Moment of Awakening: The Earliest Art

Everything that lives dies
and everything that lives
has three isotopes of carbon.
I do not pretend to understand
what an isotope is,
but I accept that
with death,
one of the three decays
while the other two remain stable
and from the fact of this simple change,
a date can be measured.

It means
if I find a flint
worked into the shape of a perfect axe
I can only guess its age,
but if close by
I find a bone,
something from a paint,
or best of all,
a speck of charcoal,
then I can fix the flint
to within one hundred years
of its making,
fifty at a pinch.

At the moment
the isotopes take me back
forty thousand years
but maybe that will become more,

Julia Blackburn, Time Songs (2019)

Our species has an artistic flair that goes back 80,000 years ago, although tangible evidence of art – sculptures of ivory and bone and cave wall paintings – date to around 40,000 years at the earliest, according to our current state of knowledge. This is still a very long time ago (470 lifespans of 85 years to be exact). It fascinates me to imagine our ancestors, perhaps huddled by a fire, happily making art, the first of its kind. We have been artists ever since.

Rock art can be dated. Until 2014, the oldest known rock art was thought to be in Europe, with France, Spain and Germany being sites for these marvelous works.  Now, we know that similar art forms existed in Asia, on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Astonishing, the rock art there (at over 39,000 years old) is even more ancient than those in Europe. This discovery was a game-changer and it firmly marks Asia as the cradle of the earliest known art forms.

What art did these early Sulawesi people leave behind? One group consists of stencils of human hands outlined in red, imprinted on cave walls, they seem like a billboard advertisement announcing: “we were here!”

A hand stencil dating back to at least 39,000 years old in a Sulawesi cave. The discovery was led a team helmed by Dr. Maxime Aubert from Griffith University, Australia. Their findings were published in the prestigious journal Nature in 2014. Credit: Kinez Riza.

But the most remarkable discovery was the sketch of a babirusa or pig-deer, once common in the surrounding valleys. The pig-deer has been known to locals for decades, but it wasn’t until 2013 that scientific tests date this painting to at least 35, 400 years old, making it the oldest known figurative rock art anywhere in the world. It is effectively the world’s very first picture.

Painting of fruit-eating pig-deer, known as a babirusa discovered in an Indonesian cave which dates back around 35,400 years ago. CREDIT: Screengrab, Nature Video.

Why should get excited about in pushing the age boundary for early art?  It is that art is a form of symbolic thinking, the ability to let one thing represent another. Early art signals the point in human history where our ancestors achieved “higher order cognition”, a new level of intelligence. As Benjamin Smith, a rock art scholar at the University of Western Australia puts it, “ancient art is a marker for this cognitive shift. To find early paintings, particularly figurative images of animals and humans is to find evidence for the modern human mind.” Hallelujah!

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