Although the great monuments built by past civilizations are often the subject of wonder and admiration, no less wondrous are the feats achieved by our Palaeolithic ancestors living around the world tens of thousands of years ago. One example of these achievements is the literal invention of art, the precise origins of which have long mystified and intrigued researchers. Why did early humans create art? Why do we create art, for that matter? Where did art first originate?
Overcoming a Eurocentric Bias
As discussed elsewhere on this blog, one of the problems with ancient history is that it has been written primarily by people working within a Eurocentric paradigm. Although the destructive prejudices have since been eliminated, it is still unfortunately true that much of what is “known” is founded on scholarship conducted during more narrow-minded times.
Indeed, for many years it was assumed that the cave art found in places like Lascaux and Altamira were some of the earliest expressions of so-called “symbolic behaviour” – that is, the expression of ideas in symbols. These caves date to about twenty or thirty thousand years ago, and were assumed to be part of a “human revolution” that occurred once homo sapiens migrated from Africa to Europe.
However, as dazzling as the European caves are, this position neglects a wealth of evidence that Africans were engaging in proto-symbolic and symbolic behaviour tens of thousands of years before their European descendants were. In fact, the Blombos Cave in South Africa has evidence of symbolic behaviour that is about seventy thousand years old.
“… many of the components of the “human revolution” claimed to appear at 40–50 ka are found in the African Middle Stone Age tens of thousands of years earlier. These features include blade and microlithic technology, bone tools, increased geographic range, specialized hunting, the use of aquatic resources, long distance trade, systematic processing and use of pigment, and art and decoration. These items do not occur suddenly together as predicted by the “human revolution” model, but at sites that are widely separated in space and time. This suggests a gradual assembling of the package of modern human behaviors in Africa, and its later export to other regions of the Old World.”“The revolution that wasn’t”, Sally Mcbrearty, Alison S. Brooks
Understanding the Creative Motivation
So, given that we can date the origins of creative expression to at least seventy thousand years ago, it is worth examining why on earth ancient humans would take time out of their survival-focused day to create art. This question is especially intriguing when we consider that “art” has progressed from marks on a rock to movies, paintings, and architecture. What does this activity say about us, as humans?
STEP 1: DEFINING CREATIVITY
Fun fact: scholars who study creativity define it as the production of something that is both novel and useful. Now, whereas “novel” is relatively easy to understand, what constitutes “useful” is another matter entirely. A “useful” work of art might be designed to provoke action, such as in commercials. It could also stimulate thought, in the case of many great pieces. However, and most importantly for our purposes, sometimes it could simply be pleasing to our eyes or ears.
STEP 2: CREATIVITY IN CONTEXT
Although Africans living tens of thousands of years ago were not nearly as primitive as their European ancestors, there is still a clear progression in the complexity of art that can not only be seen between the Blombos Cave and Lascaux, but also between Blombos and the captivating aesthetic of Ancient Egypt. In addition to the art becoming more complex, we see an increased amount of mediums being employed to realize creative visions.
Here, it is worth defining what a “creative vision” is. Put simply, it is an imaginary plan of something that is not yet real, but could be. Unless the artist (inventor, engineer, etc.) is a cynic, the person who has a creative vision is motivated by their belief that the world will be a better place because of this creation.
This motivation can be easily understood in cases of modern art, but we again return to the question – why would someone begin making art in the first place?
STEP 3: VISUAL STIMULATION
A recent study used samples of Palaeolithic art as stimuli, measuring subjects’ reactions to the patterns of marks found on early rocks. They found, in general, that the more complex markings, which involved more criss-cross patterns and stylized etches, were not only more memorable, but also more attractive to the human eye. This elevated level of visual activation suggests, in some regard, that Palaeolithic humans were pleased by these markings, and decided that the visual stimulation was enjoyable enough that the “art” was worth it.
STEP 4: THE MIND IN THE CAVE
Another helpful hint about the possible motivations of early artists comes from the cave art in Europe, which is famous for its intricate designs, depictions of animals, and use of pigmentation. Some of the stylized markings on these walls suggest that this art – at least some of it – was associated with spiritual experiences or altered states of consciousness. Some evidence for this comes from the patterns that some migraine-experiencers report seeing, as well as visual patterns associated with sunlight, the eye, and perhaps even psychedelic mushrooms.
In any case, it seems clear that the earliest humans felt things just the same as we did, and endeavoured to express those feelings, visions, and ideas in the best way they could. In some respects, the longevity of the cave art when compared to today’s pop music scene (“Who’s Madonna?”) is a testament to their choice of medium.