Tag: rock art

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

Creative renderings: early evidence for creative minds

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)

Early messages

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.


References

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/

Further reading

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

“The Final Passage” – a modern story about ancient story-tellers

Narrated by Marianne Faithful, The Final Passage is a short film from the Rock Art Network which aims to take us on a virtual tour of the cave art of Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave in France. The film is haunting and thought-provoking, without letting us forget the art itself is the story and the gift.

The film is available to view for free until the 7th of June, 2020 so I thought I would post it now while I work on my next post, which, coincidentally, is all about the first creatives and the images they made. Turn off the lights, maximise the browser window and wait for the goose-bumps.

Only two more days left to view the film.

Bigger on the Inside

The Cave wall as sketchbook

Many thousands of years ago early artists scratched, hammered and stained marks on rock, bone and shell (and probably wood too, though, with a few exceptions, wooden artefacts don’t preserve well). Those engraved and pigmented masterpieces, as well as the people who created them, were a source of wonder for me, one which led me to study archaeology and human evolutionary biology (palaeoanthropology).

Interpretations of what that early art meant to its makers are as numerous and subjective as the minds that created them, but I think it’s fair to say the impulses that drove their creativity are the same for us today. Those early images reveal much about the prehistoric environment, but more importantly, they reveal how like ours the minds of the creators were.

The timeless nature of the ancient rock art reminds me of modern sketchbooks in that they are, among other things, illustrated records of our internal lives. Like a contemporary artist’s journal, rock art wasn’t only ornamental or fun; it was intentional and it was meaningful. It provided an outlet for the very human penchant for story-telling. It was creativity illustrated. 

The point of this blog:

I am a full-time artist, deeply committed to pen and ink, and watercolour for my professional work, but I spend most of my time with my head in sketchbooks and art journals – my own and other peoples. I am fascinated by illustrated creativity and how incredibly diverse the methods and formats are, and because it is timeless. I also have an academic and personal interest in the material remains of past and present people, particularly with respect to creativity.

This blog is mostly about pictures (the illustrated kind) and how we use them for story-telling, self-expression, visualisation, reflection, and recollection, and to impart information and to entertain. I created it to explore both traditional and digital media, but also ways for combining the two.  

This blog is in honour of all the illustrators, past and present, who remind us constantly that there is no correct way to illustrate creativity.

I hope you will join me on this visual tour.