What is Art? The Origin of Art and the Early Examples of Paleolithic Art

What is art? Art is the “signature of civilization”, said Irish critic and playwright Bernard Shaw. So, can artistic talent really be considered as one of the fundamental qualities that distinguish modern humans from other species? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to first touch on what we should understand from the concept of art.

What is Art? Art and Imagination

One of the most debated questions in the philosophy of art, perhaps, is what art is. Since ancient Greece, art has been defined and interpreted in different ways by many thinkers. For some, art is just an imitation of reality, while for others it is more real than reality.

According to the Britannica Encyclopedia, art is a mode of expression that uses talent or imagination.1 In this definition, it is necessary to emphasize “imagination”.

Imagination is a mental process found in all archaic human species at a primitive level. Its key role in human communication coincides with the end of the Middle Paleolithic and the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. This process, which started about 70,000 years ago, is called the Cognitive Revolution. Scientists are not yet sure what caused the Cognitive Revolution.2

Early Footsteps of the Cognitive Revolution

It can be said that the first step on the road to the Cognitive Revolution was taken with the development of REM sleep in mammals, that is, with the evolution of dreams. This development, which took place about 140 million years ago, corresponds to 137.7 million years before the emergence of humans.3

Although important evolutionary developments such as amodal completion and spontaneous insight were observed in mammals in this process, prefrontal analysis ability developed only in hominins towards the end of the Pliocene.4

Pliocene: The geological epoch that began 5.33 million years ago and ended 2.58 million years ago.

At this stage, the introduction of functional stone materials into daily life gained momentum. Humans who developed their dexterity gave the first indications that they would use their brains to dominate other species.

Prefrontal Cortex: It is the name of the region in the brain that covers the front part of the frontal lobe. It is located just behind the forehead. It has an important role in brain functions such as decision making, planning, comparison and abstract thinking. The first granular prefrontal cortex areas appeared either in early primates or just before primates.5 This region is most developed in humans compared to the total brain volume.

The importance of the ability to think abstractly and symbolically is undeniable on the path to art. Wassily Kandinsky, from the abstract expressionist school, stated that creativity develops through abstract intelligence. In this context, it can be said that the path to art passes through the ability to think abstractly and symbolically. Symbolic thinking paved the way for creativity and creativity paved the way for art.

Symbolic thinking is thought to have occurred about 130,000 years ago.6

Early Examples of Paleolithic Art

The period that begins with the appearance of the first stone tools 3.3 million years ago7 and ends with the end of the Last Ice Age 11,700 years ago8 is called the Paleolithic.

While examining the art of the Paleolithic period, science branches such as archeology, paleoanthropology, paleopsychology and philosophy of art are used. However, since art is not an objective concept, there is no clear “first work” in Paleolithic art.

Another difficulty is that we do not know what the creators of the Paleolithic drawings were thinking. Were these drawings really created for an artistic purpose? Opinions on this subject can basically be grouped under three headings:

1. The drawings were created in an ordinary way. Therefore, it does not qualify as a work of art.

2. The drawings could not have been created in an ordinary way considering the difficult conditions of the period. Therefore, they can have the quality of works of art.

3. Even if the drawings have gone through a difficult labor process, they may have been created for a purpose that cannot be considered artistic (e.g. sign, signature, ideogram, pictogram, seal, etc.).

Opinions can be multiplied as it is a subject open to speculation. In fact, similar opinions can be put forward not only for the Lower and Middle Paleolithic, but also for many prehistoric finds in general. Therefore, all of the following examples should be considered early forms of artistic expression rather than definitive works of art. Examples are limited to the Lower and Middle Paleolithic.

Homo Erectus Clam

(Trinil, Indonesia | ~500,000 Years Ago)

What is art, origin of art, Paleolithic art, prehistoric art,
Naturalis Center for Biodiversity, The Netherlands
Wikimedia ©️CC BY-SA 3.0

It was found along with Homo erectus remains during an excavation in Indonesia in the 1890s by Dutch geologist and paleoanthropologist Eugène Dubois. The lines on the clam, which have been stored in the museum along with other finds for many years, went unnoticed for over 100 years. Because the lines were too faint to be noticed at first glance, they only became clear when the light hits them from a certain angle. However, in 2007, when Stephen Munro, a doctoral student, noticed the lines, studies were started immediately.9

As a result of the analysis, it was determined that the lines were drawn between 430,000 and 540,000 years ago.10 This corresponds to about 200,000 to 300,000 years before the appearance of Homo sapiens.

The discovery of the lines on the clam has generated controversy as well as excitement. On the one hand, those who interpret clam as a work of art, on the other hand, those who strongly oppose it… And the skeptics who are not on either side…

It is not known for what purpose the lines were drawn. Therefore, there are many different scenarios. This is actually the most important reason for the vicious circle about whether lines can be interpreted as art or not.

Jewelry From Eagle Claws

(Krapina, Croatia | ~130,000 Years Ago)

What is art, origin of art, Paleolithic art, prehistoric art,
Luka Mjeda | Eagle Claws

Eagle claws, discovered at a Neanderthal site in Croatia, date to around 130,000 years ago. A 2014 study found that eagle claws were used as jewelry, like a bracelet or necklace.11

Many anthropologists used to think that Neanderthals lacked the ability to think symbolically. Therefore, these claws are important for paleoanthropology as well as for art history. The time period that the claws belong to almost coincides with the emergence of symbolic thinking mentioned by Alan Barnard.

One of the views put forward regarding claws was that Neanderthals copied this behavior from modern humans. Bioanthropologist David W. Frayer of the University of Kansas disagrees with this view:

The site at Krapina has nothing but Mousterian tools and Neanderthals. Also, modern humans weren’t in the area for about 100,000 years after claws were used, so Neanderthals couldn’t have copied them from moderns, unless they were seers, of course.” (October 14, 2022 – ULUKAYIN)

The claws are known to have been used as a bracelet or necklace thanks to the string marks, but the exact purpose is unclear. The first thing that comes to mind is that they were used for ornamental purposes like today’s jewellery. But could Neanderthals have such concerns? Or should we leave romance aside and consider possibilities such as ritual or status?

La Roche-Cotard Mask

(Indre-et-Loire, France | ~75,000 Years Ago)

What is art, origin of art, Paleolithic art, prehistoric art,
Thilo Parg ©️CC BY-SA 4.0

It was found in 1975 at the entrance of a cave called La Roche-Cotard. It is thought to have been inherited from Neanderthals. Some archaeologists have interpreted it as a mask because its appearance resembles a face. However, many scientists believe that this object was formed by chance as a result of geological processes, and they are skeptical of any Neanderthal intervention.

The La Roche-Cotard Mask is essentially a flint. The object that is pushed into the space inside the stone and represents the eyes is a piece of bone. With the first radiocarbon test, the mask was thought to be 33,000 years old, but with the latest OSL test, it was understood to be about 75,000 years old.12

Paul Pettitt, professor of Paleolithic archeology, said the following regarding the age of the mask:

The new dating of the layer containing the ‘mask’ looks good to me, although assuming the error (+/-) associated with the date is expressed at one, not two, standard deviations, the age range of that layer lies anywhere between 69,000 and 81,000 years ago, so not necessarily 75,000.” (October 17, 2022 – ULUKAYIN)

Paul Pettitt stated that he is not convinced to consider the object in question as a work of art and that the new date did not change anything.

Blombos Cave

(Western Cape, South Africa | ~73,000 Years Ago)

What is art, origin of art, Paleolithic art, prehistoric art,
Craig Foster

The first excavations in Blombos Cave, located at the southern tip of Africa, were made in 1991. Seven main settlement phases were distinguished in the cave, which was occupied by humans from 100,000 to 70,000 years ago and 2000 to 300 years ago.13

What makes Blombos Cave significant for prehistoric art is a piece of rock that was found by chance in 2011. It was obvious at first sight that the diagonal red lines on the rock were drawn by a conscious hand.

After seven years of detailed analysis, it was understood that the patterns were drawn about 73,000 years ago. This meant about 30,000 years before the earliest Homo sapiens drawings in Europe. Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux interpreted the patterns as the first known drawings in human (Homo sapiens) history.14

We do not know what the person who drew the patterns was thinking. However, it is obvious that the rock has contributed to new ideas about the origin of the use of symbols.

Cave of Maltravieso

(Cáceres, Spain | ~66,700 Years Ago)

What is art, origin of art, Paleolithic art, prehistoric art,
H. Collado

Cave of Maltravieso, one of the settlements in the Middle Paleolithic, was discovered in 1951. It was occupied by Neanderthals. Through the uranium-thorium test, archaeologists have revealed that the hand template in the cave is at least 66,700 years old. This news was announced in many magazines and websites with the headline “It has been proven that Neanderthals made art.” Because at the time the handprints were created, Homo sapiens had at least 20,000 more years to reach Spain.15

Apart from Maltravieso, red motifs were also found in the caves in La Pasiega and Ardales. Some of the motifs were too far away from daylight. This meant that those who made the motifs produced red pigments and made fire or carried the fire to the deep. Therefore, the motifs in the caves were definitely not just a leisure occupation. They showed that the Neanderthals, who have been described in a rude and wild way, have the ability to think abstract and symbolically.

Do motifs in caves at Maltravieso, La Pasiega, and Ardales prove that Neanderthals had the ability to use symbols and think abstractly? According to professor João Zilhão of the University of Lisbon, yes:

Given their minimum ages, the motifs in those caves must have been painted by Neandertals. Those motifs are abstract (dots, paint splatter, linear traits) or symbolic (hand stencils). From these two premises, the conclusion must be that Neandertals had the ability to use symbols and think abstractly. That’s at least how I believe Aristotle would have put it.

So, can a species without the ability to think abstractly make such drawings?

If you can provide an example of such a species, I will accept that that could be the case. Can you? Myself, so far, I’ve been unable to find one.”

Shouldn’t a species with the ability to think abstractly leave more drawings or objects to prove it?

Yes. And the Neandertals did leave other examples, such as the use of body painting and objects of personal ornamentation (pendants made of bone, tooth, mollusk shell and fossils). With regards to cave paintings specifically, motifs like those that yielded the >64000 minimum ages are known in many other caves of Southwest Europe. They could well be as old, or even older. Note that, when using the Uranium-Thorium method, we date the carbonate accretions that grow on top of the paintings. The age of that accretion provides a minimum age for the underlying art but does not tell us how much time elapsed between the execution of the art and the moment that said accretion started to grow on it. Therefore, it remains entirely possible that a red dot found under calcite dated to, say, 24000 years ago, is in fact older than another dot found under calcite dated to, say, 64,000 years ago. The Spanish examples you mention are those where it was possible to prove that Neandertals had been cave painters. There is absolutely no reason to think that those are the only caves where they painted, nor that those motifs are the only ones in those caves that could have been painted by them. In any case, why would you need multiple examples of the possession of a given ability to assess its existence? Wouldn’t a single one be enough? Observing that, by five years of age, a given child has the ability to learn how to read and write suffices to infer that the ability exists in five-year-old children even if most children only learn to read and write at a later age. Right?(October 17, 2022 – ULUKAYIN)

Carved Deer Bone

(Lower Saxony, Germany | ~51,000 Years Ago)

What is art, origin of art, Paleolithic art, prehistoric art,
V. Minkus

In mid-2021, scientists announced the discovery of a carved deer bone in a cave in the Harz Mountains. Radiocarbon testing determined that the bone was about 51,000 years old. This meant that the bone was carved by Neanderthals. That’s because Homo sapiens had at least 10,000 to 20,000 years to spread in this region.

But is it certain that Neanderthals made the carvings on the bone? Could the bone have been usurped as a result of possible early contact with modern humans? Silvia Bello from the Department of Earth Sciences, Natural History Museum London:

The authors of the paper suggest th carving was made by Neanderthals. I believe this is the case considering the association and archaeological context. I doubts that Neanderthals took it from Modern humans, as it is unlikely this population had been in contact with modern human at this point.” (October 17, 2022 – ULUKAYIN)

Analysis of the bone shows that the bone was first softened and then carved. 51,000 years ago the most practical way to do this was probably by boiling the bone.16

It is known that the cave, called Einhornhöhle, where the bone was found, was inhabited by Neanderthals 130,000 years ago. This discovery is important to prehistoric art, as works of “art” attributed to Neanderthals are often found in Southern Europe.

Art in the post-Middle Paleolithic

With the end of the Middle Paleolithic around 40,000 BC, the Upper Paleolithic begins. In the early Upper Paleolithic, Neanderthals were wiped out and Homo sapiens definitively dominated.

Artworks in the Upper Paleolithic mostly consist of engravings, rock paintings and female figurines. The most important reason why the works of this period are much richer and more complicated than the previous ones is the Cognitive Revolution in Homo sapiens.

People who led a hunter-gatherer life put the “signature of civilization” with the animal figures they drew on the cave walls, and they revealed what kind of perspective nature was evaluated from.

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  11. Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina“, Davorka RADOVČIĆ, Ankica Oros SRŠEN, Jakov RADOVČIĆ, David W. FRAYER, 2015[]
  12. Nouvelle datation du « masque » de La Roche-Cotard (Langeais, Indre-et-Loire, France)“, Jean-Claude MARQUET, Michel LORBLANCHET, Christine OBERLIN, Edit THAMO-BOZSO and Thierry AUBRY, 2016[]
  13. Nel TH, Henshilwood CS (2016) “The Small Mammal Sequence from the c. 76 – 72 ka Still Bay Levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa – Taphonomic and Palaeoecological Implications for Human Behaviour” PLoS ONE 11(8): e0159817[]
  14. Earliest known drawing found on rock in South African cave“, Ian SAMPLE, The Guardian, 12.09.2018[]
  15. It’s Official: Neanderthals Created Art“, Alistair PIKE & Chris STANDISH, SAPIENS, 28.05.2018[]
  16. Beautiful Bone Carving From 51,000 Years Ago Is Changing Our View of Neanderthals“, Conor FEEHLY, Science Alert, 05.07.2021[]