The Origins of Art

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Introduction and Overview 

Human beings have lived on Earth for many thousands of years. Early people lived very differently from the way we do today. Before the development of cattle herding and farming, people obtained food by gathering nuts, berries, and other plants. They hunted animals that they had learned were good to eat. There were no villages, shops, hospitals, or schools. Writing had not yet been invented. The word "prehistoric" is often used to refer to the time before people began to create written records of their history and world events.

Between 14,000 and 24,000 years ago, the entire Earth was as cold as the Arctic region is today. The world was passing through what is called the Ice Age. People of the Ice Age lived in the mouths of caves or under overhanging cliffs on the sunny sides of valleys. Life must have been fierce and hard. There were few of the comforts we expect today. It was a constant struggle to get enough to eat and to keep warm and safe.

People lived roughly, yet they also created art. They painted and engraved images on pieces of bone, antler, and stone. They sculpted animal and human figures from these same materials. And they made carvings, engravings, and paintings on rock surfaces. Artistic traditions varied greatly around the world. In what is today western Europe, much prehistoric rock art is found on the walls of deep caves. In Africa, Australia, Asia, and the Americas, images were frequently made on more exposed rocks.

How Do We Know About Prehistoric Art?

Much of what we know about prehistoric art has been found by digging up the homesites of prehistoric people. Let us suppose that a family lived in the mouth of a cave. The ashes from the fire were never removed. Animals were cooked and eaten; the bones were thrown to one side. Broken tools were also discarded and left on the cave floor. Several generations of people lived at the same site, each leaving a layer of rubbish behind.

Archaeologists, scientists who study the remains of ancient cultures, have examined the layers of rubbish that accumulated at these sites. If nothing has disturbed the layers, they assume that the bones and tools of any lower level are older than the objects in the layers above. This is how they begin to date layers.

Next, archaeologists examine the objects themselves. They can determine that engravings and carvings must have been made with the very fine, specially pointed flint tools and knives found in the same layers. The way the engravings were made changed from time to time in the different levels. In this way the growth of art can be traced through long periods of time. They also find that objects sometimes differ according to different cultures.

Cave Art

The best-known examples of prehistoric rock art are the cave paintings of Altamira, Lascaux, Niaux, and other sites in northern Spain and southern France. But rock art is found in many different parts of the world, notably Australia and Africa, and new sites continue to be discovered. In 1994 a new site, the Chauvet cave, was discovered in southern France. The paintings on the walls of this cave were determined to have been made more than 30,000 years ago, making them the oldest known cave paintings. The skill with which these paintings were made sheds new light on the abilities of the earliest cave artists.

Caves are found in limestone areas. Today many caves are dry because the water that formed them has sunk to lower levels. Some caves are very long and have many complicated passages.

The opening of the Niaux cave, in the French Pyrenees, is halfway up a hillside, above a mountain stream. After several hundred feet, a series of red painted dots, dashes, and lines appears just where a narrow passage leads off to the right. At the end of a wide passageway, there are dozens of paintings of bison, ibex, and other creatures. These paintings have lasted so long because weather conditions never change in deep caves. Variations of dampness, temperature, and light quickly destroy paint.

The artists painted with natural lumps of ocher, a material easily found in the ground. Crushed ochers give a red, orange, or yellow color. Charcoal black was also used. It has often survived despite the fact that it rubs off easily. The colors were put on the walls in various ways, sometimes with a brush. A small bone, snapped off at the end, may have been used as a brush handle. To make bristles, the artist may have taken hairs from a horse's mane, bent them in half and inserted them into the bone, and then chopped off the ends to a suitable length. The colored, powdered ochers were probably mixed with melted suet, or fat. Perhaps an ox's shoulder blade served as a palette. It was dark in the caves, and the artist had to have a small fire to see by and to melt the fat. Indeed, small stone lamps have been found in the caves. A twist of moss could have been used to make a wick.

Usually figures of animals were made. But there were also signs, patterns, and simplified drawings of natural things. Many of the animals that lived in the Ice Age no longer exist. But we know that they usually had long hair to help them keep warm. In the drawings we can see the great woolly elephant, the woolly rhinoceros, the cave bear, and the cave lion. Some of the animals, such as the reindeer, still flourish. But today these animals are found in regions much colder than southern Europe, where the cave drawings were made.

The pictures of animals were often painted and engraved over each other. Like the layers of homesite rubbish, the figures underneath must be older than those that cover them. One can see, too, that not all the drawings and paintings were made in the same way.

Why Was Prehistoric Art Made?

Cave dwellers never lived in the pitch-dark depths of caves. For this reason, we know that cave paintings were not made simply for decorative purposes. Nor do they represent scenes of daily life. The pictures are mostly of animals--often animals, such as reindeer and bison, that were hunted by early people.

Scholars have debated the meaning of prehistoric cave art for many years. One explanation of why these pictures were made as they were is that the cave art was connected with the rituals and spiritual beliefs of prehistoric people. The caves, while not dwelling places, may have been important gathering places for rites or ceremonies. The animal images may have been made as a form of hunting magic--that is, they may have been created or used in rituals intended to ensure the success of a hunt. The paintings may depict the visions of a shaman--a person who was considered to have special magical powers. By studying the traditional beliefs of more recent cultures, we know that shamans often enter trances as part of their rituals.

In the cave in France called Les Trois Frères (after the three brothers who found it), there is a large chamber with walls that are covered with engravings. At the end of this chamber is a small tunnel. Passing through and around this tunnel, we re-enter the main chamber at a higher level, standing on a sort of platform. This natural "pulpit" overlooks and dominates the area beneath it. Beside the platform is the painted image of a male figure with the face of an owl, the antlers of a reindeer, and the tail of a horse. It is easy to imagine a ritual ceremony taking place in this chamber thousands of years ago.

Because no written records exist to document the beliefs of prehistoric people, their reasons for creating their art will always be shrouded in mystery. But scientists and scholars continue to expand our understanding of the cultures and people who produced this incredible body of work.

Miles C. Burkitt
Author, Our Early Ancestors

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