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.
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.