Even earlier art discovered

I have seen 3 news stories about prehistoric cave paintings discovered in Indonesia that are over 43,000 years old.  That is older than any of the cave art found so far in Europe.  The paintings are dramatic, depicting a group of beings, human or human-like with a bird head or with a tail, some holding spears around a large animal.  They do not appear to have the beautiful curves of the Lascaux paintings but they are still colorful and clearly imagined.  The cave is located up on a cliff and requires some rock climbing and scrambling to reach. Once again we find paintings underground, in the earth, which Lewis-Williams and Pearce say in their book, Inside the Neolithic Mind, that our ancestors felt was a link to another world, one filled with spirits (see post 11/23/19).  Here is one link to the NYT rendition:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/11/science/cave-art-indonesia.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Science.

As you can see, the NYT writer wonders if the beings represent mythic figures. Doubtful, that, but certainly they could have come from an early shamanic tradition before mythic narratives had really developed.  Here is link to the Scientific American version:  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-this-indonesian-cave-painting-the-earliest-portrayal-of-a-mythical-story/.

The scientists have several questions going on.  The large animal has been dated to at least 43,000 years ago but the humanoid figures have not been dated as of yet, and research into other cave paintings has revealed that figures are often added over many, many years.  Also, while the large animal is clearly just that, the humanoid figures are not as clear.  Some could be human, some shamanic figures with human and animal merged, and some could be just other quadrupeds.

The big question is who painted them?  Human fossils have not been found locally.  The scientists seem sure that some group of Homo sapiens painted them, but it could have been Neandertals, Denisovans, or others.  This is interesting not just because the paintings predate anything found so far in Europe, but also because humans had to migrate here (Indonesia) from there (meaning Africa or Europe) and it is very doubtful that they brought the painting tradition with them, so they must have discovered it anew. And that speaks to the profundity of our impulse to make art.  And so we travel on to learn more.

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.


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.