My interest is in developing a plausible evidence-based story of how modern humans emerged from ancestral species. This means guessing at what features of humans make us “human” and attempting to see the emergence of each of these features in the fossilized record of our bodies (bones) and behaviors (artifacts and archaeological sites). This question has traditionally been treated, inappropriately, as simple. Walking upright, or freeing of the hands, or using tools, or hunting animals, or scavenging from carnivores, violence, provisioning mates, bonobo-ism (a form of erotica, it would seem) or some other thing (or combination of two, possibly three, of these things) is seen as the “kick” causing the evolution of our peculiar brand of ape. The situation is certainly more complex than that.
Art is almost certainly important and has a place on this list of things to consider when wondering about the evolution of our species. Art did not likely cause human evolution and what we “modern” Westerners call “art” may be nothing other than an indicator of what is going on in human brains. Perhaps art is like the bubbles on the surface of the pot of boiling water: The bubbles do not cook the pasta, but they tell you that it is time to throw it in. Or, perhaps art serves some key role in human behavior. If art has a place in organizing social relations or mediating behavior in the broader cultural context then it may be an adaptive trait all on its own. This is highly unlikely, however, because art as we know it varies far too much across human groups to constitute anything that could comfortably be defined as a trait. But still, what we call art might represent a thing that human brains do that is coherently present in all human cultures and important to normal human functioning.
Whether art is useful mainly as an indicator of something or whether art is “useful” as a trait, it is still useful as the former! It is probably not possible to produce what we call art with a brain that is not linguistic, and a linguistic brain is uniquely human. Or, perhaps art can be produced to some degree by non-linguistic brains but it usually is not. All the examples I can think of involve humans tricking some non-human animal into producing something that passes for (and may or may not be) “art.” In any event, the presence of art linked to hominid behavior in the ancient record may signal a human-like brain at that time and place.
Ancient art is diverse, and explanations for it are even more diverse. One thing most people who study ancient art agree on is this: It is best discussed over a beer.
And, that is what we are going to do. Tuesday night in Saint Paul. I hope you can join us: Art and Human Evolution at the Black Dog Cafe with Abbi Allan and Greg Laden
A few points to keep in mind for this discussion not otherwise covered above:
Just as we modern westerners have a hard time defining “what is art,” archaeologists may not agree with each other, or other observers, what the definition of “art” is. It is useful to consider Iain Davidson’s terminology which focuses on the medium rather than the meaning: PEDS (paintings, engravings, drawings, or stencils). Lots of things that are PEDS may not pass for art, but still may be usefully included in the discussion.
There was not a “creative explosion” 30 or 40 thousand years ago in Europe reflecting the sudden appearance of modern humans, signaled by a sudden appearance of lots of cave art. That idea has been out of favor for quite some time now. Except by those who still think it who are welcome to comment below.
The presence or absence of art or any particular form of art in an ancient context does not mean much. Entire complex artistic traditions are known to have been done mainly on perishable materials. There would be little archaeological evidence of such behaviors.
The earliest things that might be called PEDS are less art-like by modern and western standards than many later things. For example, I know of some unreported cupules that may be hundreds of thousands of years old (the oldest reasonably well dated cupules are between 30 and 40 thousand years old). Cupules are little semi-spheric “cups” worn into rock.
One of the earliest pieces of PEDS is this:
This is from Blombos Cave, South Africa and dates to about 75,000 years ago. The stone is ochre, a rock used to make red paint. Lots of other ochre was found at this site and in this or nearby layers, rubbed smooth from use in extracting or applying the pigment.
Sometimes “art” takes the form of tools made in a way that a modern, western human would think artistic. Is a very finely made stone tool produced with exotic (meaning, from far away) and especially nice-looking stone considered to be art? Of course it is, even if it is not PEDS. (Perhaps PEDS should be PEDSC where “C” stands for “Cool stone tool”). But would early examples of cool stone tools be included as art in a review of paleolithic art? Usually not, formally, though these things are often mentioned.
The above cited Blombos Cave item was found at a time period, roughly, where cool stone tools were abundant, sandwiched between time periods when they were less common.
This object dates to between 35 and 40 thousand years ago, and comes from Schelklingen, Germany:
This object dates to 33,000 years ago and comes from Germany:
Following these and a handful of other items, the art found at various places in the world comes in great variety, and pretty much everywhere. No major culture-historical time/space unit of humanity following about 40,000 years ago lacks art of some kind.
As we trace the history of art or PEDS back in time, the archaeological record passes through one or more major glacial periods, which effectively erases much of the archaeological record in cooler climates and affects human populations in the tropics a great deal. The shift from glacial to interglacial probably changes the nature of preservational environments in caves and other locations. Thus, conditions that would preserve a certain kind of material that might be art or have art drawn or engraved on it may be favorable during one climate phase and unfavorable during another. We would expect, therefore, a big drop-off in perishable art (including cave drawings) around 18,000 years ago as we go back in time, and several other drop-offs before that, which have nothing to do with production of art, but only with preservation of art.
There is art in Australia, Asia, Europe and Africa between 30 and 20 thousand years ago, prior to the 18,000 year climate period known as the Last Glacial Maximum. This indicates that art may have accompanied human groups generally as they expanded their range out of Africa. Anatomically modern humans probably existed 120,000 years ago in Africa. Anatomically kinda-modern humans are much earlier here and there in Africa. Neanderthals, who were very modern in many ways, and modern humans (who probably get more credit than they deserve for being different from Neanderthals) diverged about 500,000 years ago give or take a hundred thousand years. Fully modern human brain size, for example, probably existed at over 300,000 years ago. Certain aspects of stone tool technology that might (might!) signal human modernness of some kind might date to 250,000 years ago or, depending on what is important, closer to 400,000 years ago.
Thus we have several dates that are candidates for important aspects of modern humanness being in place: 500,000, 300,000, 250,000, 120,000. Then, we have a date by which art is assumed present among all humans: Call it 30,000. In between we have things like the scratched-up piece of Ochre from Blombos Cave. Somewhere in there … between several hundred thousand years ago and several tens of thousand years ago … the production of art as a feature of humans emerged. Probably.