Origin of Art part 2: First Art

(Last Updated On: June 20, 2023)

first art - AltamiraScience Fact: Our search for the first art began with a look at the first artists. Now we’ll look at the evidence they left us, in hopes of finding the very origin of art on Earth.

Archaeology, the study of past human activity, is a very broad and demanding field. When we discuss some artifacts from the past, we are reaching into an extensive landscape and selecting just a few of many gems. That landscape was painstakingly assembled by the work of thousands of scientists – 7,200 in the US alone – especially during the last 300 years.

Anyone can discover an artifact. However, the scientist wants to understand it, place it into context, and see what it tells us about its people, place and time. We’d like to know everything about an object: where it came from; where it has been since then; who made it; why it was made; how it was made; who used it, and how it was used. Even a single research report may draw upon geology, geography, anthropology, chemistry, isotope dating, metallurgy, x-ray analysis, electron microscopy and of course statistical analysis. When we peek at a tiny bit of evidence of the first art, we should do so with a sense of awe at the many lifetimes of scientific work that were required to make it available to us.

We will now search for the first art with a series of examples, starting with the recent past, then marching our way back into prehistory.

Example A, 2,000 years ago: Roman Mosaic

first art - Herculaneum

In 79 CE, roughly two thousand years ago, there was an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which is located five miles east of Naples, Italy. It buried the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum under 13 to 20 feet of volcanic ash and pumice. Thousands of people perished and the towns were lost until their rediscovery in 1599 and 1738 respectively. The excavations revealed a snapshot of life in the Roman Empire, including wall paintings, mosaics and sculptures. The image above shows a beautiful wall mosaic showing Neptune and Amphitrite in Herculaneum, within house #22, known as the “House of Neptune and Amphitrite,” courtesy of user “AlMare.”

Example B, 2,000 years ago: Roman Sculpture

first art - Augustus

The image above is “Augustus of Prima Porta.” It is an idealized marble sculpture of the Emperor Augustus, dating from approximately 20 BCE. It is now on display in the Vatican Museums, and this photo is courtesy of photographer “Till Niermann.”

Example C, 4,600 years ago: Egyptian Sculpture

first art - Khafre

Let’s reach twice as far back in time. We could go to China or to Egypt, both of which had well-developed civilizations with the wealth and the desire to create beautiful work. This image is a funerary statue of the Pharaoh Khafre, who reigned in 2570 BCE. The status is made of anorthosite gneiss and was found at the temple of Khafra, Giza. It is currently on display in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, and the photograph is courtesy of Jon Bodsworth and Jeff Dahl.

Example D, 40,000 to 14,000 years ago: Cave Paintings

first art - Altamira

Next, we’ll take a huge jump with our backward-looking time machine. Early humans have left us many cave paintings, ranging from 40,000 to 14,000 years in age. This image of a bison comes from the Cave of Altamira, in northern Spain, courtesy of user “Ramessos.”

Example E, 30,000 to 27,000 years ago: The Woman of Willendorf

first art - Venus of Willendorf

From the same time as some of the cave paintings comes a famous sculpture, the Venus of Willendorf, also known as Woman of Willendorf. This limestone carving was named after the Austrian village of Willendorf, near the town of Krems, where the figure was discovered. This is the most famous of a large number of female statuettes that have survived from the Paleolithic Era. The purpose of these figurines is subject to speculation, but their resemblance to human figures is unquestionable. This sculpture is now in the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, and the image above is courtesy of photographer “MattiasKabel.”

Example F, 70,000 years ago: Neanderthal Flint from Quneitra, Golan Heights

first art - Quneitra

Now we jump again, twice as far into the past, and the record becomes murkier. The image above is my freehand drawing of a piece of flint discovered at Quneitra, an archaeological site on the Golan Heights. Quneitra lies within the UN-supervised demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria. This piece of flint is described in a 1990 book by Prof. Goren-Inbar at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

As shown, this object has parallel grooves, incised with a sharp object. To my unscholarly eye, the design looks like the neck and shoulders of a draped toga or blouse. However, it greatly pre-dates woven fabrics, so that is just my imagination at work.

This artifact is remarkable not only for its age and its maker: we will see that other examples of engraved objects from this time bear straight lines in a zigzag pattern; this carving is unique in showing a pattern of curved as well as straight lines.

Scholars have studied not only this piece of flint, but also the site within which it was found. They have noodled and discussed, and concluded that the markings on this stone were probably made by a person. Surprisingly, based on associated sediments and bones, the person is a Neanderthal – Homo neanderthalis – this is not the work of our subspecies, Homo sapiens, like all the previous examples.

As noted in last week’s blog, the Neanderthals are not our direct ancestors; thus Homo sapiens does not have a monopoly on the creation of drawings and designs. However, as noted in the Part 1 blog, due to interbreeding we do carry some of their genes. If we accept this carving as a work of art, the family of first artists has members beyond our exclusive club of Homo sapiens, however those are members with whom we share some genetic material.

You don’t need to take my word for all this, based on my simple drawing of the artifact. You can see a fine photograph of this object at the Israel National Treasures website and see whether you think that my drawing adequately represents this artifact.

As a law-obliging blogger, I prefer not to use copyrighted images without permission. Researchers are generally generous with their permissions, but institutions are not. Since the owners of this image believe that even nonprofit websites like this one should pay $30 to $60 for the right to show an image, I prefer to show you just the highlights, and provide a link to a better photo as I have done above.

Even More Neanderthals! The rock drawing shown above is not the only example of art work or craft work by Neanderthals in Europe and Asia. The floor of a cave in Gibraltar has a drawing resembling a tic-tac-toe pattern that has been dated to 39,000 years ago. And eagle talons discovered in Croatia show evidence that the Neanderthals notched and polished them for use as jewelry, 130,000 years ago.

Our own subspecies homo sapiens first appeared about 200,000 years ago in Africa. Since early men interbred with Neanderthals, both groups had considerable interaction and may have influenced one another in the production of tools, weapons and even art.

Example G, 75,000 years ago: Homo sapiens Ochre from Blombos Cave, South Africa

first art - Blombos Cave

From the same time frame as the Quneitra flint comes another piece of mineral with engraved lines. It’s a chunk of ochre, a natural earth pigment that was used for cave paintings and that also forms a soft mineral that can be polished and carved.

The object above comes from Blombos Cave, on the southeastern coast of South Africa. This is not a unique artifact like the Quneitra flint, which could have been produced by a single amazing person, a Picasso of the Neanderthals. On the contrary, Blombos Cave has yielded more than 8,000 pieces of ochre, of which a number were deliberately smoothed and incised by their prehistoric handlers.

The artifact above, almost four inches long, was smoothed by scraping and grinding, then etched with the cross-hatch pattern sketched above. Is this art? It is certainly an abstract and regular design, and shows markings analogous to those seen on the Quneitra flint. If artist Sol LeWitt made this object, it might garner some mystified stares, but would certainly qualify for exhibition in a modern museum.

The excellent photo above, including the sketch of the etching, is a 2002 image provided by courtesy of Chris. S. Henshilwood.

Example H, 110,000 years ago: Homo sapiens Ochre from Klasies River Cave, South Africa

first art - Klasies River Cave

This is my drawing of another piece of ochre, also by Homo sapiens, and also from South Africa. This artifact comes from the Klasies River Caves and is substantially older than the previous example. The cross-hatched lines are similar in nature but less elaborate. In this case also, I had difficulty in obtaining permission for the original photo, so if you want to see the item itself I need to refer you to a NBC News article.

Example I, 450,000 years ago: Homo erectus Shell from Trinil, Java

First Art - Trinil Shell

This engraved shell is substantially older than the previous examples. The markings were made by a predecessor of ours, Homo erectus, almost half a million years ago, far in advance of our own subspecies. The photos here are used by permission. They were taken by photographer Wim Lustenhouwer of VU University and come from work reported in Nature by Dr. José (Josephine) Joordens of Leiden University, the Netherlands, and her colleagues. The research was reported by Discovery and other news media.

The story of this artifact’s discovery is fascinating. In the 1890s a Dutch geologist, Eugene Dubois, collected many fossils at Trinil, Indonesia. Among those were fossilized freshwater clam shells, which sat in a museum without much study until 2008. That year, archaeologist Josephine Joordens was re-examining the Dubois shells and invited a visiting PhD student, Stephen Munro, to look at them. Munro had only a few days, so he photographed many shells for later study. A week later, he sent Dr. Joordens an e-mail asking about some strange markings on one of the shells. The shell in question is shown above.

Archaeologists have keen vision and can readily discern the differences between normal growth marks on a shell and the kinds of lines left by a human hand. In case your eyesight, like mine, is not so skilled, here’s Dr. Joorden’s sketch of the man- (or woman-) made markings, plus a close-up photo of them.

First Art - sketch of Trinil shell

First Art - Trinil shell close-upThe site at which this shell was found had a large number of unmarked shells and shark’s teeth. Many of the unmarked shells had a hole drilled through them at the location of the clam’s adductor muscle. The researchers were able to produce similar holes in modern clams using fossilized shark’s teeth, and the drilling of the holes damaged the clam’s muscle so that the shell opened. They believe that the early men at this site used the shark’s teeth as tools to open the clams for food.

Since the site had both clam shells and shark’s teeth, the researchers wondered whether the person who engraved the shell used a readily available shark’s tooth to make the drawing. They made sample scratches on similar shells using a shark’s tooth, a flint point and a steel scalpel. They concluded that the markings on the archaeological specimen had most likely been made with a shark’s tooth. Perhaps an ancient shell-processing human, having already enjoyed lunch, spent an idle moment scratching a doodle on an empty shell, for amusement or for self-expression. If so, this is a remarkably early example of a drawing or design that does not appear to serve any practical purpose.

Example G was one of a number of similarly decorated artifacts. In contrast, Examples H and I are, thus far, unique examples. Perhaps other examples exist and will be found; or perhaps these are the works of unusual individuals, Rembrandts of their own time.

Example J, 2.5 million years ago: Australopithecus afarensis Pebble from Makapansgat

first art - Makapansgat pebble

The photo, which is courtesy of Prof. Robert Bednarik, shows a rock that looks remarkably like a human face, being examined under a microscope. The rock is reddish-brown in color, and the UK Natural History Museum has some nice images of it, which can usually be located by searching for item number 013061. Additional information and images such as Wikipedia’s article may be found by searching “Makapansgat pebble.”

This last example is different from all the others in a number of ways:
– The object is a water-worn pebble of jasperite that was collected and left by one of the Great Apes – Australopithecus afarensis – a species that is not even one of our distant ancestors.
– Two and a half million years ago an ape saw this natural stone and thought it important enough to transport more than twenty miles to the site where it was found in modern times – Brian Wildeman has written about this.
– It’s the consensus of the researchers who have studied this object that it was not fabricated by living creatures; nevertheless, someone found it interesting enough to keep and transport a considerable distance. Such an item is known as a “manuport.”

Science Speculation: What you see above are the facts as we know them today. Of course, many more artistic artifacts exist and are yet to be discovered.

Now, however, we will proceed into speculation, about what was going on inside the mind of the long-dead first artists.

Artistic Intent

As we look at artifacts that have been preserved from thousands of years ago, we need to refer back to the definition of Art we have chosen to use here. Just to remind you, it was given in Part 1 of this blog post as:

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.

The definition includes a not-so-hidden hand grenade: the word “intended.” Within our definition, either the artist or the artist’s patron intends someone to appreciate the work of art; that someone may, of course, be the artist himself or herself. We can learn something about the intent of contemporary artists, and may infer the intent of the artists of ancient Rome or Egypt. However, as we go back in time our ability to surmise intent becomes more and more fuzzy.

Art, or Doodle?

The dilemma of definition is crisply illustrated by two news headlines highlighting the discovery of Example I, the Homo erectus shell from half a million years ago:
National Geographic: World’s Oldest Art Identified in Half-Million-Year-Old Zigzag: Our Homo erectus ancestors may have been smarter and more creative than we thought.
Ars Technica: Ancient doodle hints that Homo erectus was smarter than we thought: Etchings found on a shell discovered in Java but overlooked for decades.

Art, or doodle? The NPR headline doesn’t choose, but instead covers all bets: Earliest Human Engraving Or Trash From An Ancient Lunch?

Other headlines use such words as zigzags, etching, carving, markings – you can find a wealth of these stories if you search the name of the photographer, Wim Lustenhouwer. But “doodle” is as good a word as any to avoid calling the earliest drawings “art.”

Doodles are absentminded drawings. Why do people doodle? Typically, to busy their hands while their primary attention is elsewhere. Doodles are often not intended for appreciation by anyone except the doodler. They may be abstract, or detailed drawings, or just about anything else.

Although doodles are absentminded, they clearly express something that is going on inside the doodler – why else does the hand choose to draw that particular shape rather than another? Therefore, if we allow unconscious intent as well as conscious intent within our definition of art, the definitional dilemma goes away: doodles also constitute art.

Creation, or Recognition?

Doodles may be easy to dispose of, but what of the “selected” object represented by Example J above? It certainly looks like a human head, even if it has that appearance simply as an accident of nature.

If someone selects an object and chooses to display it because it has meaning to him, does that make it art? Before you say “no,” recall Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades,” found objects that he chose and exhibited as art in order to question the fundamental assumptions of the art of his time (1915).

Who is to say that the mental processes of a long-ago Great Ape are inferior to that of a modern (one hundred years ago) conceptual artist? We simply have no way to know.

First Art: The Scorecard

With these thoughts under our belt, to what extent do the artifacts of the past show us the first art and first artists? I invite your own assessment, but here’s mine:

First Art of our Western European Civilization: Our civilization in Europe and the Americas derives benefit from many different cultures, but its norms, values and customs are strongly influenced by ancient Greece and Rome. Thus in the context of Western culture, the first art would derive from about 800 BCE, some 2,800 years ago. Examples A and B are easily recognizable by us as “art” in the modern sense.

First Art that is Figurative: For many people, art needs to look like something, what we call representational or figurative art. The earliest figurative art, from 40,000 years ago, is very simple; during the next ten or twenty thousand years it evolved into the easily recognized forms of Examples D and E.

Most Innovative Early Art: As noted above, Example F from Quneitra is notable not only for having been produced by a Neanderthal, but for a design that includes both curved and straight lines. It requires more manual control, and a different intent, to create a pattern like Example F compared with simple cross-hatching.

First Art of Homo sapiens: If we limit ourselves to our own species, the first art we know of is Example H above, from 110,000 years ago. This is a single example; we might be tempted to dismiss these scratchy marks as an aberration, but that would be a mistake. Example G and many similar pieces from Blombos Cave show that cross-hatched marks on ochre constituted a continuing and evolving art form. In fact, these caves were a rich source of ochre, a red pigment which prehistoric humans may have used to decorate their weapons, tools, animal skins, dwelling areas and even their own bodies. Example H may be the earliest that we know of, but it’s certainly not the only representative of a tradition of decoration, design, art, whatever you choose to call it.

First Art of a Human Ancestor: The first art that we know of, produced by an ancestor of our own species, is Example I above, the engraved clam shell from Java. The researchers have done a thorough job of studying this specimen; it seems clear that a Homo erectus individual had some leisure time, had materials and tools close at hand, and chose to create a design. And the design that he or she made – cross-hatched straight lines – seems to anticipate the more elaborate but similar patterns made much later and shown in Examples G and H.

First “Readymade” Art: We can push the calendar back still farther if we embrace a broader version of art. 2.5 million years ago, a Great Ape that is not directly related to us saw a pebble that looked like a human head, picked it up and transported it. If we think of early primates as exclusively concerned with food and mating in a hazardous world, we don’t give them enough credit. They may not, so far as we know, have been fabricating art themselves; however, apparently they had the wit to recognize it when they saw it. So it’s not asking too much to credit them as the first artists, who found the first art and valued it enough to keep it and carry it with them.

This ends our search for the first artists and the first art, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Giving well-deserved credit to the many scientists who brought us to this level of understanding, we can echo Isaac Newton and say, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

What do you think motivated the first artists to create the first art?

Image credits:

Example A: Wall mosaic showing Neptune and Amphitrite in Herculaneum, within house #22, known as the “House of Neptune and Amphitrite,” courtesy of user “AlMare.”

Example B: Augustus of Prima Porta, on display at the Vatican Museums, courtesy of photographer “Till Niermann.”

Example C: Khafre Enthroned, on display in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Photograph courtesy of Jon Bodsworth and Jeff Dahl.

Example D and Featured Image: Image of a bison from the Cave of Altamira, courtesy of user “Ramessos.”

Example E: The Venus of Willendorf (Woman of Willendorf), on display in the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Image courtesy of photographer “MattiasKabel.”

Example F: Drawing by Art Chester, based on published images of the engraved flint found at Quneitra, Golan Heights, and documented by Prof. Naama Goren-Inbar of Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Example G: Engraved ochre object from Blombos Cave, 2002 photo courtesy of Chris. S. Henshilwood.

Example H: Drawing by Art Chester, based on published reports on an engraved ochre fragment found at Klasies River Cave 1, South Africa, and documented by Prof. Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux, France.

Example I: Three photographs by Wim Loutenhouwer of VU university as reported in Nature by Dr. Josephine Joordens et al, used by permission of Dr. Joordens.

Example J: Pebble discovered at the Makapansgat Site in South Africa, being examined under a microscope. Photo courtesy of Robert Bednarik, The Earliest Evidence of Palaeoart, 2003, figure 22, used with permission.


Origin of Art part 2: First Art — 2 Comments

  1. Charles, you’re right of course. Historians and critics discussing a contemporary painting or novel may spend many words puzzling over the intent of the artist, even when the artist leaves a written explanation. How much harder is it to discern the mental workings of a non-literate long-dead Great Ape? And this “pebble” is heavy enough to stun a rabbit or bash in someone’s skull, so non-artistic interpretations are certainly plausible. – Art

  2. Ascribing “intent” to how a pre-human dealt with a (pre)historical artifact is in the pure speculation area. So the Makapansgat Pebble, while indeed possessing what looks to us modern humans as a kind of face, could easily have other explanations. For example, the “pebble” was 260 grams, or about 9 ounces, almost half a pound. In that era, a pre-human’s first weapon-of-choice almost certainly would have been a rock, and their use of it as a weapon would definitely have been to throw it. Modern chimpanzees have such skills, and use them when trying to repel invaders or dangerous predators. It’s not unreasonable to think that if a pre-human were to go exploring or hunting, that they might carry several rocks of the right shape and size so they would be immediately available at-hand in case of danger, and not require a search. This could account for why an early primate might transport it some considerable distance.

    I’m not trying to say such a primate might not have liked something about the rock, so it became his “favorite rock” or “lucky rock” and perhaps for reasons he didn’t even understand … just that it may not have been for reasons which connect to art as we know it or motives we at first suspect.