Scholars Now Argue that Art Did not Evolve--It was in Evidence from the Beginning of Human Development 30,000 Years Ago

Roundup: Talking About History

Guy Gugliotta, writing in the Washington Post (Jan. 12, 2004):

What does it take to become an artist?

Do you need to study it first, or do you just pick up a brush or a knife and do it?

This question lies at the heart of a prolonged debate among archaeologists and anthropologists over the origin of figurative art -- drawing, sculpting or otherwise creating recognizable images of figures or objects -- and what it implies about human cultural development.

For years, scholars regarded the appearance of figurative art as the initiation of an evolutionary process -- that art became progressively more sophisticated as humans experimented with styles and techniques and passed this knowledge to the next generation.

But a growing body of evidence suggests that modern humans, virtually from the moment they appeared in Ice Age Europe, were able to produce startlingly sophisticated art. Artistic ability thus did not "evolve," many scholars said, but has instead existed in modern humans (the talented ones, anyway) throughout their existence.

Last month in the journal Nature, anthropologist Nicholas J. Conard, of Germany 's University of Tuebingen , added to this view, reporting the discovery in a cave in the Jura Mountains of three small, carefully made figurines carved from mammoth ivory between 30,000 and 33,000 years ago.

The artifacts at Hohle Fels Cave -- of a water bird, a horse's head, and a half-human, half-lion figure -- made up the fourth such cache of ancient objects found in Germany . All are more than 30,000 years old, and, taken together with cave paintings of a similar age in France 's Grotte Chauvet, constitute the oldest known artworks in the history of modern humans. A handful of other sites more than 30,000 years old are under study.

"It was a big cave, filled with ivory-making debris," Conard said in a telephone interview from his Tuebingen office. "We found 270 pieces of ivory waste, a half-dozen beads and a good number of bone and ivory tools. Whoever made the figurines spent a lot of time there."

And did remarkable work with primitive implements. All three figurines are skillfully shaped, and the water bird is exquisite -- its long neck extended in flight and its wings swept back with decorative ridges to mark layers of feathers.

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