Squeezing through a small opening at the back of a rock shelter, a young hunter-gatherer finds herself in an environment far removed from the comfort of her home. Blinking as her eyes adjust to the low light cast by the flame of her torch, she observes a vast otherworldly space before her. As she explores, she notices unusual markings on the walls. Edging closer, she sees the large face of a red painted bison, facing downwards, imposing its presence upon the space. She notices smaller depictions to the left; stencils of hands from people who had explored this cave before her. Placing her hands to meet the hands of her ancestors, she feels a deep emotional connection to this environment.
Handprints in the Cave of El Castillo. Photo courtesy Pedro Saura/AAAS/Gobierno de Cantabria
She glances up and spots two small deer drawn above the hands, the first a little faded. Taking a piece of charcoal from her pouch, she redraws the faded deer to recapture its vibrancy. She’s close to the wall now, with the small light from her torch casting elongated, flickering shadows over the contours and cracks that appear to take the form of another bison. This intangible image, flickering in and out of her perception, holds deep cultural significance for her; bison are the providers of meat and hides that keep her and her family fed and warm, ensuring their survival within the harsh climate of the last Ice Age. She uses the same charcoal piece to re-draw this image, coaxing the bison from out of the rock, and depicts it as resting, with legs curled underneath its body. She ensures the deer are still visible, creating a palimpsest of connection between her, her ancestors and the animals that held importance to them.
A bison depiction in the Cave of El Castillo. Photo courtesy the author and Gobierno de Cantabria
Nearly 20,000 years later, the distant descendant of this young cave explorer wanders into a brightly lit white room. A small red rope separates her from a flat canvas, busy with colour, hanging on a plain white wall. She contemplates it, appreciating the naturalism of the subjects in the depiction, the violence and emotion it captures, before moving on to observe a similar canvas hanging next to it. Small signs next to these canvases show a hand, but with a large red cross through it, indicating not to touch the art on the wall; it is priceless, painted hundreds of years ago, and should be appreciated at a distance. After observing these canvases, she steps outside, to see someone furiously attempting to remove a small, colourful image sprayed onto the wall of the building.
The way that we place value on art in the Western world is distinctly odd. It is, for the most part, a luxury or a commodity more or less isolated from other aspects of society. We evoke sentiments of the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when discussing the role of art: we live in a society where our basic needs are met, and therefore can indulge in the frivolous activity of art-making. There are exceptions, of course, such as political and religious art. But it’s rare to see art that is intrinsically woven into, and ultimately shapes, the very fabric of society. Was art always destined to be something that came only after we had satisfied our basic subsistence needs? Human evolution suggests not.
Art-making is one of the oldest human behaviours — it seems to have its origins hundreds of thousands of years ago. Two of the earliest art forms in the archaeological record are impossibly old: the Tan-Tan figurine and the Berekhat Ram figurine date to around 500,000 to 300,000, and 250,000 years ago, respectively. Both of these ‘proto-figurines’, despite potentially being separated from each other by as many years as we are separated from the youngest of these figurines, are recognisably works of art. They are naturally humanoid-shaped rocks that were intentionally modified to further bring out human features. While we don’t know exactly which species produced these, they certainly weren’t Homo sapiens and instead were likely one of our distant ancestors: either Homo erectus or Homo heidelbergensis. This desire to create and to represent appears to have been embedded within our genus and intertwined with our evolution; as human evolution progressed, artistic behaviours became more complex and diverse.
Even our closest evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals, although often unfairly presented as knuckle-dragging brutes, engaged in a plethora of artistic behaviours. Recent evidence suggests that they produced some of the oldest examples of painting, using natural pigments to create abstract depictions and hand-stencils on cave walls more than 70,000 years ago. Neanderthals even used natural pigments, feathers and beads made from shell and animal teeth to decorate their own bodies. In the past decade, archaeologists have found abundant evidence from Neanderthal contexts in sites across Europe of large raptor bones with cut marks to remove their flight feathers, talons that have been coloured with pigment and modified for suspension, shells and animal teeth with holes in them that have wear patterns consistent with being strung as jewellery, and evidence of pigments, such as ochre, being mixed in large shells to create a body paint. This evidence for Neanderthals creating a rich artistic material culture was, and still is, met with much resistance in the archaeological community. We want to believe that art is unique to our species, a behaviour that set us apart, but without asking why it held so much value to the very earliest human societies.
Cave art remains fixed in place, undisturbed, in exquisite time capsules of human behaviour
Ice Age, or Upper Palaeolithic, societies might hold some of the answers about why we create art. Artistic behaviours seem to have flourished during the Upper Palaeolithic, giving birth to something like a renaissance of art production; for many years this period was referred to as a ‘cultural explosion’ or ‘revolution’. These Ice Age artists produced a huge number of diverse artefacts and paintings during this period. Some of these are unusual decorative items used to adorn the body, marked with abstract designs, but others are more familiar and recognisable: representational figurines and depictions of animals that roamed the Ice Age world. While this representational art might superficially appear akin to our own artistic behaviours, a closer look reveals the sometimes weird and wonderful ways this art was used tens of thousands of years ago: beautiful clay figurines of animals were created to be destroyed through intentionally causing them to explode in fires; shells were transported and exchanged across thousands of kilometres; beads were made from animal and human teeth; and large red-painted horses were sculpted into hillsides. But the most intriguing category among all of this is cave art.
A general view of Lascaux 4, a complete replica of the original prehistoric painted caves. Lascaux, France, 10 December 2016. Photo by Regis Duvignau/Reuters
Found most famously in France and Spain at sites such as Lascaux, cave art has also been discovered at a wide range of different places, from the Cueva de las Manos in Argentina and the Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave in Borneo to the caves of Creswell Crags in Britain. Cave art is a breathtaking example of the extent of creativity during the Upper Palaeolithic; not only are we perplexed by the artists’ desire to venture deep underground to make this art (sometimes up to 2 km in from the cave mouth), but we are fortunate enough to be able to see it as it was intended to be viewed, often in superb condition. Unlike beads or figurines, cave art remains fixed in place, undisturbed, in exquisite time capsules of human behaviour.
To explore the importance of art to these most ancient of human societies, we need to delve into some of these time capsules and immerse ourselves in the Upper Palaeolithic world.
Lascaux cave, France, c17,000 years ago. This is the most famous cave-art site in the world; the vibrant polychrome images of this art are plastered over coffee table books on human evolution, and hundreds of thousands of people visit the third iteration of the Lascaux reconstruction each year. The popularity of this cave isn’t surprising. The vast composition of highly detailed animal depictions inspires awe and fascination for anyone fortunate enough to enter the cave. The almost ‘rhythmic sequence’ behind the placement of each animal offers a sense of narrative, one that is long forgotten in deep time. Although the art is situated underground, the visually imposing depictions were intended to be viewed by a sizeable audience. More than 100 lamps were found within the cave, made from stone with a depression to hold animal fat and a wick, akin to modern candles; these might have been used as installation lighting, spotlighting the art within the darkness of the cave. The diffuse, flickering light cast by the flames would have created an immersive experience for our Palaeolithic audience. Dancing light and shadows brought the art to life, evoking a sense of movement and dynamism – the closest thing to Ice Age cinema.
The animals themselves were depicted as galloping across the cave wall, creeping out of small fissures or falling into the darkness. The acrid smell of smoke and melting fat, the warmth of the dim flames and the echoing sounds within the cave as stories about the animals were richly woven would have heightened the experience of viewing this art. One can picture how these flickering images, coupled with the telling of a story passed down through generations, imbued a sense of kinship and connection between Palaeolithic people and the animals depicted, with whom they shared the frozen landscape outside. This emotive, communal experience perhaps enriched a sense of belonging and rooted a deep understanding of their place within the world. It’s far from how we might observe art today, in quiet reflection; instead, it was likely a performance intended to build relationships between the observer and the animals that they relied on for their survival.
El Castillo cave, Spain, c40,000 to 15,000 years ago. If Lascaux is a cave of performance and rich cultural meaning, the art of El Castillo can be characterised as intimate and discrete moments shared only between the artists and the cave. Unlike Lascaux, most of the cave art here is hidden and tucked away within nooks and natural features, not intended to be viewed by anyone other than the artist who created it — like a stone carving in an inaccessible part of a cathedral. It isn’t a single composition, but instead a palimpsest of multiple, meaningful connections that stretch across vast swathes of time. The oldest art in this cave is red discs created more than 40,000 years ago by people blowing pigment onto the wall. Yet the most recent art in this cave was created a mere 15,000 years ago. It’s quite incredible and humbling to encounter a single site encompassing 25,000 years of art-making.
It wasn’t the final form that was of importance, but the process of making it that held meaning
The ‘Panel of Hands’ best characterises this within El Castillo. The implicit presence of generations of hands that were placed on the cave wall are captured and preserved in a red ochre pigment, which was blown from the mouths of our distant ancestors. These hand-stencils tangibly connect us to Upper Palaeolithic people; we can reach out across the ages and almost touch our hands with theirs. This probably evoked a similar sense of connection in the Upper Palaeolithic. The hand-stencils within the cave are old, dating to at least 37,000 years ago. The multiple generations of people who traversed and explored this cave since would have similarly cast their eyes on these hands. They might not have recognised the deep age of the hand-stencils, but would have understood that they represented the implicit presence of people who had been in the cave before them, as they would have understood tracks of the animals they hunted. They might even have felt moved to produce their own hand
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