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2.1: The Development of Art (45,000 BCE - 500 CE)

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    Throughout the early stages of human civilization, significant artistic advancement was observed across various cultures and regions worldwide. From prehistoric cave paintings to the magnificent architecture of the great empires in Asia, Europe, and the Americas, ancient art serves as a reflection of our ancestors' beliefs, values, and culture. The intricate details and symbolism found within these forms of art provide a unique insight into the cultural practices of our forefathers, allowing us to better understand the historical context surrounding their lives and the world they lived in.

    In 2014, researchers announced the discovery of shell engravings at Trinil, a site in Java, Indonesia, linked to Homo erectus. The engravings were found on freshwater shells, including Pseudodon and freshwater mussels, and consisted of zig-zag patterns (2.1.1) and lines etched into the surfaces. The researchers used several dating methods to determine that the shells were between 430,000 and 540,000 years old. Engraved shells created by Homo Erectus dating as far back as 500,000 years ago have been found, although experts disagree on whether these engravings can be appropriately classified as 'art.'[1] The discovery of these engravings provides evidence that Homo erectus had the cognitive ability to produce abstract patterns. It suggests that early humans may have had a capacity for symbolic thinking much earlier than previously thought. The question is whether this shell with geometric carving can be considered art. It would make this shell the oldest artistic expression in the hominid's world. Some researchers see it more as a design; however, it would be a stretch to call it art. The design was purposeful and deliberate; therefore, it should be considered art, however rudimentary.

    White shell with lines excised into the top

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Pseudodon shell, ca. 500,000 BCE (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The early development of art is a fascinating subject that takes us back hundreds of thousands of years to a time when humans were beginning to evolve into the beings we are today. It is believed that the earliest form of art dates to around 45,000 years ago, when humans began to create cave paintings in Europe. One of the earliest and most enduring forms of ancient art is cave painting which can be found from Europe to Africa to Asia. One of the most famous examples of this art is the Lascaux cave paintings in southwestern France. These paintings date back over 17,000 years and depict a range of animals, including horses, bulls, and deer. The cave paintings of Altamira in Spain, which are slightly older, are also incredibly well-preserved and provide us with a glimpse into the lives and beliefs of our prehistoric ancestors. They were made by early humans who used charcoal, ochre, and other natural materials to create images of animals, people, and abstract shapes on the cave walls. These paintings provide a window into the early development of human art and creativity.

    Cave Art

    One of the most striking things about these cave paintings is their realism. The animals are depicted in great detail, with their muscles, fur, and movements captured with remarkable accuracy. This suggests that the early humans who created these paintings had a keen eye for observation and could represent the world around them accurately and aesthetically pleasingly. Another exciting aspect of these cave paintings is their use of color. The early humans who created these paintings (2.1.3) used various colors to create their images, including red, black, yellow, and white. These colors were made from natural materials such as clay, ochre, and charcoal and were applied using brushes made from animal hair or plant fibers.

    Outline of hands using earth colors on the side of a rock outcrop
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): De la Cueva de las Manos, Argentina (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

    The cave paintings are a fascinating subject matter, depicting animals like bison, horses, and deer, which were crucial food sources for early humans. Additionally, some paintings showcase abstract shapes and patterns that may have had spiritual or symbolic meanings. One theory suggests that these paintings were used in spiritual ceremonies, with early humans believing that by representing the animals they hunted, they could gain control over them or access their spiritual power. This theory is supported by the fact that many paintings are situated deep within the caves, indicating that they were created for private rituals rather than public display.

    The creation of these cave paintings was a significant development in human history. It shows that early humans were focused on survival and wanted to express themselves creatively and create beautiful and meaningful art. It also suggests that early humans had a rich cultural and spiritual life that was not just about practical concerns but also about more abstract ideas and concepts.

    Why Was Art Developed?

    The early development of art 45,000 years ago is an important moment in human history. It shows us that creativity and artistic expression have been crucial to human culture for tens of thousands of years. The cave paintings created by early humans are a testament to their artistic skill, keen observation of the world around them, and desire to create something beautiful and meaningful. They remind us that art is not just a luxury but a fundamental part of what it means to be human. Early humans were no exception to this, and they created art for various reasons. Art, in its various forms, has played an essential role in human society from the earliest times to the present day.

    In the early days of human existence, art served as a powerful tool for communication. Our ancestors utilized artistic expression to convey important messages, thoughts, emotions, and beliefs to their communities. One of the most notable forms of early art was cave paintings, which depicted animals, hunting scenes, and various rituals. It is believed that these paintings were used to communicate important information such as hunting strategies, prey location, and the significance of traditions to the community. Through art, early humans were able to express themselves in a way that was both meaningful and effective, allowing them to share their values and ideas with others. Today, we continue to appreciate the value of art as a means of communication and self-expression.

    Early humans had various reasons for creating art, including spiritual or religious purposes. Many ancient artifacts and cave paintings discovered have religious significance, honoring gods, ancestors, or other spiritual entities. These art forms may have been used to invoke the power of these entities or as part of rituals and ceremonies. Additionally, early humans created art for aesthetic reasons, appreciating the beauty of the natural world and expressing it through their art. Some of the earliest art forms, such as figurines and sculptures, were created for their beauty and elegance. These portable objects were often intricately carved and decorated using materials such as stone, bone, and ivory.

    Art also served as a way for early humans to record their history. Paintings, sculptures, and other art forms depict important events and people. For example, ancient Egyptian art depicts the lives of pharaohs and their conquests (2.1.4), while Greek art depicts actual events such as battles and sporting events. These artworks serve as a historical record of the past and provide insight into the lives of ancient people.

    engraving depicting the first dynasty king Narmer uniting Egypt made from sillstone
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Narmar Palette (Public Domain)

    In addition to these reasons, art also served a social function. Art was used as a means of socialization and identity formation. It was a way for early humans to express their individuality, creativity, and connection to their community. For example, cave paintings created by early humans were often made in groups and may have served as a way to strengthen social bonds.

    Art also played a role in early human development. The act of creating art helped to develop cognitive and motor skills. Early humans learned how to manipulate materials and design objects, which helped to develop their problem-solving abilities. Making art also helped develop fine motor skills, such as hand-eye coordination and dexterity. Art's significance in early humans' lives cannot be overstated. Art was an integral part of their culture and played a crucial role in their development as a species.

    [1] "Shell 'art' made 300,000 years before humans evolved – New Scientist". New Scientist.