From about 100,000 years ago, for 60,000 years, our ancestors appeared to develop very little, making stone tools that were indistinguishable from those created by Neanderthals and living like them as early hunter-gatherers. Then about forty thousand years ago they seem to have made an enormous creative and cultural leap in the advancement of tool making and in the creation of art.
Prior to this time human artistic and creative abilities existed but were far less widespread. Portable representations of the human figure have been dated as far back as 502,000 BCE from Africa and 302,000 BCE from present-day Israel. See the Bradshaw Foundation Sculpture Gallery. But from about 35,000 years ago, and over the next fifteen thousand years, throughout the last Ice Age, Cro Magnon’s artistic expression reached a critical mass and spread not only all over Europe, Asia and Siberia but also appeared in Australia and Africa – throughout the old world.
As we shall see throughout our human journey, creative insight and actions flower in response to problems. Venus figurines from this time have been found over an expanse of territory from the west of Europe into Russia, which suggests that people were linked across these vast distances, communicating and developing social relationships that would be advantageous at a time when food resources were limited or depleted in specific areas.
The Venus of Willendorf is one of the earliest images of the body made by humankind. It stands just over 4 ½ inches high and was carved some 25,000 years ago. It was discovered on the banks of the Danube River, in Austria, and it was most likely made by hunter-gatherers who lived in the area.
The figurine was made with great skill, as were many others like it. But why should certain parts of the body be exaggerated, while others are ignored?
Our Paleolithic ancestors lived in a harsh ice-age environment where survival was their predominant concern, so features of fatness and fertility would have been highly desirable. The body parts that mattered most – and were more than likely the most attractive to them – had to do with successful reproduction: the breasts and pelvic girdle. So these were isolated and amplified by the artist.
Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran and others speculate it has to do with a hard-wiring of the brain to prefer one part of an image over another. They postulate that throughout history our images reflect what our cultures consider most important.
In neurological terms, our brain is hyper-normally stimulated by what we deem most important, and the neuronal response activated drives the artist to create what he does, in the way that he does.
For more on this topic visit: www.pbs.org/howartmadetheworld/episodes/human/venus/
The most intense artistic activity happened just as the Ice Age (approximately 40,000 - 15,000 years ago) reached its most severe, and then about 10,000 years ago, it virtually disappeared as the Ice Age ended. This leads some anthropologists to think that our early ancestors made art to help them survive the Ice Age world. If this is true, how did it do this?
For early humans living in Europe 35,000 years ago, the sudden climate change must have been extremely hard to comprehend and quite terrifying. Within a few years their climate transformed from one very much like our own to one more like Siberia, with brutally cold winters that eventually lasted through spring and summer. Freezing temperatures prevailed with very little respite. For years endless snow and ice simply accumulated and deepened, covering Europe with glaciers, forcing many humans to flee, die out, and, thankfully for us, some to adapt. About 20,000 BCE the landscape was glacier-dominated, enshrouding Scandanavia and most of northern Europe was a mile-high polar ice cap. Elsewhere harsh conditions favored grassland that provided fodder for large grazing mammals such as mammoth, bison, aurochs, horses, reindeer and elk.
What brought on this sudden Ice Age?
The warm-water currents of the sea’s Great Conveyor Belt shut down. As a result the Gulf Stream was no longer flowing. Within two or three years the last of the residual heat held in the North Atlantic Ocean dissipated into the air over Europe, leaving no more warmth to moderate the northern latitudes. When the summer stopped in the north, the rains stopped around the equator, so at the same time Europe was plunged into an Ice Age, the Middle East and Africa were ravaged by drought and wind-driven firestorms.
Within that 25,000-year period – more than twelve times the age of Christianity – this extraordinary cave art covered all of Europe, from Andalusia in Spain to the Ural Mountains of central Russia. Today we know of approximately three hundred sites, but scholars suggest there must have been thousands. Hopefully some have still to be discovered.
These cave paintings, engravings and carvings are the very first record we have of our ability to create two-dimensional art. They may well be our first recorded stories. They reveal realistic portraits of the magnificent animals our early ancestors lived alongside, perhaps preyed on, and in some cases most certainly were the prey of.
Some were perhaps created to show how animals were tracked, or to describe herd movements that not only aided hunting, but might also have predicted climate change. Others may have been created for reasons of sympathetic magic. In Chauvet Cave (southern France) dangerous animals such as cave bears, rhinoceroses, lions and even a spotted leopard are depicted. Scholars feel that these may well have been selected for their symbolic power. Cave images have been found, such as in the Lascaux caves in southwestern France, that appear to have pockmarks made by pointed spears, possibly thrown in a ritual to “wound” the animal and so ensure future hunting success.
Scholars have looked at contemporary hunter-gatherer societies for an understanding of our early ancestors:
‘The Kalahari Bushmen, for instance, do not make fixed divisions between the animal and human, spirit and human worlds. Animals and humans are spiritually interchangeable: animals are looked upon as men in another state of existence. While in a particular state of sensitivity, the Bushmen believe they can tap into a level where this connection exists. They use dances to bring the spirit of the animals being hunted in contact with that of the hunter. This spiritual identification, they believe, links the hunter with the hunted in a practical way. He is able to chase his prey until it is exhausted, never losing track of it. … The Bushmen also believe that it is possible to gain practical knowledge from contact with other forms of existence. The medicine man may say that the Supreme Being shows him during his sleep where to hunt or to find food. Kalahari Bushmen also believe in what we would call telepathy, saying “the wind tells me.” In their worldview, they take for granted that there exists: ‘a direct contact between the super-beings and people, between people and people and between animals and people.’
From The Unseen World: The Rise of Gods and Spirits, Monograph Series No 43, © The Institute for Cultural Research, 2002. Also quoting Living Legends of a Dying Culture: Bushmen Myths, Legends and Fables, Coral Fourie. S. Africa, 1994
These artists were precise observers of the animals around them. “With just one line, the artist defines an animal’s rump, the back, and the body. A few more lines, and antlers and muscles stand out. The artists rarely made mistakes,” says Harold Dibble, associate curator of European Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Artists made use of cave cracks and protuberances. Created and seen in flickering torchlight, these would render the illusion of movement and three-dimensionality.
These images were found in deep caves that were not used for habitation or burial. Human skeletons have been found in the large rock shelters at cave entrances, but none in the caverns below. It seems much more likely that, over thousands of years, these hidden spaces were used for only for ritual practices. Hand prints, both male and female, and some quite small suggest sacred areas where men and women and even children participated in rituals of initiation. Some caves appear to have been chosen for their echo quality. Bone flutes have been found on cave floors indicating that ceremonies involving music took place.
… this art was part of modern human ecological adaptation to their environment. The art functioned to extend human memory, to hold concepts which are difficult for minds to grasp, and to instigate creative thinking about the solution of environmental and social problems. (Thoughtful Foragers: A Study of Prehistoric Decision Making, 1990, S. Mithen)
Origins of Written Language?
Some scholars suggest that interpretations of elements in these paintings indicate that “Our ancestors seem to have had a regular system of 26 symbols, which may have been the origins of written language. First discovered in France, these symbols crop up throughout the prehistoric world, leading some to wonder whether they originated in Africa and traveled with early humans as they migrated across the globe. … Dots and lines are some of the most commonly found symbols. Dots of varying sizes appear at 42 per cent of French sites, including this one at Chauvet. Lines were found at over 70 per cent of sites studied and appeared from 30,000 years ago until 10,000 years ago.” New Scientist, Feb. 2010. For more information and images, visit www.newscientist.com Messages from the Stone Age. And for a more recent discovery: www.newscientist.com Oldest ‘writing’ found on 60,000-year-old eggshells.
It seems very likely that at this point in history we first began to conceive of a tiered cosmos – a world below our world and one above – and to formulate rituals to encounter forces above and below the physical world that influence our life and that might in turn be influenced by us, an idea that has been with us ever since.
At this point, we can say that our ancestors, not only physically but psychologically, became modern human beings.