Origin of Art part 1: First Artists

(Last Updated On: October 17, 2018)

first artistsScience Fact: In this blog we will apply science to find the origin of art, and search for the first artists on Earth.

Asking about the origin of art is like opening a doorway into other dimensions. When we look for the first artists, it’s easy to get sucked into a whirlpool of evolution, popular culture, psychology, esthetics, anthropology, archaeology and even philosophy.

We’re not going to follow all those byroads. Instead, we will take a systematic, hopefully scientific approach. The first part of the discussion, today’s blog post, will define a framework for searching out the origin of art and the first artists. Next week’s post will look at the (pre)historical evidence and see what can be postulated or concluded about the first art, and the first artists who created it.

Art Versus Science

Art and science are uneasy co-habitants on the planet. For example, in 1967 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art embarked on a four-year Art and Technology program. The project’s progress report reveals how difficult it was to negotiate the economic, aesthetic and reputational goals of the museum, the artists and the companies asked to provide the technology.

As a viewer of the finished artworks at LACMA, I perceived a different sort of disconnect: the art pieces using complicated technology were inoperative most of the time. Only the works using the most basic science were usually in viewable condition. For example, a popular piece was Robert Rauschenberg’s Mud Muse, a nine-by-twelve foot vat of mud, four feet deep, through which air was bubbled in response to sounds within the gallery. If you’re interested, you can hear the bubbling sounds HERE.

However you look at it, there is a cultural gap between art and science that is almost impossible to bridge. With Rodgers and Hammerstein we might ask:

How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? … How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?

The Definition of Art

If we want to find the first artists, we need to know what we mean by art in the context of our discussion. How wide is the net we’re casting, anyway?

The word “Art” has a number of meanings. We can immediately eliminate Art as in Art Chester and as an archaic form of the verb to be (e.g., “How Great Thou Art”). We can also cull out “skill acquired through practice” (“the art of conversation”), “an occupation requiring skill” (“the art of organ building”), and “skillful plan” (“they employed every art to soothe…”). Among the relevant meanings, here’s what I extract from Merriam-Webster and the Oxford Dictionaries:

Art is the application of imagination and skill to create something intended to be appreciated for its beauty or its emotive power. Art is most often used to describe visual forms such as painting or sculpture, but by extension is also applied to other creative activities.

Note that although the craft of tool-making may also be considered art, non-human animals also construct and use tools. Thus tools themselves don’t necessarily indicate the work of an artist.

Creation, Cosmology and Evolution

In our discussion of the first artists, we will need to touch on the origin of intelligent humans, or, as we call ourselves, “wise man,” Homo sapiens. [Are we misnamed? Let’s defer that question for another occasion.]

Every culture has a tradition that describes how the universe and mankind were created. The fact that scholars use the term “creation myths” does not imply that these stories should be dismissed as fictitious. On the contrary, they are generally held to convey deep truths, whether symbolic, metaphorical or literal.

Scientists themselves form a culture, as has been commented on by Richard Feynman. Those who want to think about what this really means would benefit from the view of an outsider’s view of European scientific culture, as expressed in a lecture by Prof. Sengupta of India. Suffice it to say here that Cosmology and Evolution constitute a creation myth for Western scientific culture.

Of course, science is not the only viewpoint. Those who favor a literal reading of the book of Genesis estimate the age of the universe at around 6,000 years and reject notions that mankind took eons to evolve all the way up from unicellular life forms. However, they recognize the existence of the fossil record. They explain it by proposing that when the Creator did his seven day’s work, he not only created the birds and the beasts, he also provided a few billion years worth of bones and artifacts in the ground. The Creator’s motives are not known to man. Perhaps for his own reasons he wanted to provide material that scientists could use to develop their own story of Creation, or perhaps he provided a fictitious record as a test of faith. [A Creationist would probably capitalize “he” and “his” in the previous few sentences.]

We have previously discussed that science does not, or at least should not, hold “beliefs.” A scientist, as an individual, may have faith, but should not confuse it with the analytical approach prescribed by science. For example, a scientist may choose to “believe” in the “truth” of Evolution as a matter of personal faith. However, if he does so, he has no moral ground on which to criticize a person who holds another faith, such as Creationism.

Faith derives from evidence, such as revelation or teachings; however, it does not rely upon proof. Science, on the other hand, is always questioning, always looking to prove or disprove a proposition. Science does this by adopting theories that appear to be useful, meaning theories that make predictions that turn out to agree with experiment. Scientists should be willing to discard them when they are disproven or superseded by better theories. (However, this does not generally happen smoothly.)

To seek the origin of art, we will look within the framework of Evolution. Not Evolution as a system that we assert to be true, but Evolution as a theory that appears to explain many features of the fossil record. We don’t need to choose whether Evolution truly describes the creation of humankind (I lean this way), or whether Evolution is a fictitious record left by an indulgent Creator for our study. Either way, we can work within Evolution’s framework and ask what the fossilized record suggests about how, and why, human beings came to make art.

Timeline for the First Artists

To learn something about the first artists, we need to fit them into the evolutionary record. What follows is an extremely compressed timeline for the emergence of people, including the first artists:
– 3.5 billion years ago: Prokaryotes (single-celled organisms)
– 2.1 billion years ago: Eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus)
– 590 million years ago: Animals
– 530 million years ago: Vertebrates
– 220 million years ago: Mammals
– 75 million years ago: Primates
– 15 million years ago: Great Apes (Hominid family)
– 2.5 million years ago: Humans (genus Homo)

The last two categories include many now-extinct subspecies. In our search for the first artists, there are only four of these subspecies that we need to take note of, as we shall now see.

Portrait of the First Artists

Australopithecus afarensis (“southern ape of the Afar region [of Ethiopa]”):

first artists - afarensis

One of the later Great Apes, A. afarensis lived in East Africa from 3.9 to 2.9 million years ago. The famous fossil “Lucy,” discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, belongs to this subspecies. This creature resembled a modern chimpanzee, but walked upright like a modern human. Males averaged 4’11”, females 3’5”. So far as we know, they did not make toolsThe reconstruction shown above is from a display at the CosmoCaixa Science Museum in Barcelona (courtesy of user “1997”). This photo may resemble some of the first artists, although it does not look like any artists I have met.

Homo erectus (“upright man”):

first artists - Homo erectus

Homo erectus lived in East Africa and Eurasia from 1.9 million to 70 thousand years ago. This early species of man used primitive tools and, by about 700,000 years ago, also used fire to bake clay vessels. Its height ranged from 4’9” to 6’1”. The reconstruction above was exhibited in 2006 at Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany (courtesy of user “lillyundfreya”).

Homo neanderthalensis (“Neanderthal man,” after its discovery in the Neander valley of Germany):

first artists - Neanderthal

Neanderthals lived throughout Europe from 400,000 to 50,000 years ago. The Human Origins website says:

“Neanderthals made and used a diverse set of sophisticated tools, controlled fire, lived in shelters, made and wore clothing, were skilled hunters of large animals and also ate plant foods, and occasionally made symbolic or ornamental objects. There is evidence that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead and occasionally even marked their graves with offerings, such as flowers.”

Neanderthal males averaged 5’5” in height, the females 5’1”.

Although the Neanderthals were not primary ancestors of modern humans, genetic studies show that they did contribute to our DNA, presumably through interbreeding. The model above of an adult Neanderthal male comes from a display in the Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., courtesy of user “Tim1965”.

Homo sapiens (“wise man”): This, our own species, arose in Africa around 200,000 years ago. With a lighter build and larger brain that its predecessors, H. sapiens spread rapidly and eventually took over from all earlier forms of genus Homo. Our species is listed as of “least concern” on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which seems to represent the triumph of optimism over logic. We are all familiar with many examples of this species.

In next week’s blog post we shall see that, surprisingly, all four of these early hominids may be considered among the first artists.

Science Speculation. The definition of art given above is an idealized one, one that treats art as an integral part of being human. However, the creation of art can’t be separated from other activities.

Art requires the expenditure of resources, time or money that could be otherwise employed. So it’s not surprising if we discover that the first artists (or the artists’ employers) have additional intent beyond self-expression. Motivations for making art that have been proposed include:
– Communication
– Entertainment
– Social or political change or subversion
– Social causes
– Healing and therapy
– Advertisement or propaganda
– To attract a mate

As we explore the origin of art and the first artists, we will look at the physical evidence that dates back before recorded history. Not only are the first artists long dead, they generally did not leave any records of what they were thinking. Therefore as we look at prehistoric examples, we will keep in mind not only the definition of what we mean by art, but also the motivations that may have helped inspire the first artists.

Next week’s blog will show examples of work by these first artists.

Do you think we can look at the work produced by the first artists and understand their motivations? Or are we simply projecting our own notions upon them?

Image credits:

Australopithecus afarensis, Reproducció d’una Australopithecus afarensis a Cosmocaixa, Barcelona, Catalunya. User/photographer: “1997”

Homo erectus cropped from plastische wissenschaftliche Rekonstruktion eines Homo erectus, Westfälisches Museum für Archäologie, Herne. User/photographer: Lillyundfreya

Homo neanderthalis: A model of an adult Neanderthal male head and shoulders on display in the Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. User/photographer: “Tim1965”

Featured image: Australopithecus afarensis, Reproducció d’una Australopithecus afarensis a Cosmocaixa, Barcelona, Catalunya. User/photographer: “1997”, plus the following additions from openclipart.org: beret from “Painter penguin” by Moini, and palette and brushes from “Paint Palette” by Arvin61r58.


Origin of Art part 1: First Artists — 7 Comments

  1. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because a friend posed the question of defining and detecting consciousness. I finally decided that the definition of consciousness is the ability to create a model of the world in one’s mind. And the only way to detect the presence of consciousness in the past (or in other species) is to look for evidence of an attempt to communicate that model to others. Historically, cave art. Today it can be pictorial, musical, mathematical, words, videos, etc.

    A scientist is a person for whom the accuracy of the mental model is paramount. For others, it may be the emotion or the aesthetics. In any case, I think it’s the attempt to communicate a mental model that defines art.

    • I’d like to modify that last sentence to recapitulate:

      I think it’s the the creation of a mental model of the world that defines consciousness and the attempt to communicate that mental model that defines art.

      • Thanks for those thoughtful comments, Monica.

        All definitions of art seem elusive to me, once you start applying them to specific cases. Consciousness as a prerequisite for art is attractive, yet some animals recognize themselves in mirrors, which some would think shows self-awareness if not consciousness; is this a world view for them? And doodles can be figurative or graphic but are usually assumed to not intend any communication to another person.

        Next week when we look at specific examples, including cave art, it will seem hard to decide where to draw the line, if one at all needs to be drawn, between art and non-art.

  2. What is art and why it is significant is an absorbing question and my answer in potted form as far as I can manage in my subjective opinion of how the mind works is as follows. People, especially in terms of the visual arts, very often see things differently from others in terms of colour, emphasis, and maybe even shape and detail, and presumably they become aware of this and try to get the way they see things over to others by representing their vision in pictorial terms (never mind later developments in 20th century art). At first, as in the case of Van Gogh, the rest of the world did not grasp at all what he was about, and then slowly his vision becomes accepted and understood to be a new and intriguing perspective of how reality can be experienced. In short it is a form of communication from one mind to another of a new way of looking at external reality.

    Science does the same as it progresses but in small rational steps that can be explained in a logical fashion, if only because the intuitive steps that are taken in the build up of a new theory from observations are probably many and small, leading up to a new and more detailed structure of understanding in the mind. The shape and significance of this new mental structure, which I believed is in some sort of holographic form projected from the firing neurons of the brain cells, is more capable of being described in words, or maybe mathematical symbols, and thus more easily distributed to anyone interested in the subject, and thus learning is relatively easily broad cast.

    Pictorial art, almost by definition, is far harder to explain and get across to others verbally, and usually enjoys a much larger jump in intuitive understanding. Having said that one of the best explanations of art I have read is “The Painted Word” by Tom Wolfe, who shows that art today has to be explained verbally to be properly appreciated. In fact I regard scientific theories and the way they are developed as a series of small intuitive jumps that the originator has made which can then be transmitted to others far more easily than the larger intuitive jumps made by artists to transmit their vision the way things are.

    Both science and art are means of communication: one is via large almost inexplicable, intuitive visual/pictorial jumps, and the other by smaller intuitive steps. Of course this also depends on the definition of intuition and how this operates on which I have yet another hypothesis which is too involved to explain here, other than to say that understanding is transmitted from one mind to another when the thought structure in the originator is transferred with some accuracy to be duplicated in the mind of the other.

    The difference between poetry and prose is much the same: the latter is put over in a sequence of small connected logical steps, whereas the former may seem at first to have little logic or even correct grammar attached to it, but which can conjure strong images in the minds of those receptive to such art. I have to say I prefer prose, and I prefer great new scientific explanations over great art, but then I am married to a wife who has made a living in the art world, and as a result, I now know and appreciate a little more about that subject than I did three decades ago.

    Faith enters the narrative above and I have thought about that staple of religion a fair amount over the years. If Christianity teaches that we have to have faith in a better life after death (from memory I seem to recall it does) then even though this cannot be explained by any observations of the after life, we have to have faith to accept it. My version of this is that although we do not know what happens after we die (do we live on in spirit etc.), then we have to have faith that there is something worth while to be achieved by good and constructive behaviour, and that there will be some sort of reward for all the strife encountered.

    In scientific terms I feel this translates to a belief that the whole of existence is not pointless and an arbitrary fluke, and that in the end if we persevere there will be a much better chance for perfect understanding of the reasons for the creation of the universe and life within it. But we do not know this yet and have to take it on faith, and in other words have to make this intuitive and optimistic assumption, which some, indeed many scientist such as the irascible but very articulate Richard Dawkins, maintain is rubbish. Mind you in scientific terms it is quite possible that before we reach this state of perfect understanding, the human race might be blotted out by a stray asteroid or a nuclear disaster, or even global warming, in which case, sanfairyann, there will be other intelligent life to take on the challenge, of that I have little doubt.

    • Nick, as always I appreciate your comments, which embrace a wide range of related topics.

      Tom Wolfe is an articulate and clever writer and always worth listening to. However, the early art that we will look at in the next blog defies (for me) descriptions by words. If a picture is worth N words, then a picture also replaces N words and supersedes them!


  3. Charles, you’re right, and thanks for pointing out the ephemeral aspect of many forms of artistic expression. Even music as recent as a couple of hundred years ago poses many questions: there are traditional ways to perform Baroque music (such as ornamentation and vibrato) that are handed down by master teachers because we don’t have period recordings, and the contemporary written descriptions are not sufficient. People study performance techniques and try to reconstruct them today. How much more difficult when the performer is tens of thousands of years in the past!

    It’s true that a functional item, furniture or computer app, may have artistic beauty as well as function, and these can’t be clearly separated. We usually consider that the tools animals construct and use are not art, but purely functional. If we want to link art to some human-like brain process, we look for the non-functional elements within the functional object. For example, a chair has to be useful as a chair; if it bears a few scratches we may assume that it was banged around; but if it has a pattern of marks that have symmetry or other clues to intentional design, we might ascribe that to artistic intent. However, if a craftsman makes an object beautiful solely because it will sell more easily, the craft process might be purely functional for the artisan – in that case, is the object still art?

    I think we would both agree that applying any kind of definition is very difficult! – Art

  4. One comment … the study of “art” when it comes to early humans necessarily leaves out all the more ephemeral forms which no doubt also existed. Examples include music using an instrument or the human voice, various forms of syncopation (drums), as well as deliberately temporary fabrications such as sand or chalk paintings. Anything that survives to present-day times will need to be semi-permanent such as expression in stone or else chemicals which were protected from weathering (paintings in caves). The difficulty is shared with Paleontology in that what we study represents only a tiny tip of a very large iceberg, and we must at our own risk extrapolate the few tidbits we find to try to illuminate what the past might have been like.

    I also distrust the distinction between art-as-emotive-expression from art-expressed-as-a-skill, because I doubt these can be differentiated even when the originator is available to interview to ask about their feelings as they were creating a piece. Almost anything can have elements of art in the creative sense which is incorporated into something that might have a traditional purpose, whether it is a chair fashioned by someone for daily living, or a computer program in more modern times. The issue concerns those contributions which are made which go beyond the simple approach of simply creating something useful, and begins to represent or reveal the creator’s identity and sense of being unique rather than ordinary.

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