As an anthropologist what interests me most about people is their capacity for creative expression. Our imagination is truly boundless and quick survey of contemporary art shows that people are engaged in expressing themselves through a diverse set of media from the domestic arts like cooking, the traditional fine arts including music and performance, and second-order creations like internet memes and mash-ups. So art and expression always have a form, but there is also always a content on the surface appealing to the senses, at deeper levels that appeal to our intellects, and “intertextually” which means making comments on or referencing other works.
The capacity to create and express ourselves is a trait unique to modern humans and it begins in the Upper Paleolithic. Prior to this point in time the fossil record provides us with hominins that are identical to “us” physically, they are unequivocally Homo Sapiens, but we know they differed from us behaviorally. In a fundamental way they did not act they way we do. Then something happened. Nobody knows what exactly, something in the way the brain is wired perhaps. All around the world, at more or less the same time, humans harnessed the power of imagination and began expressing something about themselves, their identity, in durable artifacts.
Like the study of human origins, this is a field where exciting new finds with the potential to rewrite the textbooks are being made all the time. One recent discovery is evidence of a paint mixing kit from a cave in South Africa. It is an abalone shell with ocher (soil rich in iron oxide, aka rust) and a grinding stone. Ocher is believed to be the oldest pigment and was used even by premodern humans, probably in some symbolic context.
Here are the archaeologists, hard at work in the field…
NPR did an interview with archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood, who has been digging in this part of the world his whole life.
Henshilwood says for a short time, the cave was a paint shop — the earliest ever seen. The makers added bone and charcoal to a liquid mixture to make it oily and viscous so it would stick. The ocher provided color and a matrix. It was complex chemistry but stirred by hand.
How do we know that we’re looking at an ancient palette? 100,000 years later there’s still paint in the dish!
It was especially cool to read about the work of one of the grad students involved with the project, Andrew Zipkin at George Washington U, who has been making ocher into glue for affixing stone arrowheads onto shafts.
“I went to an Ethiopian butcher in Falls Church, Va., and tracked down a goat carcass they had there,” he says. Then he shot the arrows into the carcass. He found that the arrowheads with ocher stayed on better than those without.
Anthropologists: shooting dead goats for science.
This is the second big breakthrough in Upper Paleolithic studies this year (technically Henshilwood’s discovery counts as Middle Paleolithic because its so old). Just last month researchers from Cambridge U announced new evidence from one of the most famous painted caves in France that there is, deep within the cave, a special chamber set aside for works of art by children.
The Gaurdian (always a great source for science journalism) covered the conference where the new data was presented.
“It suggests it was a special place for children. Adults were there, but the vast majority of artwork is by children,” said Jess Cooney, a PhD student at the university’s archaeology department.
“It’s speculation, but I think in this particular chamber children were encouraged to make more art than adults. It could have been a playroom where the children gathered or a room for practice where they were encouraged to make these marks in order that they could grow into artists and make the beautiful paintings and engravings we find throughout the cave, and throughout France and Spain. Or it could have been a room used for a ritual for particular children, perhaps an initiation of sorts.”
Finger painting in prehistoric preschool!
There is so little in the archaeological record about the lives of children and undoubtedly this is shaped in part by cultural biases that privilege the lives of adults as serious and more important. As was noted in my lecture on “early man” and “man the hunter” only recently has anthropology and archaeology begun to recognize the substantial role played by women in human culture (duh, they’re half the population).
The archaeology of childhood is such a rich topic. How were they taught and socialized into the group? Were adult women the primary childcare providers or did grandparents play a significant role? When you teach a child to fingerpaint, what are they really learning?
“We don’t know why people made them. We can make guesses like they were for initiation rituals, for training of some kind, or simply something to do on a rainy day,” said Cooney.
“What I found in Rouffignac is that the children are screaming from the walls to be heard. Their presence is everywhere. And there is a five-year-old girl constantly shouting: ‘I wanna paint, I wanna paint’.”
Post your questions, comments, and meandering thoughts bellow. What do you want to know about art and human evolution?