Ancient Expressions: The World’s Oldest Works of Prehistoric Art

Ancient Expressions: The World’s Oldest Works of Prehistoric Art

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Creating abstractions of reality, art has been a part of human expression for hundreds of thousands of years. Prehistoric stone and bone sculptures, and cave art are ideas and emotions expressed through visual projection, and it was initially believed by archaeologists that the oldest art works and paintings existed mainly in Europe, until the discovery of cave art in Indonesia, and sculpture and cave art in Africa. The term ‘ancient art’ may refer to the many different types of art produced by the advanced cultures of ancient China, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, Greece and Rome, however the five oldest art works ever discovered belong to a pre-literate culture, and is referred to as prehistoric art.

Cave art, generally, the numerous paintings and engravings found in European caves and shelters dating back to the Ice Age (Upper Paleolithic) roughly between 40,000 and 14,000 years ago, was deemed by experts to be the work of modern humans ( Homo Sapiens ) and while most examples of cave art have been found in France, Portugal, England, Italy, Romania, Germany, and Russia, nowhere have so many prehistoric artists’ easels been found than in Spain.

El Castillo Cave Paintings, Spain: 39000 BC

The Cueva de El Castillo , or Cave of the Castle, is an archaeological site within the complex of the Caves of Monte Castillo, in Puente Viesgo, on the edge of the Pas River in Cantabria, Spain. A steep conical limestone elevation hides an intricate labyrinth of caves which have been frequented by man for at least the past 150,000 years. Discovered in 1903 by Spanish archaeologist Hermilio Alcalde del Río, who found an extensive sequence of images executed in charcoal and red ochre on the walls and ceilings dating from the Lower Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, and up to the Middle Ages. Over 150 depictions have already been catalogued, including intricately painted deer complete with shadowing, and among the images is the oldest known cave painting anywhere on earth: a large red stippled disk in the Panel de las Manos dated to more than 40,000 years old.

Interior de la Cueva del Castillo en Puente Viesgo, Cantabria (Españ a). ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The interior of the cave contains numerous figures corresponding to the dawn of the presence of Homo Sapiens in Europe, and it represents a subterranean walk through the origins of symbolic thought, from the very beginnings of abstract, artistic thought and expression.

10 Prehistoric Works Of Art And Their Stories

Art is the expression and interpretation of the human imagination in an intelligible way&mdasha way that causes a meaningful conscious experience. Some might argue that without art, life would be meaningless, but without meaning, there would be no art, and meaning requires a conscious subject to give it such. In a very real way, we are living art. Nietzsche once said that without music, life would be a mistake, and in a very real way, he was right. It&rsquos been around us since the very beginnings of the human race, and even animals can create art. [1]

From Salvador Dali and his surrealism to Michelangelo and his sculptures and, of course, the grand, gorgeous, awe-inspiring ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, that can move even the stiffest of us who &ldquodon&rsquot get art,&rdquo we&rsquove been making art from a long time. It began likely as simple decorations for tools, rocks, or even the dead bodies of friends and loved ones. Grave design is art face paint is art. Art is all around us, and it&rsquos almost inescapable. Prehistoric humans actually made a lot of art, and a lot of different finds have helped us piece their stories together, telling us much about their lives and how they lived them. Here are ten prehistoric pieces of art and their stories.

Prehistoric carving is oldest known figurative art

This sculpture may look a little bit like a roast chicken, but don’t let that distract you – it’s an incredibly important artistic find. This small figurine is arguably the oldest representation of the human body yet discovered.

The figure is clearly human, with short arms ending in five, carefully carved fingers, and a navel in the right position. But its most obvious features show that it depicts a woman, and very explicitly at that. She has large protruding breasts, wide hips and thighs, accentuated buttocks and pronounced vulva between her open legs. In contrast to these exaggerated sexual features, her arms and legs are relatively small and her head has been left out entirely. It was replaced with a carefully carved ring that probably allowed the figure to be suspended like a pendant.

The figurine is very similar to the so-called Venuses of Europe’s tool-making Gravettian culture. These prehistoric works of art also had crazily proportioned breasts, buttocks and genitals, as well as curiously downplayed heads, arms and legs. They were created between 22,000 and 27,000 years ago, but this new find is much older than that.

It was unearthed by Nicholas Conard from the University of Tubingen, who found the Venus three metres underground, within the Hohle Fels Cave in southern Germany. It’s just 6cm long and was carved from the solid ivory tusk of a mammoth. Judging by carbon-dating measurements of other finds from the dig site, Conard estimates that it was fashioned at least 35,000 years ago, although it could well be millennia older.

The Venus was found in six separate fragments, recovered over a week in 2008. Despite being shattered, most of the pieces have been found and reunited, with only the left arm and shoulder still missing. Conard still hopes to recover these missing fragments as the cave dig continues. Like other Venuses, Conard suggests that his latest find could be a symbol of fertility. She’s also adorned in other markings, including horizontal lines around her waist that could possibly represent a wrap or piece of clothing.

The Venus hails from the Aurignacian period, which saw the demise of the European Neanderthals and the settling of genetically modern humans in their place. The German caves where the Venus was buried have yielded a treasure trove of human creativity from this far-gone culture, including the world’s oldest unmistakeable musical instruments -flutes made from the bird bones, joined by mammoth ivory.

Archaeologists have also found a veritable art gallery of 25 other Aurignacian figurines, but all of these depict animals or half-human, half-animal creatures. The Venus is unique, for it is older than all of these earlier finds and it’s the first one that’s clearly human.

It’s quite probably the oldest human figure on record. There are other contenders to the title including rust paintings in Italy’s Fumane Cave (although these may again depict human-animal hybrids) and those in France’s Chauvet Caves. There is a caveat – Conard admits that the carbon-dating estimates are ambiguous. Nonetheless, the figurine was found at the bottom of sediment that was deposited during the Aurignacian and that shows no signs of having been disturbed since then.

According to Conard, the mere existence of the Venus radically changes our view of the origins of prehistoric art. Modern humans evolved in Africa and the oldest art there is abstract – geometrical designs that were created between 75,000 and 95,000 years ago.

But portraying the human figure appears to have been a European invention, achieved only when our ancestors migrated northwards. In Africa, the oldest figurative art is a set of seven paintings on stone blocks from Namibia’s Apollo 11 cave, and these were created just 25,500 to 27,500 years ago. Archaeologist Paul Mellars believes that Conard’s Venus pinpoints south Germany as the “the birthplace of true sculpture in the European – maybe global – artistic tradition”.

Reference: Conard, N. (2009). A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany Nature, 459 (7244), 248-252 DOI: 10.1038/nature07995

Changing conversations

Until recently, much of the scholarly conversation around sophisticated cave paintings has centered on Europe. The menageries that race across the walls of southern France's Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave date to roughly 36,000 years old. The herd of bison dancing on the ceiling of Altamira in northern Spain are from the same time period. And the crowd of outstretched hands and red disks of Spain's Castillo cave date back more than 40,800 years.

But in 2014, a team including Aubert and Brumm flipped the script when they announced the discovery of cave paintings on Sulawesi that were at least 39,900 years old. Up to then, the artworks were presumed to be no more than 12,000 years old.

“It really erodes that idea of Europe being the finishing school of human evolution,” Nowell says. While the newfound creature is just a smidgen older than the previous record-holder, its discovery adds even more depth to the art in the region.

"Some people could say it’s just another pig," Nowell says. "But that’s not the point, it really speaks to a larger sustained change in behavior."

The increasing number of discoveries in Indonesia suggests the possibility that complex artistry could have developed independently in Europe and Asia, Aubert says. Or perhaps humans already had the capacity for such works of art when they trekked out of Africa, “and now we’re starting to find traces of it wherever they went.”

The age of the newfound art also starts to fill a 20,000-year-long blank spot in the archaeological record as ancient humans island-hopped through what is now Indonesia to Australia. Recent excavations in northern Australia have revealed the presence of modern humans at least 65,000 years ago, while evidence for human activity in Indonesia appears to begin 20 millennia later.

Even with the new find, however, a chronological void still remains. There's no reason to think Sulawesi's inhabitants suddenly started painting some 45,000 years ago, Aubert says, adding it's likely older artworks are still out there.

One thing is for sure, Brumm says: More surprises await. “It just shows how much artwork is there waiting to be found on this island," he says. "It’s hiding in plain sight."

Introduction to the History of Art I

Venus of Willendorf

Early sculpture: the Lion-Man

Anthropomorphic images propose correlations between the human world and the world of animals. These correlations may be considered as purely intellectual, that is belonging to the sphere of the symbolic, of socio-cultural taxonomies, of language games, etc. They may, alternatively, be related to the metaphysical sphere of a “savage ontology” and a native cosmic anthropology. Or they may refer to both: to the intellectual operations and communicative strategies of early man and of modern “primitives”, and to the apprehension of the structures of reality itself, that is, to a world in which the separation between knowledge and belief has not yet taken place. In fact: a world in which that separation cannot take place for it will amount to the destruction of the (cosmic) order of communication that constitutes, indeed, the stuff of reality.

Anthropomorphism is an important element in shamanic belief-systems and cultures. The practices and beliefs of shamanism as a key to the understanding of prehistoric art is an idea developed and applied by Lewis-Williams, Clottes, and other contemporary researchers.

Cave of Hohlenstein-Stadel

Prehistoric Rock Art in Africa: the Apollo 11 Cave painted slabs (Namibia)

The notion of structural unity will allow, or rather, demand that the most characteristic elements be displayed in the representation: therefore frontal and lateral views will be combined into one characteristic form. This sort of “conceptual” approach to form, that is, embodying our knowledge of what is represented, rather than the actual optical experience, will have a long history, marking artistic representation in prehistoric times as well as in the arts of the early civilizations and beyond.

Also designated as “law of frontality” or “conceptual realism”, this approach is linked by some authors to the very nature of the image in archaic mentality: the image is not pure “representation”, an abstract, purely mental or symbolic equivalent, but a double of the object, a real duplication of the real object. Reality itself is multidimensional, formed by layers that confront each other and interact in complex ways, as the image interacts with its object. The power of the image, therefore, in the depiction of an animated reality, is a living power. Accordingly, the “law of frontality” will be applied strictly and systematically in the depiction of human beings in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Huyghe, Rene – Art forms and societies (in Chapter 3 – Agrarian Empires)
Larousse Encyclopedia of Prehistoric and Ancient Art, London: 1967

/> Apollo 11 excavation site

Location of Apollo 11 Cave – Namibia
image source:

Upper Paleolithic Art in Europe

Upper Paleolithic Art in Europe Thin dark blue line: coastline Thick light blue (cyan) line: limits of the main glaciations Red tones: mural art Green tones: portable art

Source: Engish wikipedia en:Image:Upper Paleolihic Art in Europe.gif, Based in A. Moure, El Origen del Hombre, Historia 16 ed. ISBN 84-7679-127-5

The Beginnings of Art

Leroi- Gourhan (*) lists three main domains of the “expression of aesthetic feeling” or “aesthetic satisfaction” related to the early stages of humanity that may contribute to our understanding of the beginnings of art:

1) Psycho-physiological impressions: having its own “ pre -history” in the animal world, are related to “the issue of predatory and sexual incentives”, exemplified, for instance, in bodily ornamentation such as the canines of animals used as pendants. The impressions and emotions related here are “not directly aesthetic”, but constitute one of the elementary sources and, according to Leroi- Gourhan , an initial mode of manifestation of the experience of “beauty”.

2) Magic-religious: the use of animal canines as ornamentation refers as well to the appropriation of the animal’s perceived potency and manifested powers.

In this regard we can also observe that, if mimesis is adaptive behavior (with a biological basis, according to the function of mimicry in the natural world), the perception of an animated world of nature will lead man to devise ways of getting closer to, modeling and transforming himself, identifying himself to those other beings and forms of life with their unique powers. Mimetic behavior is at the source of artistic developments.

3) Techno-economic: in the creation of stone implements, according to Leroi- Gourhan , the “animal aesthetics” of the preceding domains is supplemented by “functional aesthetics”. The creator of implements is here, as his skills and knowledge develop, the creator of forms more and more regular and more and more adapted to their functions. The development of form results in economy of materials and gestures, the precision of work creating precise instruments, the creation of forms expressing total mastery and attaining a “purity” of design that characterizes, for Leroi- Gourhan , the mark of the “beautiful”. We have at this point, for the anthropologist, the sign of a conscious appreciation of formal qualities, that is, of the “aesthetic” as such.

“Conscious art” (the term is by Leroi- Gourhan ) evolves from what we may call an “unconscious artistic element”, or rather, elements that are part of activities guided by different aims but that involve, all of them, a realization of a sort of “final”, that is, complete form or stage related to vital demands, abilities and impulses.

A complete form integrates material and activities within itself in such a way that parallels the classic notion of the identity between form and content in the realized work of art. In Hegel’s version: the becoming form of content, and the becoming content of form. That is, a complete form is without residues of materials and of human energies: all is spent and yet nothing is lost. The artwork is work conscious of it’s own self-realization.

Art is certainly not a separate domain of activity for early man. But perhaps we may conclude that what we call nowadays artistic behavior and capacities, integrating perceptual, imaginative and intellectual abilities, formed one of the central structuring factors of early human activity, contributing to success in adaptation, survival and development.

Prehistoric Art Timeline (2.5 Million - 500 BCE)

Maikop Gold Bull (2500 BCE) Russia

An extremely rare outline of a weasel
executed in 10 flawless strokes in
Niaux Cave about 13,000 BCE.

Below is a selected chronological list of important dates showing the development of prehistoric art and culture from the Pliocene epoch, through the Lower, Middle and Upper Paleothic eras of the Pleistocene epoch of the Stone Age, and reaching down to the Mesolithic (or Epipalaeolithic), Neolithic, Bronze and Iron ages of the Holocene epoch. Not content with simply making tools, Homo sapiens and later modern man created a huge range of Stone Age art, beginning with primitive Acheulean culture petroglyphs - such as cupules and rock carvings - and ending in stunning works of prehistoric sculpture (like the venus figurines), and the beautiful Magdalenian era cave paintings of Altamira. Stone Age artists used every sort of material they could find, ranging from rock-hard quartzite to softer stones like steatite, serpentine, sandstone and limestone, as well as mammoth ivory, reindeer antler, and animal bones. Art of the later Neolithic period is exemplified by exquisite ceramics, magnificent early bronze and gold castings, and the monumental architecture of the pyramids, ziggurats and megalithic structures of Newgrange and Stonehenge. Brought to life thanks to the efforts of archeologists and paleoanthropologists, the art of prehistory remains an integral chapter in the evolution of man.

• For Eastern cultures, see: Chinese Art Timeline (from 18,000 BCE).

• For the most ancient works, see: Oldest Stone Age Art.

Appearance of anatomically modern man (Homo sapiens sapiens) in sub-Saharan Africa.
High point of Levallois culture, an advanced flint-knapping culture. Earliest African art appears, the Venus of Tan-Tan figurine. Modern man begins to migrate north out of Africa (100,000-70,000 BCE). Beginning of last Ice Age.
Blombos Cave engravings with cross-hatch designs on two pieces of ochre rock.
Diepkloof eggshell engravings, Africa's next oldest art. Neanderthal prehistoric artists create the La Ferrassie Cave Cupules.
UPPER PALEOLITHIC ERA BEGINS (Modern Man Replaces Neanderthal Man)

Start of Aurignacian art - the beginning of cave art around the world.
Oldest known parietal art consisting of prehistoric abstract signs (like red dots/disks and hand stencils) - see El Castillo Cave paintings.
The ivory carving known as the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel is carved. The earliest Asian art emerges. namely Sulawesi Cave art created in Indonesia, suggesting man developed artistic ability before leaving Africa.
First of the Venus figurines - the Venus of Hohle Fels is made. Venus figurines are miniature carvings of obese female figures with exaggerated body parts and genitalia. Gorham's Cave art in Gibraltar.
Fumane Cave paintings, the world's oldest figurative pictures. Abri Castanet engravings, the oldest cave art in France.
Beginning of Perigordian (aka Chatelperronian) culture. Derived from the earlier Mousterian, practised by Homo neanderthalensis, it employed Levallois flake-tool technology, producing serrated stone tools as well as a flint blades known as "Chatelperron points".
Important animal & figurative carvings, like: Swabian Jura ivory carvings (Vogelherd cave).
Venus of Galgenberg (Stratzing Figurine). First known cave painting appears in France: see the Chauvet cave paintings in the Ardeche Valley see Coliboaia Cave Art, Romania.
Ubirr rock painting in Arnhem Land, Australia, is believed to be the earliest Oceanic Art. Other very early sites of Aboriginal Rock Art include the Burrup Peninsula rock engravings in the Pilbara cupules among the Kimberley rock art in Western Australia the Nawarla Gabarnmang charcoal drawing (carbon-dated to 26,000 BCE) in Arnhem Land. First of the engraved drawings at the Grotte des Deux Ouvertures in the Ardeche.
Gravettian art begins. Practised in eastern, central and western Europe, its signature tool (a development of the Châtelperron point) was a small pointed blade with a blunt but straight back - called a Gravette Point. See also the Venus of Monpazier, France.
Venus of Dolni Vestonice
, first ceramic figurine, Romania. Earliest work of ceramic art.
Apollo 11 Cave Stones painted in charcoal and ochre, Namibia.
Venus of Willendorf, obese female oolitic limestone sculpture, Austria.
Cosquer Cave painting (Marseilles) and the Gargas Cave hand stencils (Hautes-Pyrenees).
Venus of Savignano, sculpture in serpentine stone, Italy.
Pech-Merle cave paintings similar in style to Cussac Cave Engravings.
Venus of Moravany mammoth ivory figurine, Slovakia and Roucadour Cave Art, France.
Limestone Venus of Kostenky, Russia. Cougnac Cave art with its 'wounded man.'
Venus of Laussel limestone bas-relief sculpture (c.23,000 BCE).
Venus of Brassempouy, first prehistoric carving with facial features, France.
The Salmon of Abri du Poisson Cave, bas-relief limestone fish sculpture, France.
Venus of Lespugue, ivory sculpture, France.
The Russian school of venus sculpture: see Venus of Kostenky, Russia's oldest sculpture, also Venus of Gagarino, the Avdeevo Venuses, the Zaraysk Venuses and the Siberian Mal'ta Venuses. The Coa Valley Engravings, oldest outdoor petroglyphs in Europe.
Beginning of Solutrean art. Solutrean tool-makers developed a number of uniquely advanced techniques not equalled for millennia.
Xianrendong Cave Pottery - the world's most ancient pottery from Jiangxi, China. In Spain, La Pileta Cave is noted for its giant fish drawing.
Le Placard Cave, type-site for prehistoric pictographs known as Placard type signs. Koonalda Cave Art (finger-fluting)
The first Lascaux cave paintings are made, the highlight of Franco-Cantabrian Cave Art, plus rock engravings in the French caves of Le Roc-de-Sers Cave Engravings, La Tete du Lion and Spanish Cave of La Pasiega.
Aboriginal Bradshaw paintings frst appear in the Kimberley, Western Australia.
Yuchanyan Cave Pottery made in Hunan Province, China.
Vela Spila pottery made in Croatia. For more chronology, see: Pottery Timeline.
Magdalenian art begins, the final major culture of the Upper Paleolithic, practised by Homo Sapiens across western and central Europe, as the Ice retreated northwards. It replaced all earlier Aurignacian, Gravettian and Solutrean influence. Cap Blanc frieze created.
Altamira cave paintings: "Sistine Chapel of Stone Age Art", Spain.
Lortet Reindeer, engraving on antler fragment, France.
Earliest Jomon pottery, Odaiyamamoto I site, Japan. Earliest known Japanese Art.
Russian Venus of Eliseevichi (Bryansk).
Amur River Basin Pottery, first ceramic art in Russia. Font de Gaume Cave Paintings.
Rouffignac Cave ("Cave of a Thousand Mammoths") Tito Bustillo Cave (14,000 BCE).
Tuc d'Audoubert Bison, relief clay sculptures, France.
Trois Freres Cave paintings, and the German Venus of Engen.
Kapova Cave paintings, Burzyansky Region, Bashkortostan.
Roc-aux-Sorciers frieze, Les Combarelles Cave engravings.
Addaura Cave engravings, Monte Pellegrino, Italy.
Cooper Bison Skull (Oklahoma). One of the oldest examples of American Indian art.
Venus of Monruz-Neuchatel, the oldest art in Switzerland. End of Paleolithic art. End of the last Ice Age.


• For later painting and sculpture, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For our main index, see: Homepage.

Prehistoric cave art reveals ancient use of complex astronomy

The artworks, at sites across Europe, are not simply depictions of wild animals, as was previously thought. Instead, the animal symbols represent star constellations in the night sky, and are used to represent dates and mark events such as comet strikes, analysis suggests.

They reveal that, perhaps as far back as 40,000 years ago, humans kept track of time using knowledge of how the position of the stars slowly changes over thousands of years.

The findings suggest that ancient people understood an effect caused by the gradual shift of Earth’s rotational axis. Discovery of this phenomenon, called precession of the equinoxes, was previously credited to the ancient Greeks.

Around the time that Neanderthals became extinct, and perhaps before mankind settled in Western Europe, people could define dates to within 250 years, the study shows.

The findings indicate that the astronomical insights of ancient people were far greater than previously believed. Their knowledge may have aided navigation of the open seas, with implications for our understanding of prehistoric human migration.

Researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Kent studied details of Palaeolithic and Neolithic art featuring animal symbols at sites in Turkey, Spain, France and Germany.

They found all the sites used the same method of date-keeping based on sophisticated astronomy, even though the art was separated in time by tens of thousands of years.

Researchers clarified earlier findings from a study of stone carvings at one of these sites – Gobekli Tepe in modern-day Turkey – which is interpreted as a memorial to a devastating comet strike around 11,000 BC. This strike was thought to have initiated a mini ice-age known as the Younger Dryas period.

They also decoded what is probably the best known ancient artwork – the Lascaux Shaft Scene in France. The work, which features a dying man and several animals, may commemorate another comet strike around 15,200 BC, researchers suggest.

The team confirmed their findings by comparing the age of many examples of cave art – known from chemically dating the paints used – with the positions of stars in ancient times as predicted by sophisticated software.

The world’s oldest sculpture, the Lion-Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, from 38,000 BC, was also found to conform to this ancient time-keeping system.

Dr Martin Sweatman, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering, who led the study, said: “Early cave art shows that people had advanced knowledge of the night sky within the last ice age. Intellectually, they were hardly any different to us today.

“These findings support a theory of multiple comet impacts over the course of human development, and will probably revolutionise how prehistoric populations are seen.”

Header Image – Some of the world’s oldest cave paintings have revealed how ancient people had relatively advanced knowledge of astronomy. Animal symbols represent star constellations in the night sky, and are used to mark dates and events such as comet strikes, analysis from the University of Edinburgh suggests. Credit : Alistair Coombs

The Main Forms of Prehistoric Cave Art

The inhabitants created their art in all types of rock surfaces - in caves, rock shelters, and cliffs. The core form of prehistoric art is stone, rock art, and cave art and includes:

  • Petroglyphs – Prehistoric rock carvings and engravings as can be found in the Blombos Cave Engravings
  • Eggshell Engravings – Crosshatching patterns scratched on Ostrich eggshells
  • Rock Engravings – Rock engravings in abstract signs and circle symbols
  • Pictographs – Cave murals developed in form of sketches, hand stencils, handprints, or painted signs, and geometric symbols.
  • Megaliths – Strategic arrangements of standing rocks or stones as can be found at Stonehenge or Newgrange.

Prehistoric man’s sketches were made with rudimentary hand tools carved by them. Line drawings were bold, and sketches were painted with roots and plants extracts. Their art adorned their dwellings, the cave walls and ceilings.

The skills they possessed must have demanded some form of rudimentary training and high mental concentration.

Ancient Cave Art Strengthens Evidence for the Image of God

When our kids were little, we would decorate the refrigerator door with their artwork. They were so proud of their creations that they wanted them displayed for everyone to see.

Now that we have grandchildren, once again our refrigerator door has become adorned with what we consider to be artistic masterpieces made by little hands. Children seem to be born with an innate need to leave their mark on the world.

In fact, no matter how old we are, each of us is compelled to create. Some people produce art, music, and literature. Others design new technologies And others erect buildings. And, like little children, we want people to see and appreciate our work.

All human beings are creative. Creativity defines and distinguishes us from all other creatures that exist now—or ever existed. As a Christian, I view our capacity and compulsion to create as a manifestation of the image of God—a quality that every human being possesses and which makes each human life infinitely valuable.

Our capacity to create art, music, and literature hinges on our capacity for symbolism—an ability to represent the world around us with symbols. We even devise symbols to represent abstract concepts. And we can manipulate these symbols in countless ways to tell stories—stories about the way we think things are and imaginary stories about how we wish things would be. Our capacity to create art, music, and literature hinges on our capacity for symbolism—an ability to represent the world around us with symbols. We even devise symbols to represent abstract concepts. And we can manipulate these symbols in countless ways to tell stories—stories about the way we are. This open-ended generative capacity combined with our symbolic abilities even makes science and technology possible.

So, when did human symbolic and open-ended generative capacities first appear? Did they emerge suddenly? Did they appear gradually? Are these qualities truly unique to human beings or did other hominins, such as Neanderthals, possess them too?

If the biblical account of human origins is true, then I would expect that symbolic expression would be unique to modern humans and would coincide with our first appearance as a species. One way to address these questions is to seek after evidence of symbolism in the archaeological record. Artistic depictions serve as the most accessible proxy for symbolism among the artifacts left behind by modern humans and other hominids.

The Oldest Cave Art Discovered to Date
Recently, a research team from Australia unveiled the oldest figurative art discovered to date. 1 Instead of being affixed to a refrigerator door, this artwork was depicted on the walls of the Leang Tedongnge cave, located on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Using a technique that measures uranium and thorium in the calcium carbonate deposits that have formed underneath and on top of the cave paintings, the researchers age-dated the paintings at over 45,000 years old.

These paintings were discovered in 2017 and consist of four warty pigs (Sus celebensis), creatures endemic to Sulawesi. The artists used red ochre, which gives the paintings a red/purple hue. Two hand stencils accompany the pigs. Only one of the pigs is complete. A large portion of the other three pigs has been lost due to erosion of the cave wall (which served as a canvas for the artwork). The intact pig measures over three feet in length. The head region of two of the three partial pigs has been preserved. Instead of facing in the same direction, the pigs appear to be facing off against one another. The researchers believe the artwork presents the viewer with a narrative of sorts, depicting social interactions taking place among the four pigs.

The Cave Art of Sulawesi
Prior to this discovery, archaeologists had identified and dated other art on cave walls in Sulawesi. Like the Leang Tedongnge cave art, that work includes hand stencils and depictions of animals. But it was determined to be younger in age, dating to around 35,000 to 40,000 years old. 2

In 2019, archaeologists published an analysis of a mural in a cave (called Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4) in the southern part of Sulawesi. 3 The panel presents the viewer with an ensemble of pigs and small buffalo (anoas), also endemic to Sulawesi. This art dates to around 44,000 years in age.

The most provocative feature of the Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 artwork is the depiction of smaller human-like figures with animal features such as tails and snouts. Some of these figures are holding spears and ropes. Scholars refer to these human-animal depictions as therianthropes.

The presence of therianthropes in the cave art indicates that humans in Sulawesi conceived of things that did not exist in the material world. That is to say, they had a sense of the supernatural.

Because this artwork depicts a hunt involving therianthropes, the researchers see rich narrative content in the display, just as they see narrative content in the scene with pigs depicted on the walls of Leang Tedongnge.

When Did Symbolism First Appear?
The latest find in Leang Tedongnge solidifies the case that modern humans in Asia had the capacity for artistic expression as does other archeological evidence located throughout southeast Asia. 4

And they used their artistic ability to tell stories.

The Asian cave art is qualitatively similar to the art found on the cave walls in Europe, yet it dates older. This insight means that modern humans most likely had the capacity to make art even before beginning their migrations around the world from out of Africa (around 60,000 years ago). In other words, this discovery pushes the origin of symbolic capacity closer to the time that modern humans emerged.

Anthropologist Christopher Stringer from the Natural History Museum in London notes that, “The basis for this art was there 60,000 years ago it may even have been there in Africa before 60,000 years ago and it spread with modern humans.” 5

This conclusion gains support from the recent discovery of a silcrete flake from a layer in the Blombos Cave of South Africa that dates to about 73,000 years old. A portion of an abstract drawing is etched into this flake. 6 In fact, based on the dates of art made by the San, linguist Shigeru Miyagawa believes that artistic expression emerged in Africa earlier than 125,000 years ago. 7

Consistent with the archaeological finds is recently discovered evidence that the globular brain shape of modern humans first appears in the archaeological record around 130,000 years ago. 8 Some anthropologists believe that the globular brain shape correlates with the brain structures needed for symbolic expression. Interestingly enough, the Neanderthal brain shape was more elongated. This elongation forced a size reduction in the areas of the brain needed for symbolism. Nevertheless, claims of Neanderthal artistic expression abound in popular literature and appear in scientific journals, but a number of studies question these claims. 9

When researchers assemble all the evidence from the fossil and archaeological records , a strong case can be made that only human beings display symbolism and open-ended generative capacity—scientific descriptors of the image of God. Of equal significance, the data also indicates that the origin of these two features occurs simultaneously and abruptly with our first appearance in the fossil record.

Far from challenging the biblical account of human origins and the biblical perspective on human nature, cave art demonstrates the scientific credibility of the biblical text—and this evidence is on full display for everyone to see.

44,000-Year-Old Indonesian Cave Painting Is Rewriting The History Of Art

The scene found in Indonesia shows, among other things, hunters confronting a wild buffalo with ropes and spears.

Scientists say they have found the oldest known figurative painting, in a cave in Indonesia. And the stunning scene of a hunting party, painted some 44,000 years ago, is helping to rewrite the history of the origins of art.

Until recently, the long-held story was that humans started painting in caves in Europe. For example, art from the Chauvet Cave in France is dated as old as 37,000 years.

But several years ago, a group of scientists started dating cave paintings in Indonesia — and found that they are thousands of years older.

"They are at least 40,000 years old, which was a very, very surprising discovery," says Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Australia's Griffith University. He and his colleagues used a technique called uranium-series analysis to determine the paintings' age. The oldest figurative painting in those analyses was a striking image of a wild cow.


Indonesian Caves Hold Oldest Figurative Painting Ever Found, Scientists Say

These works had been known for years by locals on the island of Sulawesi — but Brumm adds that "it was assumed they couldn't be that old."

Since that big reveal, Brumm's team — which he led with archaeologists Maxime Aubert and Adhi Agus Oktaviana — has been searching for more art in these caves. In 2017, they found something breathtaking — the massive hunting scene, stretching across about 16 feet of a cave wall. And after testing it, they say it's the oldest known figurative art attributed to early modern humans. They published their findings in the journal Nature.

The painting tells a complicated story. It depicts jungle buffaloes and wild pigs pursued by tiny hunters with spears and ropes.

The painting found on the island of Sulawesi depicts a complex scene of a hunting party. Adam Brumm/Nature hide caption

The painting found on the island of Sulawesi depicts a complex scene of a hunting party.

"They appear to be human, but they seem to have some features or characteristics of animals," Brumm says. One appears to have a birdlike head, and another has a tail. He says these part-human, part-animal figures might signal early religious beliefs, because they indicate that ancient humans could imagine things they had never seen.

"We can't know if it has anything to do with spirituality, but at least we can say that those artists were capable of the sorts of conceptualizations that we need in order to believe in religion, to believe in the existence of the supernatural," he says.

Brumm says discoveries in Asia have complicated what we know about when — and where — humans started to make figurative art. There are some older examples of humans making simpler markings, like zigzags or circles.

"I think the discoveries that have been emerging over the last few years is suggesting that our understanding of the human story, that key part of the human story, is still being revised as we speak and there could be some big changes in store," he adds.

Genevieve von Petzinger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Victoria, says the discoveries in her field are happening very quickly, thanks to newer technology such as the technique used to date the hunting scene. "I think the overall theme here really is that we've vastly underestimated the capacity of our ancestors," she says.

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Cave Art May Have Been Handiwork Of Neanderthals

She says the oldest cave paintings in Europe and Asia have common elements. And she thinks that even older paintings will eventually be found in the place where both groups originated from.

"Personally, I think that our ancestors already knew how to do art before they left Africa," von Petzinger says.

While not everyone in the field agrees, and no figurative cave art in Africa has been dated older than the Indonesian works, Brumm says he has the same gut feeling.

But even as Indonesia is emerging as an important location for early art, the paintings are rapidly deteriorating and the scientists don't know why. "It is such a huge and important part of the human story. Yet it's literally crumbling away before our eyes," Brumm says.

Brumm and his colleagues are trying to figure out the cause of the problem. He says one theory is that higher temperatures in the caves due to climate change are harming the art.

Brumm says the deterioration — in one case, by about an inch every two months — is making their work to survey these sites feel particularly urgent. "Who knows what other amazing cave art is out there at some site that can change our understanding of human evolution?"

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