On the Birth of the Art Instinct
John-Paul Stonard Finds Recurring Themes in the First Cave Drawings
Wandering through the landscape in small bands, sheltering beneath rocks, drinking from rivers, the earliest humans lived close to the nature that surrounded them. They carried out their lives not as if above animals, but one creature among many.
And yet there was a difference. With their hands they shaped stones into tools, chipping them with an eye to symmetry. From old fires they took lumps of charcoal to make marks on rough cave walls, and on flat stones held in their hands. Their bodies they decorated with shells from the shore, drawing patterns on their skin with reddish pigments, mixed in empty shells. They left signs of life in the shelters they returned to, season after season, generation after generation.
Around fifty thousand years ago a small band of humans left their ancestral home, the African continent, to wander through the world. From this moment the earliest known signs of a new human ability survive, perhaps already tens of thousands of years old, but only now making its mark on the world—the ability to create images. With a few strokes of charcoal a deer could appear running across a cave wall. Whittling and carving a length of wood or ivory, a lion could be held captive in the hand.
It was like a light turning on in the human mind.
Remarkably, these earliest known images appeared around the same time at opposite ends of the world.
On a limestone wall in a cave on an island in the eastern oceans (modern Sulawesi), a human used red ochre pigment to draw a species of pig, probably the Sulawesi warty pig, native to the island. Perhaps using the end of a stick, chewed to soften it to hold the red ochre, they drew four of these hairy creatures alongside two stenciled images of hands, made by blowing pigment around outstretched fingers—like the hand of a hunter, reaching for their quarry. Similar paintings of the warty pig, alongside the anoa (a small, shy water buffalo), and in at least one case diminutive stick figures, probably representing humans hunting, were made on a number of limestone caves on the south-western shores of Sulawesi over a long period, perhaps as much as ten thousand years.With a few strokes of charcoal a deer could appear running across a cave wall. It was like a light turning on in the human mind.
A few thousand years later, on the other side of the world, another human set to work, taking a tusk from a dead woolly mammoth and, using a stone tool, carving from it the figure of a lion standing on its hind legs. The hollow part inside the mammoth’s tusk cleverly creates the gap between the lion’s legs, while the curve of the tusk gives the lion a standing, leaning pose, as if listening, or speaking, like a human.
The finished carving may have had magical properties, or may even have been worshipped as a god—or perhaps it was carved simply to be admired as an image. We have no way of knowing for sure. There is, however, no mistaking the carver’s skill, their ability to see the form of the lion in the tusk before they set to work. They had doubtless shaped such standing lions before, practicing their craft and thinking about the way the shape could be created from the tusk and perhaps from other materials—a length of wood or a soft carvable stone. Like the warty pig of Sulawesi, the standing lion, made in the region of modern southern Germany, might be the earliest surviving image carved by human hands, but it was made with skills honed over countless years by humans and their ancestors through the fabrication of stone tools.
For tens of thousands of years, perhaps since the first modern humans (known today as Homo sapiens) emerged in Africa around three hundred thousand years ago, people had been scratching marks on stones and shells, drawing lines with sticks of ochre: cross-hatched and lattice shapes whose meaning remains obscure. They may have conveyed a shared understanding about some important aspect of life, or have simply been signs of human presence.
A few thousand years after the standing lion was carved, another human image-maker took a lump of charcoal from an old fire and set to work marking lines on a cave wall. The images appear to dance and move in the flickering illumination of an oil lamp or a wooden torch: four horses galloping across a cave wall.
Their creator had seen such a herd of horses, and may have practiced drawing their outline in the earth, or scratching it in a rock held in their hand, before making the living image on the wall. They had learned to differentiate the horse from other creatures with a sound that became its name, perhaps whispering it under their breath as they drew. Sensitive lines suggest the volume of the horses’ heads and the softness of their manes, giving them a tender, thoughtful expression. They joined the bestiary that had been gathering in the cave, in southern France (known as the Chauvet Cave), taking their place among fighting rhinoceroses, stags and woolly mammoths.
Quite why these carved and drawn images appeared simultaneously on different sides of the world remains a mystery. It cannot be explained by contact over continents between those who made them. Was there a time trigger in the long process of human evolution that, at this moment, in response to new surroundings, unlocked the image-making instinct? Or had it emerged much earlier in images that were later lost? Although many of the earliest images survive outside Africa, the image instinct may well have emerged in the human homeland, in the form of creations that were not to stand the test of time.
The long journey itself, the migration east and west across Eurasia, traveling over most of the Earth and its oceans, must also have spurred the evolution of the image-making capability. Adapting to terrain along the coastal migratory routes meant new ways of communicating, signaling danger or opportunity. Wandering hunters encountered a new world of nature, birds, animals, plants, forests, rivers and mountains, as well as changing climates, from searingly hot deserts to cold mountain passes and endless expanses of tundra. It was a physical challenge and threat, so that hunters admired nature but also waged war on it, killing entire species as they went.
Drawing the shapes of animals was part of this struggle, gaining knowledge of the world as it appeared in its great variety. Image-making was also, perhaps, an act of memorialization. When they reached a rocky peninsula stretching into the ocean, far from their ancestral home, the hunters began engraving the outlines of countless animals on large boulders littering the coast. One shows a wolf with a striped back, known as the Tasmanian tiger, which soon became extinct in the region, now known as the Burrup Peninsula, in northern Australia.The first thirty thousand or so years of human image-making were devoted to a single subject: animals.
Humans began to remember and imagine, anticipating what might be beyond the mountain, down the river on the plains. Evolving a capacity to think in terms of images was inseparable from the long story of migration and the encounter with nature in its spectacular variety and abundance, an encounter that had begun long before, in Africa.
These early human images excite our imaginations, although there is little about them that we can say with certainty. One thing, however, can be said. The first thirty thousand or so years of human image-making were devoted to a single subject: animals. Not all animal species were shown, and the majority depicted, at least on cave walls, were either bison or horses. Other animals also appeared—the Chauvet Cave is crowded with mammoths, lions, horses, reindeer and bears, as well as rhinoceroses and unusual beasts such as the long-eared owl and a panther.
This obsession with animals occurs everywhere humans went, from the caves of southern France to the sandy shores of Australia. Nowhere, for thirty thousand years, are there any images of landscapes, plants, trees, rivers, the sea, the sun or the moon—all things that surrounded early humans and were just as important for survival.
Perhaps the changing appearance of animals made them special. Early humans survived by hunting and foraging, and the need quickly to recognize their prey. Their deep knowledge of the habits and appearance of animals was reflected in the images they made—showing their winter coats or distinguishing different ages of deer by the type of antler.
Thousands of years after the lion man was carved, another craftsman took the tusk of a woolly mammoth and created the image of two reindeer, their streamlined forms and raised heads indicating that they are swimming. Markings on their sides show that a male stag is following a female hind. The details are minutely observed so that not only their sex but also their species, the tundra reindeer, is preserved, as well as the time of year: full antlers and long hair show they are crossing a river in autumn, their eyes bulging with the effort and fear of their task. Such observations were derived from daily co-existence with animals, creating a companionship and also a spiritual connection. It was also a source of dominance. Images were stores of hunting knowledge gathered over generations. Images gave humans their advantage in a world.
One animal was notably absent in this new world of images—humans themselves. Signs of human presence were scattered far and wide, from the earliest chipped stone tools to the lines of ochre on stones and shells reaching back over a hundred thousand years. Stenciled images of hands, made by blowing pigment around an outstretched hand on a wall, can be found wherever humans reached on their long voyage of migration, from modern-day Indonesia to Argentina, Borneo, Mexico and many sites in Europe and Asia. Judging by the difference of length between ring and index finger, many of these show women’s hands. But virtually no images of that vulnerable upright form, with a forked lower half and spindly-limbed top, survive from the first twenty millennia of human image-making. It seems simply that none was made—there was no need.
The earliest images of humans to have survived are carvings of female figures, emphasizing the childbearing parts of the body. The face of one of these, made around twenty-six thousand years ago, and found at the site of Dolní Věstonice (in the modern Czech Republic), is featureless apart from two diagonal slits for eyes, so that she appears to be wearing a hood. She is the oldest known object made by firing clay in a kiln. It was at least another ten thousand years before clay was fired to make useful things like pots. The Dolní Věstonice figure may have served as a lucky charm, an object with magical properties, but is by no means more powerful or elegant than the standing lion or swimming reindeer. Humans saw themselves as just one animal among many, and by no means the most beautiful or well adapted for survival in an inhospitable world.
The warty pig in Sulawesi, just as much as stenciled images of human hands in Argentina and the animals on the walls of the caves at Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira and other sites, show that the image instinct could manifest itself wherever humans wandered. In some places it was a mere flash of illumination before the wandering hunters were cast back into a long imageless time. In many other places it did not appear at all, at least in ways that survived. Creativity was undoubtedly manifest in other ways, in dance and song, and in the earliest forms of music, or in elaborate decoration of the human body.
And yet, as millennia passed, the instinct to create and recognize images became indispensable to human life, part of what it meant to be human. Images were a sign of being set apart from other animals and from the natural world—and capable of their domination.
Through images we also encountered ourselves, linking our minds over time and space with memories of hunting encounters, of the changing appearance of animals through the seasons and even of the strange and fanciful beasts that appear in our dreams. To enter the dark cave where our ancestors sheltered, and which they adorned with animal images, is like entering the human mind itself—an extraordinary, moving and very, very long prologue to the story of creativity to come.
Excerpted from Creation: Art Since the Beginning by John-Paul Stonard. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2021 by John-Paul Stonard.