Category Archives: Africa

The Importance of Art in Human History

One member of our group was from the southern  US and he did not like to think that Africans were our ancestors. How could we have black ancestors? Right?

There was another aspect of the first episode of the television series on the Great Migrations that struck me as critically important and interesting. This was the importance and role of art in this human story. It showed that we are the artistic species and that this artistic bent played an important role in our survival. Even though a couple of years ago I was in Africa, near where some of the series was filmed, and even though I saw some of that amazing art of our early human indigenous ancestors, this important insight escaped me at that time. At least now I have seen the light.

Niobe Thompson pointed out that ¼ of the world’s rock art sites are found in South Africa. Remember, these were often created by our earliest ancestors. As Thompsons astutely pointed out, “From the moment our ancestors became modern humans we became artists.” I find this astounding. “Art is the signature of our species,” Thompson proclaimed. Art is not some interesting side salad; art is a crucial component of who we are.

This is where I crawled down into a cave That was the only way to get in

This, of course, raises the next profoundly interesting question. Why? Would not drawing pictures on a wall have been a serious distraction for hunter/gatherers? The point is they were more than just pictures. Art helped bring the prey into the mind of the hunter. Art helped them become better hunters, because they were able to identify with their prey. That is what great art does. Art identifies us with the world around us. For hunter/gatherers this is no distraction; it is vitally important.

Thompson also pointed out one of the rock art pictures on the walls. It showed a shaman. Why would they introduce a shaman? Thompson thinks the point is that shamans were also part of the hunting process. Shamans helped the hunters hunt and helped the gatherers gather.

Rock art was part of the important human process of using symbols to look beyond themselves. Rock art was used to store knowledge and information about hunting and gathering. It would also have been enormously helpful in passing on hunting and gathering knowledge to the next generation. The essence of language and the value of symbols is demonstrated in the Rock art of Africa the home of our oldest human ancestors.

At a critical time in the evolution of humans, Homo sapiens learned to communicate with symbolic language. That was a critical tool in the development of humans around the world. Perhaps this was the reason  this branch of hominins to survive where all the others failed and collapsed.

Symbolic language allowed us to think about the past, learn from it, and look at the future and plan for it.  These were critical skills. With symbolic language humans were able to imagine what the future could be.

Symbolic language and art enabled us to understand who we are and what are the possibilities of our being. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Our early ancestors—long before Socrates—appreciated this as well.

At the dawn of symbolic thought, under tremendous climatic pressure Homo sapiens used that symbolic thought and that art to carve a niche where they could not only survive, but thrive.

Niobe Thompson is a scientist, not an artist. Yet this is what he had to say about art:

“I am an anthropologist who became a filmmaker. I left university research because I believe the communication of science is my path. I want my children to grow up in a scientifically literate society, where films that explore the natural world play a central role. But I also believe in the power of art to enlighten, and I am thrilled to be pushing the artistic boundaries of film, striving to make science just as spectacular as it is fascinating.”

Art is important. It is no mere icing on the cake. Art is the cake.

This art was not from that cave. It is not that old as it was outdoors.

The scientists in the television show were clearly of the view that humans in the caves in South Africa 75,000 years ago must have been talking to each other. How else could they transmit their complex knowledge about the environment, about prey, and about the things that could be gathered, to future generations? With language they could talk about what plants were edible and where and how they could be stored. For example, they learned that water, absolutely vital in the drought conditions of southern Africa, could be stored in ostrich egg shells buried under the ground. With language they could tell others what plants were poisonous. They could use language to show each other how to build better stone blades for spears and arrows. They could use language to help each other harness the power of fire they could learn from others what stones when crushed could be useful for their art.

What minerals would last a long time in their stone art? For example, they learned that ochre would make a fine paint for rock art. They could then tell others where ochre could be found. Communication arts would have given early humans a superlative advantage over other hominins. With language humans were able to advise others what soil could be used for art and how complex chemical processes could be taken advantage of by making fires. All this was done 100,000 years ago.

The earliest humans probably used paint, made from things like ochre, to paint their bodies. They put holes in shells, painted them, and then wore them around their necks.

Human needs, even in earliest times, went well beyond food and shelter.  Their concerns went all the way to art.

In many ways, early humans were about as advanced as modern humans.