Art History Lab


Brian Wildeman

Prehistoric Art

While we can't know what it meant to them, or why they made it, art was clearly important to prehistoric peoples. Art was even made by some of the other human species that existed, such as Neanderthals, prior to we homo sapiens beating them out. In fact, with the recent decoding of their genome we now know that most people alive today are composed of between 1 and 4 percent Neanderthal genes. With these new genetic discoveries, their brains that were larger than our own, their larynxes capable of complex verbal communication, and the possibility that they made art, we are starting to think that the Neanderthals did not necessarily go about acting like a bunch of Neanderthals. The region of Europe where the most extensive prehistoric art is found also happens to be the very same region where the Neanderthals once thrived. It is believed that Neanderthals were much more carnivorous than homo sapiens, which is a limitation of their diet that may have contributed to their demise. Could there be a connection between this dietary restriction and the animal subject matter that dominates the cave art of Europe? It is an interesting question, but taking their stone hand axes and clothing made from skins as evidence, and comparing them to those of early homo sapiens, one sees much more rapid evolution and innovation (art) in the products of homo sapiens. However, based on our evolutionary success, we might tend to be speciesists, and will eventually find some proof, as we did of interbreeding, that some of the European cave art was made by Neanderthals.

In examining the beginnings of human artistic production, one must ponder an age-old question. What is art? It is an important question to anthropologists because it has major implications relative to higher-level thinking and systems of communication (language). Both art and language rely on the human ability to abstract, that is the ability to assign meaning to a thing or image that refers to something else. For example, the words that you are reading at the moment are not in and of themselves the things or ideas they represent. Humans are so good at abstracting that we do it innately and all the time without hardly ever even pondering how amazing and powerful a skill it is. Searching for the first evidence of this skill, some scholars identify the Australopithecus Africanus hominids of Africa as the first known creature to display this skill. The evidence of this theory resides in a tiny pebble with big implications called the Makapansgat Pebble. The pebble was found among other articles at an archeological dig approximately 3 million years old. What's obvious to us is that the pebble looks like a human face, so much so that we can't help but see it right away. It was determined that the pebble had to have been found at least twenty miles away from the Australopithecus settlement and had to have been carried to that site by some animal. Why would the Makapansgat people have picked the pebble up, brought it home, and kept it safe if it wasn't because of their recognition of the face?

There is a long gap in the archeological record from the time of the Makapansgat Pebble and the first known evidence of humans creating abstractions for themselves. A small ochre stone with a variety of straight lines that were scratched into it 77,000 years ago was found in South Africa in 2002. This stone is believed to be the first known drawing, but the design is less likely to be a picture than it is to be a counting system of some sort. Then comes another big gap both sequentially and geographically between the date of this recently found stone, and the first known depictions of animals. It bothered anthropologists for a long time that there seemed to be no pictorial cave painting in Africa that are anywhere near as old as the ones found in Europe. There is one cave in Zambia that was also just recently discovered that has some paintings of animals almost as old as the ones in Europe, but it is still a puzzle as to why more have not been found.

The first Paleolithic cave paintings to be discovered remained, for over one hundred years, the oldest known. In 1994 a cave in Chauvet France was discovered, and inside it are the oldest paintings currently known. The paintings depict horses and arorachs in profile view and date as old a 32,000 BCE. There are also child-sized human footprints in the dirt of the cave floor that are believed to be the oldest preserved human footprints. A 2010 3-D documentary film called Cave of Forgotten Dreams by the master German filmmaker Werner Herzog, provides viewers with a tour of this very inaccessible and special place. Officially declared a hoax by archeologists a year after their discovery, the first cave paintings to be discovered were thought to be Celtic until is was clear to people that they depicted woolly mammoths and wooly rhinos, the fossilized skeletons of which were also just beginning to come to light. Both the caves of Altimira Spain, and then later in 1940, the caves of Lascaux France were discovered by children. In the case of Lascaux, it was actually four teenage boys and their dog named Robot. The Spanish caves (the first to be discovered, were found by an amateur archeologist, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola's nine-year-old daughter in the 1879. The Victorian era was an exciting and controversial time for archeology. At the time they were found, the term Prehistoric had only recently been coined by the Scottish archeologist Daniel Wilson in 1851. Darwin's Origin of the Species published in 1859 helped to create a controversial and exciting context for the discovery of the cave paintings.

The caves of Lascaux in particular provide a window into tens of thousands of years of human activity. the famous Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux has paintings that date as early as 26,000 BCE and as recent as 11,000 BCE. The paintings, made from earth pigments bound in animal fat, are layered on top of each other and collectively represent an artistic legacy and culture that was longer than any in known history, even the Egyptians. Curiously, no depictions of human beings that we know of were made until the very end of this legacy. The earliest known depiction of a person (with a bird's head, who appears to be an aroused male) is a comparatively tiny painting in Lascaux dating to about 1200 BCE.

Not being able to know for certain why Paleolithic people created cave paintings is part of the fun of studying them. It was somehow logical to people living in the Victorian era that they were painted simply to decorate the caves. This theory didn't float well as soon as people began to think about the context of Paleolithic people. In other words, they were not living in an age of growing leisure time, but were more likely working full time just to stay alive. Given this, it seems more likely that the paintings played an important role in a belief system related to sustenance and survival. The so-called Spotted Horse in the caves at Pech Merle Spain offers some good evidence of this theory. It appears that the horse's spots were thrown at the wall from a distance perhaps ritualistically emulating a hunt. Whatever they meant, one thing that is generally agreed upon is that the artists were skilled at portraying the animals in a naturalistic fashion despite the crude materials and canvas. The so-called Chinese Horse in the caves of Lascaux provides a particularly nice example of this.

While depictions of people are not found in painting until about 12,000 BCE, small sculptures in the form of human females made from a wide variety of materials date back to 28,000 or older. The most famous of these figurines is known as the Venus of Wilendorf and it currently resides in the natural history museum in Vienna, which blows the Field Museum out of the water in terms of clean un-circus-like displays and a wealth of signage geared toward people with better than third grade reading skills. All of these figurines, like the Venus of Willendorf, emphasize the female reproductive bits and completely lack faces of any sort. They have been called Venuses because it was first assumed that they depict a goddess, but this cannot be assumed. Why wouldn't a goddess deserve a face? While maybe not a goddess in this sense, the figurines almost certainly have something to do with the mystery of reproduction and may have served as a talisman either promoting fertility or aiding in successful childbirth. Interestingly, figurines of this sort remained faceless until about the same time that the first paintings of people appeared. the figurine found in Siberia and dating to about 11.00 BCE is one of the oldest known depictions of a human face. Could there be some connection between these first portrayals of people and the conclusive rise of homo sapiens, even though we currently thing that Neanderthals burned out around 18,000 BCE?

Whatever the cause, humans have a much stronger presence in the earliest Neolithic art as evidenced by the wall painting from Catal Hyuk depicting humans hunting animals. The earliest Neolithic societies that we know of were in Jordan and Turkey, but settlements nearly that old have been identified in Egypt, China, Greece, and the Indus Valley region. The term Neolithic can be understood in two ways. It refers to both the period of the earliest settled agricultural societies, and it also refers to societies who at any point n history, are settled in one place, have some form of agriculture or animal husbandry, but do not yet have a written language. The term Paleolithic can be similarly applied to groups of people who are still primarily semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers with no agricultural technology. Did you know that a tribe of people still living in Paleolithic circumstances, unaware of the modern world, was found this summer (2011) in the Brazilian rain forest? How incredible is that? The Venus motif seems to have lost none of its allure during the early Neolithic Period, especially in Catal Hyuk. However, the seated Venus from Catal Hyuk not only has a face but also a very lively looking personality, and is it just me, or is that reclining figurine with the alien eyes from Catal Hyuk giving us the come hither look?

Catal Hyuk is located in the mountainous region of Turkey called Anatolia and was an active settlement between 9000 and 5000 BCE. Catal Hyuk houses were all conjoined and instead of having doors had poop hatches in the roofs to allow usage from one house to another. This design is a lot like that of the adobe architecture of the Anasazi native peoples of Southwestern United States. Settled societies would have had to defend themselves from groups of people who were not yet so settled. At Catal Hyuk defending the city would have involved standing on the roofs of the houses and lobbing various projectiles and heavy objects down on the would-be invaders. The image on the left is a reconstruction of what might be the first historical narrative in art. A historical narrative is an artwork that chronicles specific historical events. IN this case it appears that a volcanic explosion is being chronicled. Catal Hyuk ws discovered in the 1940s, but has only recently been reopened as an active archeological dig, so there is still a lot to be learned about it.

The city of ancient Jericho in Jordan is much better known and about one thousand years older than Catal Hyuk. It is famous for its defensive walls that surround the city and a few defensive towers as seen in this picture. The people of ancient Jericho seem to have been the first to discover / invent plaster, which was used extensively from everything to architecture to sculpture. Jericho's people seem to have worshiped or at least revered their ancestors as evidenced by this human skull that has its face reconstructed with plaster.

  • an ariel view of Stonehenge
  • an illustration of Stonehenge

Stonehenge offers an excellent example of a Neolithic society that existed at the same time that other full-blown civilizations (with written languages) were flourishing in other parts of the world. The giant stones these people built with earn them a sub-category classification of Neolithic called Megalithic. The people of Easter Island who carved the huge heads there are another Megalithic society. Stonehenge seems to have been a religious, and social center focused on agriculture and the tracking of the stars and seasons. There was also a village associated with Stonehenge and a burial ground that were harder for archeologists to discover because they weren't built out of stone. The enormous blue stones at Stonehenge had to be transported for hundreds of miles from the place in Wales where they were quarried. We have long wondered how in the world these stones were moved. A recent theory suggests that it was by creating wooden tracks that were slotted and had roller bearings made of stone nested in the slots. This theory arose because many fist sized round hand-carved stones have been found throughout the British isles, and archeologists have wondered for years what possible purpose the small round stones had.

  • an ariel shot of the Serpent Mound in Ohio
  • pictographs of tall shamanistic human figures in Buckhorn Canyon Utah
  • owl petroglyph from Utah

There was a huge variety of different Neolithic people living all over the United States prior to European colonization. The famous Serpent Mound in Ohio is just one example of the many mounds that can be found in the Midwest, including mounds in Southern Illinois. Having grown up in Colorado with a mom who has a keen interest in archeology, I was fortunate to be able to visit many remote archeological sites as a kid. These tall winged figures in Buckhorn Canyon Utah are larger than life, and extremely haunting when seen in person.

  • flutes made fron the bones of storks found in China and dating to about 10,000 BCE
  • a large trove of very old, but quite fine Chinese earthenware pottery

There was a lot of human activity in Neolithic China. both the pottery and the flutes made from the bones of storks provide nice examples of just how refined Neolithic technology can be.