Push our timeline back some more

NYT has a good story about archeologists finding the earliest figural art found so far.  A few things stand out in this report.  First, the findings are based upon a new technique for analyzing mineral deposits in caves using radioactive isotopes.  Next, the scientists had an arduous journey through the jungles of Borneo to get to this cave.  Next, did I mention this cave is in Borneo?  While most Paleolithic art has been found in Europe and northern and southern Africa, these paintings have been found nearly halfway around the world—the humans had migrated a long way to live on this island.  Lastly, these paintings are also done with red ochre and include the hand silhouettes formed by blowing the pigment through a tube and figurative art of animals, similar to what has been found in Europe dated back 15-30,000 years ago, but these are much older, dating back to at least 40,000 years ago, possibly to 65,000.  (Let me not neglect figurines and a bone flute in Europe going back maybe 40,000 years ago).  All told, these new findings are really remarkable.  Read the article here (I hope): https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/07/science/oldest-cave-art-borneo.html

Of course, cave art has a better chance of being preserved than art on stones and wood out in the landscape, and maybe that figured in to the decision to paint in the caves.  Some of this cave art, however, is way back in a cave.  I visited a cave in SW France where animal paintings were a mile in—talk about needing a long lasting torch and a way to find your way back out.  So why there?  Some speculate that paintings were a means of communicating about the locale, but this was not an especially effective way to spread the news.  Some speculate that the paintings were an early manifestation of cultural glue, e.g., providing a mythic identity and place of spiritual gathering.  This makes some sense to me.  Some say the animal paintings were a means to empower their hunting through early magic; maybe but this leads back to the cultural handling of life and death, of habitus, and of dealing with both the limits of human efficacy and of conserving any and all animals’ life force, e.g., spirit.  Given Langer’s supposition that art is a symbolic rendering of one’s experience, the hand silhouettes could be a form of Dissayanke’s making special (art expressed by the self of the self/identity—“oh look, Hugo has been here”) and the animals would be a form expressive of experience, perhaps from some identification with the animal’s power (consider Moby Dick).  I do not recall any little animals in all of these paintings; they are buffalo, horses, mammoths, etc., and not rodents or rabbits.

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Altamira bison from Spain from about 30,000 years ago. No bunnies here.

So this art, like all art, is symbolic, its surface structure conveying some deep import about life and vitality.  This Borneo art was done about the same time modern humans spread into Europe to then displace Neandertals, indicating that the early humans from 350,000 years ago traveled far and wide, and then somehow, say around 80-90,000 years ago, developed a penchant for visual art at the same time in various widespread populations.  Other art forms, e.g., music, dance, tool decorations, body art, etc., are lost in the past.  I think early art was an intimate action, probably restricted at first to a close-knit group, e.g., family or tribe, and part of the reason for painting in caves was to protect this intimate aspect.  From this beginning, humans began to revel in artistic expression and find common ground by sharing art forms that carried, following the great Susanne Langer here, import luminous with the artistic individual’s vital experience.  Travel on back and forward to the timeless land of aesthetic forms.

 

Red ochre?

Yes, red ochre, the pigment of choice for cave men and women everywhere.  I have seen several stories about a find in the Blombos Cave of South Africa of a rock segment showing lines made by a red ochre crayon dating back to 75,000 years ago. Perhaps the most interesting thing here was the supported speculation that these people had used a crayon, a stick of red ochre that they could easily carry about with them, you know, maybe to draw a little graffiti on cave walls, tag a prominent rock, etc.  I have read some about red ochre paint used by prehistoric peoples but paint must be used pretty quickly before it dries. Crayons, don’t we all know, are more convenient for the wanderer in us.

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Images made by blowing red ochre paint through a tube in French cave 25,000 years ago.

And wander early humans did.  Red ochre was used in Australia for burials 40,000 years ago.  A prehistoric body discovered some years ago in a cave on the Gower Peninsula (a really beautiful place to wander) in Wales was covered in red ochre.  The body was called the Red Lady of Paviland (where the cave is located on the coast) and initially thought to be Roman but later scientific analysis showed the remains to be a young male from 33,000 years ago.  Oh, and the new world?  Yes, red ochre paintings have been found high in the Andes dated from 12,000 years ago. Ancient peoples, e.g., Egyptian, used red and yellow ochre, and many peoples ancient and more recent decorated their bodies and/or hair with red ochre.

Made with the ubiquitous red clay, this ochre has served artists very well for at least 75,000 years. Strange and wonderful to consider that red ochre captured our ancestors’ imagination and was used to express some inchoate experience about their lives.  Another gift from Gaia.  Travel on.

Neanderthal update

I like Neanderthal stories for two reasons. First, this research shows science at it best in the development of technologies to date artifacts, the diligent search for ancient clues, and especially, the fact that our conception of who the Neanderthal were has dramatically changed as new data have come in. Since their discovery over a hundred years ago we have gone from thinking them brutes barely different from gorillas to now almost completely human like us. Changing minds through new data is to be much appreciated. The second reason is that genetic studies prove that my ancestors mated with them and I do not want to think of my people long ago mating with brutes of little intellects and no symbolic capabilities. I would hope they were more discriminating.

So the most recent update comes from this story in the NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/22/science/neanderthals-cave-paintings-europe.html.

Evidently some paleoanthropologists were holding up their admission of the Neanders into full humanity because they said the evidence allowed the possibility that their use of tools and their art making were copied from Homo sapiens. That objection has now fallen as art and tools have been found and dated through new, refined technology to time periods way before modern humans entered Europe. Hmm, maybe Homo sapiens copied tools and art from them?

My latest thinking on the inception of symbolic thought, both discursive (language) and presentational (art) forms, is that our heightened empathic abilities led to a rather robust intimacy, a mind to mind connection through kinesic modalities wherein we sensed and knew the other’s subjective mental domain, coupled with the increasing power and specificity of mirroring systems serving communication (think arcuate fasciculus). This yields the view that an intimate connection of immediate sensing of another’s mind coupled with the invariant structure of surface behaviors produced the first symbols.

In this light consider why early art is so often found in caves, and not just close to the entrances but sometimes way back in there. We visited one site in France where an electric railcar took us maybe a mile back into the cave to see etchings of mammoths and other animals on the ceiling. Why? Some say that art rose in association with animist magic, that these paintings were a mystical participation with the animal spirits and communion with Gaia. Read Kim Stanley Robinson’s excellent novel Shaman to see the truth of this possibility. But magic has both public and private aspects. Yes, shaman protected their mysteries (and for good reason because sometimes they were not so mysterious once initiated) but they also performed public rituals. Indeed, magic would not be very useful if not public.

Here’s another thought: Art came about when the need arose to extend intimacy beyond the circle of familiars, art being a personal expression of some vital experience, and so the first artists were a bit shy about their productions and protected their privacy by painting deep in caves. As we learned more about art and more came to appreciate the beauty therein, we moved it out into the public domain and cultural identity took on another feature. Even today while some artists open their studios to audiences, many keep their creations private until complete, and some, like Leonardo da Vinci, keep their most precious pieces in their possession. Leonardo kept the Mona Lisa with him for 20 years, working on it a little bit now and again, and died with it in his room, never giving it to his patron. Personal, private, it was.

Anyway, I really like my hypothesis about the inception of art here; it feels fit to me, this combining empathic intimacy and mirrored communication. (You heard it here first). Time, now, to travel on.

Neanderthal_280_470743a

That sapiens guy copied my bison drawing. Good grief! Did a good job though. These new kids may have some talent.

News flash–prehistoric cave art in Indonesia

No pictures here but google ‘Indonesian cave art’ or go to the journal Nature for reports of cave art in an Indonesian cave from 40,000 years ago and very similar to what has been found in European caves of around that time.  To paraphrase one scientist, given the ubiquity of an artistic impulse in humans, the wonder is not that we have found these images but that it has taken so long to find them.  Silhouettes of hands and paintings of animals using similar pigments, e.g., red ocher (very popular with our ancestors), were found there just as in the caves of Spain and France.  Thank you, artists everywhere, them and us.