A-Z of Human Origins: A is for Art

The topic of “Human origins” encompass such a wide variety of exciting finds to explore and blog about that I couldn’t possibly pick one to begin to start. So I’m going to go pick of the (hopefully) most interesting aspects of this fascinating era, and we’ll explore them as I remind myself of the alphabet.

So the first week will be….


You are probably familiar with cave paintings or the hand stencils, as in the image above, from a variety of European caves. However, they can also be made by pain staking engraving into the cave wall, and there are other types of portable art which can sometimes be forgotten about next to the extensive cave drawings.

France has some particularly amazing examples of cave art, including the well known Upper Palaeolithic images from Lascaux Caves in the Dordogne (see below). A variety of different animals have been depicted on cave walls, including mammoths, horses, and aurochs – all of which would have probably been hunted by Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers. The cave paintings themselves would have been created using natural pigments, such as red ochre or black manganese, and probably applied using their fingers, animal hair, or other items they may have had to hand. Archaeologists have even found the shells they used to make their paints in. [For info and images you can download this open access paper by Zilhão et al, 2010]

Image Credit: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lascaux#mediaviewer/File:Lascaux_painting.jpg

Lascaux Caves. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Since Lascaux’s discovery in 1940 many visitors have been to the site – and in the end it was too many, and the original caves had to be closed in order to protect the 17,000 year old paintings from fungal growth. Luckily there is an exact replica, Lascaux II, that you can go and visit. The real site can now only be visited by scientists for very short periods at a time, and special air conditioning units have been installed to try and stop the spread of the mould.

My personal favourites are the hand stencils (such as those in the title image), which are created by the person either placing their hand on the wall and spraying paint over it (creating a negative stencil) or by putting paint on their hand and then placing it onto the cave wall (creating a positive stencil). Negative hand prints are much more common than positive ones, but they are usually found in groups at the back of a dark cave or in areas which would have been difficult to access. This would have meant they would have had to find the area by the light of a torch – and hope the thing doesn’t get blown out! [You can read more on the hand stencils research project by the University of Durham] I find them particularly fascinating because they give you an opportunity to get close to the people of the Palaeolithic in a way other finds don’t allow – and although you don’t have their fingerprints, you are seeing the hand of your Palaeolithic ancestors.

People in the Upper Palaeolithic also engraved images directly into the rock, and sometimes cleverly using the contours of the cave wall as a basis for their image. Some have even been designed so that the movement of a torch or light source underneath the image will create the illusion of an animal moving. This is incredibly difficult to demonstrate properly in a picture, but if you are interested I highly recommend you watch documentary film called The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Although the commentary is not exactly to everyone’s tastes, you can’t deny the footage from Chauvet Cave (otherwise closed to the public) are incredible.

In addition to the cave art, there are also smaller items of portable art from the Upper Palaeolithic. They must have been carefully sculpted by a very patient and talented hunter-gatherer, and the most famous of these works are the Venus figures.

Venus of Brassempouy (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

Venus of Brassempouy (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

However, my personal favourite is this rather simplistic but beautiful outline of a horse which has been carefully drawn on a rib bone. It was found in Creswell Craggs (Derbyshire, UK) and a replica is available to view in their museum. For a more detailed picture, click on the link… but when admiring keep in mind the size of a rib bone! I only appreciated this amazing find when I saw the replica in person.

Horse on rib bone from  Creswell Crags, UK (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

Horse on rib bone from Creswell Crags, UK (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

We take art for granted today – well, more precisely we take the ability to create art for granted. You can draw a quick doodle or paint a masterpiece, but the fact of the matter is that you are doing a rather cognitively complex thing. And if you’re like me, completely incapable of drawing a stick figure who doesn’t look a bit weird, you’ll be envious of the some of the pictures created by Palaeolithic people. I really wish I could draw a horse as good as the one on that piece of rib!

And what is more fascinating is that the ability to create art may extend back to our closest cousins – the Neanderthals. Although cave paintings are very delicate pieces of art and therefore anything as old as the Neanderthals would be a rare find indeed, there are some caves in Spain which have paintings dated potentially as far back as Neanderthals. In addition, an engraving (which would survive far better than paintings) has been found recently in Gibraltar. Ok, so it’s basically a hashtag – who cares, it’s symbolism at the very least! In the absence of Neanderthal Twitter we have to wonder what it meant and why someone would have invested so many hours into creating this “art” or symbol.

Engraving from Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar. Image Source: Wikipedia

Engraving from Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar. Image Source: Wikipedia

Image credit for title header: Wikipedia – “Cave of Hands”, Santa Cruz, Argentina. All images on this page reproduced under the Creative Commons licence.

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