southern Land

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of country throughout Australia and pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and extend my respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time re-acquainting myself with, and journaling about, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural history. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are part of diverse and complex cultural histories that span at least 65,000 years. I could fill a few sketchbooks with the amount of cultural evidence that exists, but sharing all of it would feel like a trespass on what is often sacred, personal and private – not to mention a massive undertaking, since Aboriginal people across Australia were, and continue to be, culturally and linguistically diverse within and across regions. Instead, I’ve chosen to share three pages of some of the oldest evidence for human habitation in Australia. By no means is this exhaustive, and some things are not included out of respect. For example, I decided not to include sketches of human remains, such as Mungo Man, who has been the subject of much debate, and whose removal from his ancestral home 40 years ago caused distress to local Aboriginal communities. Even though I was trained in forensic anthropology, and I was happy studying old bones during my studies, I am aware of the ethical issues of removing ancient human remains from burial sites. I believe the consideration of indigenous communities needs and wishes should take priority over scientific knowledge.

Point of interest: Mungo Man’s remains were returned to his ancestral home for reburial in 2017 in a casket made from 8,000 year old red gum wood.

Further reading: Two of my university text books from almost two decades ago.

Playing with my favourite pen and subject

Claudia Nice is the first artist that inspired me try working with pen and ink with several books, including Drawing in Pen and Ink. I like to engage fully with what I’m doing and ink requires a level of commitment that appeals to my nature. I like detail and I enjoy how tight and clear I can get with ink. Which is probably why it is a common medium for scientific illustrators, especially botanical. But pen and ink can also be very flexible. True, you can’t rub it out once its on the page, but that doesn’t matter if you’re sketching loose drawings for practice or wanting to capture the shape of a species of tree. Ink also plays nice with a lot of other mediums, especially watercolour. Claudia Nice has also written many books on creating texture with pen and ink, and watercolour.

European silver fir – Abies Alba

The Lamy Joy, pictured above, is my favourite tool for sketching in pen and ink. The nib glides smoothly across the paper, depositing ink evenly and the tapered style feels good in the hand. I use fountain pens for 80% of the inked artwork I create. I use an ink converter, with De Atramentis Archival black ink. I have had no problems with it drying it our clogging the pen.