THE FIRST REPRESENTATIONAL ART & MUSIC
35,000 years ago
|This image is a Brno Museum Anthropos replica of the 32,000 year old painting from the Chauvet cave in France.
Credit: Image by HTO, courtesy of Wikipedia.
The human desire to express one’s self artistically, for example through painting and sculpture and music, is one of many traits that separate us from the rest of the animal world. At around 32,000 yeas ago, humans began to draw on the walls of caves and carve beautiful sculptures, usually in the form of animal figures. At Chauvet Cave in France drawings of lions, rhinos, mammoths, and other animals show an astonishing mastery of design, and ivory sculptures from the site of Volgelherd and Hohlestein in Germany show how early artists were able to free a predetermined form from a featureless fragment of mammoth ivory. This Upper Palaeolithic art tradition lasted for 22,000 years, with the cave sites of Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain being two of the multi-colored masterpieces of the Ice Age artists. It is likely that the earliest art had religious as well as aesthetic value. Several prehistorians have also suggested that much of this Palaeolithic art is associated with shamanism and trance-induced visions.
Although it is likely that humans used a range of simple percussion instruments, the first definitive musical instruments come from the Aurignacian culture of the Upper Palaeolithic dating back to about 35,000 years ago. These include bone flutes, normally made from bird long bones or made ivory. Early flute evidence has been found at such sites as Hohle Fels and Vogelherd in Germany, sites that also contain evidence of very early figurines of animals and a human female.
HOW DO WE KNOW?
Painted caves and portable art, such as figurines from the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe, have been identified since the later 1800’s. Many of the paintings and engravings within caves depict ancient Ice Age animals, such as the mammoth and wooly rhinoceros, that have been extinct for thousands of years. If the black pigments in cave art are made of charcoal, they can be radiocarbon dated. Mobile art such as carvings and engravings on pieces of stone are often found in archaeological layers that can be accurately dated. The bone flutes found in the Upper Palaeolithic are very similar to those made in traditional societies in recent history.
WHY SHOULD I CARE?
These early expressions of representational and almost certainly symbolic art represent an aesthetic tradition that starts by 32,000 years ago and continues today. And musical instruments from the Upper Palaeolithic give a hint to a rich culture of song and probably dance that these early people had.
This is an NPR story about the discovery of Neanderthal flutes in German caves.
This webpage contains a photo of Lascaux Cave, in France.
This is an article about stone age figurines and carvings on mammoth tusks.