Home Human communication What prehistoric cave paintings reveal about the beginnings of human life

What prehistoric cave paintings reveal about the beginnings of human life

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What does the world’s oldest known art tell us about the people who created it? The images painted, drawn or engraved on rocks and cave walls – which have been found all over the world – reflect one of the earliest forms of human communication, with possible links to the development of language. The earliest known images often seem abstract and may have been symbolic, while the later ones depicted animals, people, and hybrid figures that perhaps had some sort of spiritual significance.

The oldest known prehistoric art was not created in a cave. Drawn on a rock face in South Africa 73,000 years ago, it predates any known rock art. However, the caves themselves help protect and preserve the art on their walls, making them a rich historical record for archaeologists to study. And because humans have added to rock art over time, many have layers, illustrating an evolution in artistic expression.

READ MORE: The Prehistoric Ages: How Humans Lived Before Written Records

Ancient rock art was abstract

Neanderthal cave paintings inside the Andalusian Cave of Ardales, photographed on March 1, 2018. The cave paintings were created between 43,000 and 65,000 years ago, 20,000 years before the arrival of modern humans in Europe.

In 2018, research announced the discovery of the oldest known cave paintings, made by Neanderthals at least 64,000 years ago, in the Spanish caves of La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales. Like some other early rock art, it was abstract. Archaeologists studying these caves have discovered ladder-like line drawings, hand stencils and a stalagmite structure decorated with ocher.

Neanderthals, an archaic human subspecies who procreated with Homo sapiens, probably left this art in places they considered special, says Alistair WG Pike, head of archaeological sciences at the University of Southampton in the UK and co-author of a cave study published in Science in 2018. Numerous hand stencils appear in small, hard-to-reach corners of the cave, suggesting that the person who made them had to prepare pigments and light before venturing into the cave to find the place. wish.

The brands themselves are also interesting because they demonstrate symbolic thinking. “The meaning of painting isn’t knowing that Neanderthals could paint, it’s the fact that they indulged in symbolism,” Pike explains. “And it’s probably related to an ability to have a language.”

The possible connection between rock art and the development of human language is something that Shigeru Miyagawa, professor of linguistics and Japanese language and culture at MIT, theorized in a 2018 article he co-wrote for Frontiers in Psychology.

“The problem is, the tongue doesn’t fossilize,” says Miyagawa. “One of the reasons I started to get interested in rock art is precisely because of this. I wanted to find other artifacts that could be substitutes for the old language.

He is particularly interested in the acoustics of the areas where rock art is found and whether its location has anything to do with the sounds people can make or hear in a particular place.

READ MORE: How Humans Evolved

Tell stories with human and animal figures

Panel of the Unicorn in Lascaux.

Panel of the Unicorn in Lascaux.

Over time, rock art began to feature human and animal figures. The earliest known cave painting of an animal, believed to be at least 45,500 years old, shows a warty pig from Sulawesi. The image appears in Leang Tedongnge Cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Sulawesi also has the earliest known rock painting of a hunting scene, believed to be at least 43,900 years old.

These cave paintings from Sulawesi demonstrate the artists’ ability to depict creatures that existed in the world around them and predate the famous Lascaux cave paintings in France by tens of thousands of years. Lascaux’s paintings, discovered in 1940 when teenagers followed a dog into the cave, feature hundreds of images of animals dating back to around 17,000 years.

Many images of the Lascaux cave represent easily recognizable animals such as horses, bulls or deer. A few, however, are more unusual, demonstrating the ability of artists to paint something they probably hadn’t seen in real life.

Lasacaux rock art contains something like a “unicorn” – a horse-like horned animal that may or may not be pregnant. Another unique image has been variously interpreted as a hunting accident in which a buffalo and a man both die, or an image involving a wizard or wizard. In any case, the artist seems to have paid particular attention to the masculinization of the human figure.

READ MORE: Early humans may have collected more than they hunted

Rock and rock art in America

Ancient petroglyphs are carved into the stone walls of Canyon de Chelly National Monument near Chinle, Arizona.

Ancient petroglyphs are carved into the stone walls of Canyon de Chelly National Monument near Chinle, Arizona.

In North America, rock and rock art can be found across the continent, with great concentration in the Southwestern Desert, where the arid climate has preserved thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs of ancient Puebloan peoples. But some of the continent’s oldest currently known rock paintings – made around 7,000 years ago – have been unearthed on the Cumberland Plateau, which stretches across parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and from Georgia. Indigenous peoples continued to create rock art in this region until the 19th century.

Many caves on the Cumberland Plateau feature a spiritual figure passing from a man to a bird, says Jan F. Simek, professor of archeology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who has studied and written about rock art and rock in the region.

It is clear from the way some paintings from the Cumberland Plateau caves are grouped together that the artists were telling a story or a narrative.

“There’s a cave that’s actually relatively old in mid-Tennessee that has a number of depictions of a box-shaped human creature… associated with a more normal-looking human,” he says. “And they interact with each other in relation to what appears to be a woven fabric.”

He continues, “There is a narrative over there, there is a history over there, even though we don’t know what the story is.”

This is also true for a lot of rock art. Even though archaeologists cannot tell what an early artist was saying, they can see that the artist was using images on purpose to create a narrative for himself or for others.


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