Ancient & Classical Art

Prehistoric Art as a Fundamental Element of Humanity

Cover image: Cueva de las Manos in Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photo by Maxima20 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Prehistoric Art

Humans have been artists for at least 45,000 years.* Surviving examples of prehistoric artworks like cave paintings and figurines prove that making and using art is essential to who we are as human beings – much more even than written language, which only came around many millennia later. Although we may struggle to understand their meanings, these vivid images painted or etched onto cave walls or fashioned out of stone and bone are fascinating and tangible links to human ancestors from unimaginable long ago. They are surprisingly easy to connect to – often much more so than artworks created substantially closer to our own time. The fact that we still react so powerfully to these ancient examples today should cure anyone of the notion that art is intimidating or only for the initiated.

*In truth, we should probably take that statistic with a healthy grain of salt. Between new discoveries and the uncertainty of dating techniques working this far back, the number changes all the time. But it’s unlikely to get more recent or less impressive. Additionally, artifacts like stones and shells with areas of engraved or painted decoration have been found dating back even earlier – up to 100,000 years old.

One of the bulls in the Hall of Bulls at Lascaux Cave (actually, probably in the reproduction cave) in the Dordogne region of France. Originals painted circa 18,000 BCE. Photo by JoJan via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

Rare, Miraculous, and Mysterious

Very little prehistoric art survives. With dates going as far back as tens of thousands of years, it’s a miracle that anything remains at all, yet prehistoric art has been found in nearly all corners of the globe. Every find is precious and has the potential to completely change what we know about early humans. As durable evidence of symbolic thinking – the ability to contemplate ideas beyond immediate, tangible reality – archaeologists and anthropologists consider art to be a key indicator of fully modern humanity. (Other indicators, most notably spoken language, don’t leave many traces in the archaeological record.) Not only did our cave people ancestors have the instinct and ability to make art, but they clearly considered it important enough that they dedicated time and energy to it when their lives must have been daily struggles for survival. Although paleolithic humans probably did not have a concept of “art” comparable to ours, I suspect that they would not at all have agreed with the modern notion that art is merely a luxury divorced from the rest of life.

Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel
Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel, c. 38,000 BCE, mammoth ivory. Found in Stadel Cave, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Ulm Museum, Ulm, Germany. Photo by Dagmar Hollmann via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

It is almost impossible for us to ever truly understand what this art meant to its makers or why they created it. Although prehistoric humans had the same intellectual capacities that we do, we really have no idea how they thought or felt. “Prehistoric” means before writing, so these early people certainly didn’t leave us any records of their beliefs or customs. It’s difficult enough to truly understand the original connotations of artworks made only a few centuries ago. When we’re looking back so many thousands of years, even our most basic ideas about culture, society, religion, gender, and more break down. That these objects just emerge from the mists of time with no keys to their interpretation is both the fascination and the frustration of prehistoric art history. Despite representing rare points of connection to our remote ancestors, we can only guess at their significance and meaning, but their very presence points to something fundamental in the human condition. Being human means being able to understand art. Every single one of us innately has this skill. Celebrate it, enjoy it, and enhance it, but never doubt that it exists within you.

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