Monday, December 31, 2018


The year 2018 gave us important discoveries about the origins of art.

Archaeologists have known for some time that our ancestors developed crude weapons (hammerstones and cutting tools) as far back as 2.6 million years ago. After achieving that milestone, it took almost another million years for us to develop more sophisticated weapons, such as stone axes.  Those date back 1.76 million years.  We continued to develop and refine our arsenal, so that 1.3 million years later, in 400,000 BCE, we had invented throwing spears with sharp points.

In September of this year, archaeologists announced that they had discovered the earliest known drawings by homo sapiens:  a 73,000 year old cross hatched pattern found in a cave in Africa.

As reported in the journal Nature, researchers used both microscopic and chemical analysis to establish that the marks were intentionally made by a human hand using a pointed crayon fashioned from red ocher clay.

In other words, as far as we know 2,527,000 years elapsed between the first weapon and the first art.

In spite of all the ingenuity, effort and trial that went into the development of weapons, we were still 2.5 million years away from the urge to make abstract designs on a surface.

Not only that, but November 2018 also brought news of the discovery of the first known figurative drawing by a human, dating back 40,000 years:

The drawing was discovered in a limestone cave in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.  Its age was confirmed by chemical analyses of natural deposits that had formed on top of the drawing.

So as far as we know it took us 33,000 years to progress from cross hatching to figurative drawing.  That's four times longer than the time from the founding of the ancient Egyptian Empire until today.

Why did it take so much longer for art to arrive on the scene than weapons? Was the urge to make  designs really millions of years harder than the urge to kill?  And did it really require another 40,000 years to go from making abstract designs to making marks that resemble something in the world?

Your guess is as good as mine, but perhaps it took that long before our ancestors felt the need for a more subtle and profound vocabulary, the kind used for communicating more advanced concepts such as love and pain, hope and beauty.  When our emotional range was limited to fear and hunger we may have had no need for the language of art.  But when we finally had a more complex range of feelings and more complicated emotions to communicate,  I'm guessing a hammerstone just wouldn't do. 

It might've taken  2,527,000 additional years for us to experience subtler shades of meaning and then develop a voice capable of shaping and  expressing them.

Whatever the reason, as you start out to make art in 2019, reflect on why it took our ancestors an additional 2.53 million years to invent art, and try to make something worthy of that long incubation.

Happy new year to all!


Knits and Weaves said...

Hi David,

Please remember that what we consider art may have been created from more perishable materials than a cave wall. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Thank you for your blog postings. I have learned a lot from them.

MORAN said...

Happy new year David!

Tom said...

Happy New Year David!

Such large time spans are too much my head!

David Apatoff said...

Knits and Weaves-- I agree, that's why I wrote "As far as we know..." I'm sure there are plenty of interesting things yet to be discovered by archaeologists. However, we also know that art on protected cave walls is well preserved, and other prehistoric art made from bone or other hard substances can last a long time too.

However, I figure that with a 2.5 million year gap, I could be off by a million years and it still wouldn't make a difference.

MORAN-- Happy new year to you, too.

Tom-- Those large time spans arethe ones most thinking about!

jeanne said...

missing the traditional rear end...

kev ferrara said...

Today's News: Archeologists, based on exhaustive analysis of the available evidence, believe it took nearly a million years for implement-using protohumans to grab a common cutting tool and say, “Let’s put this on the end of stick!”

<*cough cough*>

Methinks these scientists never went on unsupervised camping trips with their friends as youths. Me and my Lord of The Flies level playmates had 8 different deadly weapons developed by first sundown!

Happy New Years anyway!

~ Kev

Richard said...

Careful David. Visual Art only became necessary when speech and gesture could no longer communicate the complexity of man's meanings. However, long before Art's level of subtelty was needed, man still communicated LOVE.

Material violence on the other hand, even if communicatory, is at its best just an immediate and binary message ("I'll kill you if you do, so don't"). That these rudimentary tools of violent intent (whether spears or sharpened stones) chronologically surfaced before mankind's greatest devices of spiritual and emotional intention in no way suggests that we are violent before we are communicative or whole, or worse, that man's heart is of darkness.

Long before a caveman lifted a spear, a cavewoman petted her child, and long before that, a homely ape motioned out royally towards the treetops of her spiritual dominion.
Don't confuse a lack of artefact with a lack of artfulness. Mankind is kinder than your post would suggest.

One might mistake your lapse into pessimism for a grander message of death. Be positive, art talk is too dark these days as it is.

Adam brill said...

In my toolbox there are hammers, an axe, saws, pointed and sharpened implements of all kinds. I have a pretty badass folding knife in my pocket that is great for cutting up apples or whittling sticks. None of these tools have ever been used by me on a fellow creature, although they certainly could be, and If I were hungry, they would be. I use them to build and repair stuff, and to make big stuff into smaller stuff as suits my design and purpose. They're tools.

I have read your thoughtful and beautiful blog for many years, and am grateful for your insight and willingness to engage with some very thorny issues, and I take exception to your description of hammerstones and cutting tools as weapons. Were they found embedded in the head of some ancient ancestor? My guess is that these tools were fashioned because someone needed to do something, and the tools made the task possible or easier.

The glorious beginnings of human art painted on caves clearly show enormous, powerful animals, frequently with tiny human figures sticking spears in them or each other. The violence has been with us always. Tools have been used for as many things as the human mind and hand can devise, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes indescribably cruel, but they're not always weapons.

David Apatoff said...

Jeanne-- Why, bless you for remembering! I am deeply gratified. Those year end rear ends were great fun for me, but some people were taking umbrage. I had other battles that were more important to me.

Kev Ferrara-- Yes, but you are not representative of normal human beings, you have super advanced skills at bashing people over the head with a rock attached to a stick.

Richard-- I guess I would suggest that violence is a little less binary than you imply. (Martin Scorsese reportedly said that his movie about love and manners, "The Age of Innocence," was the most violent movie he'd ever made.) And LOVE, stretched out over millions of years, may have evolved from mere rutting to something more profound. One could argue that prehistoric man originally attracted a mate by exhibiting the strength and weaponry to protect them from wild animals. When protection from saber tooth tigers was no longer a concern, cave men had to develop art to woo a more sophisticated mate. Well it's a theory.

kev ferrara said...

Kev Ferrara-- Yes, but you are not representative of normal human beings, you have super advanced skills at bashing people over the head with a rock attached to a stick.

Your "zinger" above required you to essentially change what I wrote in order to "use my words against me." I don't think that classifies as wit.

Anybody who had the semblance of a "free range" childhood would know that the current scientific evidence that you've just offered about tool and weapon development is no match for basic reasoning predicated on experience. The essential idea of cutting with an implement held at the end of a stick is easily abstracted from implement held in the hand at the end of the arm.

We should never forget that almost all of the facts of human prehistory are unavailable to us. So practical imagination is essential if we are to have an intelligent sense of what that vanished epoch might have been like.