The First Stirrings of Creation

By Bednarik, Robert G. | UNESCO Courier, April 1998 | Go to article overview

The First Stirrings of Creation

Bednarik, Robert G., UNESCO Courier

Rock art, found in almost all the world's regions, is a mine of information about early man's intellectual development

Prehistoric rock art is by far the largest body of evidence we have of humanity's artistic, cognitive and cultural beginnings. It is found in most countries of the world, from the tropics to the Arctic regions, in sites ranging from deep caves to high mountains. Many tens of millions of rock art figures or motifs have been found, and more are being discovered each year. This massive, semi-permanent and cumulative record is the most direct evidence we have of how pre-humans first became human and then evolved complex social systems.

Some widely held misconceptions about the origins of art must be dispelled at the outset. Art as such did not appear suddenly, but developed gradually with the cognitive evolution of humans. By the time that the famous cave art of France and Spain was being produced, art traditions are thought to have been well established at least in southern Africa, the Levant, eastern Europe, India and Australia, and no doubt in many other regions that have yet to be examined adequately.

When were humans first able to produce abstractions of reality? In addition to its interest for the art historian and the archaeologist, this question is of wider concern, if only because ideas of cultural precedence have been effective in shaping racial, ethnic and national value judgments and even fantasies. The notion that art began in the caves of western Europe furthers myths of European cultural precedence, for example. Secondly, the origins of art are thought to be intimately intertwined with the emergence of several other distinctively human faculties: the ability to form abstract concepts, to symbolize, to communicate at an advanced level, to develop a notion of the self. Apart from prehistoric art we have no tangible evidence from which to infer these capacities.

The beginnings of art

Art production was preceded by "non-utilitarian" behaviour patterns, i.e. behaviour that seems to lack practical purpose. The earliest discernible archaeological evidence for this is the use of ochre or haematite, a red mineral pigment collected and used by people several hundred thousand years ago. These early humans also collected crystals and petrified fossils, and colourful or oddly shaped pebbles. They had begun to distinguish between ordinary, everyday objects and the unusual, the exotic. Presumably they had developed concepts of a world in which objects could be categorized into different classes. Evidence of this appears first in southern Africa, then in Asia and finally in Europe.

The oldest known rock art was produced in India two or three hundred thousand years ago. It consists of cup marks and a meandering line hammered into the rock of a sandstone cave. At about the same time, simple line markings were made on a variety of portable objects (bone, teeth, ivory and stone) which have been found at the camp sites of early humans. Sets of bunched engraved lines first appear in central and eastern Europe; they developed into distinctive arrangements that can be recognized as motifs such as zigzags, crosses, arcs and sets of parallel lines.

This phase, which archaeologists call the Middle Palaeolithic (perhaps 35,000 to 150,000 years ago), is crucial in human intellectual and cognitive development. This was also the time when people developed seafaring capacity, and crossings of up to 180 km were eventually made by colonizing parties. Regular ocean navigation clearly required an advanced system of communication, presumably language.

People of this period also mined ochre and flint in several world regions. They began building large communal dwellings of mammoth bones in southern Russia, and erected stone walls in caves. But most importantly, they produced art. In Australia, some specimens of rock art may be up to 60,000 years old, as old as human occupation of the continent itself, and hundreds of sites contain examples which are thought to predate the cave art of western Europe. …

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