Some examples of archaeological finds described as art. Top: Trinil engraved shell. 540,000 years BP Henk Caspers/Naturalis Biodiversity Centre (CC Attribution Share-Alike 3.0) Bottom, left to right: Cupules from Chief’s Rock, 290,000 years BP. Auditorium Cave, Bhimbetka rock shelter, India. Image by Dinesh Valke (CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0). Blombos engraved ochre. 73,000 years BP. Henshilwood C.S et al, public domain. Bottom row left: Panel 78, La Pasiega gallery, 65,000 years BP, D.L Hoffmann. Lubang Jeriji Saléh Cave painting of a bull, circa 44,000 years BP. (image via Wikimedia)
Creative thinking is universal to humanity. We’ve been doing it for a long time, longer than previously thought. One of the earliest bits of evidence for creative thinking comes in the form of engravings on a fossil shell from Trinil in Java. The shell was found in close proximity to the remains of a Homo erectus individual, an extinct species of hominin (bipedal primate) considered to be antecedent to modern humans. The purpose of the cut marks is unknown, but the deep geometric marks do suggest humans were thinking creatively at least half a million years ago. The shell has been dated to between 540,000 and 700,000 year old, making it an extremely early example of a deliberately engraved object (Joordens et al, 2014).
Between 290,000 and 700,000 years ago in a cave at the rock shelter site of Bhimbetka, central India, archaic humans created cupules (circular depressions on the surface of a rock) on a large boulder. While the intention and purpose for the cupules is unknown, they have been descried as a common form of rock art (Bednarik, 1996). Very ancient cupules, all many tens of thousands of years old, are known from the Africa (such as the Kalahari desert and Sudan), Europe, Asia and Australia.
From Blombos Cave, along South Africa’s southern coast, early modern humans created geometric engravings on pieces of ochre. These small artefacts have been dated to between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago. From the same site perforated shells were found, as well as a 73,000 years ago stone flake with ochre markings. This piece has been dubbed “the world’s oldest drawing” (Blakemore, 2018). The finds at Blombos cave were older and more sophisticated than previously thought possible for their age. They are evidence for the deep roots of creative thinking.
Further, extremely significant evidence comes from the 65,000 year old cave paintings from La Pasiega cave in Spain. A remarkable feature of these paintings – aside from the fact they predate the famous Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave art from France by some 30,000 years – is that they predate the arrival of modern humans in Europe. This means the most likely creator of the abstract paintings were Neandertals, since there is no evidence modern humans were in Western Europe before 42,000 years ago (Wong, 2018). This revelation forced some archaeologists to rethink long-held assumptions that modern humans were the first and only hominin to create art.
The discovery and acceptance of very early art forms that predate modern humans adds a new dimension to our understanding of the evolution of hominin cognition. They have far-reaching implications for understanding the relationship between evolution and the creative mind and how creative expression has been a significant driver in human cognitive development. New dating techniques also means we are constantly expanding the timeline, thus deepening the relevance of the art habit.
As an artist and student of archaeology, the deep origins of the creative mind, and in particular art, are fascinating and go some way to explain its appeal. The reasons why we started doing it in the first place, and its early role in cultural development, would require many volumes of books to do any justice to the topic. My purpose is not to explain the evolution of creative visual thinking, but to reveal it in all its diversity and to show that it is, and always has been natural, instinctual and immortalising.
Bednarik, Robert G. (1996), The cupules on Chief’s Rock, Auditorium Cave, Bhimbetka, The Artifact: Journal of the Archaeological and Anthropological Society of Victoria, Volume 19, pages 63–71 http://www.ifrao.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Auditorium96.pdf
Blakemore, Erin (2018) 73,000-Year-Old Doodle May be World’s Oldest Drawing, National Geographic
Joordens, J. C. A. et al. (2014) Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature13962
Wong, Kate (2018). Ancient Cave Paintings Clinch the Case for Neandertal Symbolism, Scientific American https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ancient-cave-paintings-clinch-the-case-for-neandertal-symbolism1/
An excellent resource for information pertaining to palaeolithic archaeology is Don’t Maps.
Another excellent resource for rock art enthusiasts is the Bradshaw Foundation. This site contains information for rock art across the world.
For more in depth discussions on early and prehistoric art, see The Encyclopedia of Art (www.visual-arts-cork.com). In particular Earliest Art of Prehistory