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.

3 thoughts on “The Importance of Art in Human History

  1. mr. newfield

    we are all fascinated, some obsessed, with our origins; to some extent secondary to the death of god and our resultant anxiety.
    but, either post/modern “art” is not art or paleolithic “art” is not art. they cannot both be art. representation of animals encountered in hunting is just not duchamp’s toilet representation. the latter “image” is simply a different can of worms.
    in addition, the depiction is an animal not a plant. it is of course men who do the hunting and women who do the gathering. patriarchy is patriarchy.

    1. I disagree. Both ancient and modern art are in fact art. Both have value. They are different, but they have similarities that make both of them art. I would say, echoing Northrop Frye, that art is what we employ to give the world a human face. It is now we identify with the world. It is now we eliminate (or at least try) to the alienation we feel. We want to be part of the world and we turn to art or religion to do that. The art does not have to be an image. That is what modern art is about. Art without images. Art without an attempt to make a representation, but still art. It always puzzles me, but it is a brave attempt to deal with the same problem–ie.e alienation.

      1. my invocation of the word “art”, even though i enclosed the word, was inappropriate or maybe not useful. there are too many less than useful arguments about the term.

        what i should have said is that some aspects of modernist and post-modernist art are simply too abstract to compare to paleolithic “art.” this is part of the problem of the search for origins. we may develop some educated hypotheses but the gulf raises real questions about easy definitions of humanity. particularly given that we are already immersed in cyborgs, etc. this is indeed the brave new world. paleolithic speculations may be very interesting, but relevant?

        as for frye’s art as a “human face” : it is too divorced from the 20th and 21st century artistic endeavors to be able to reply. as a description of paleolithic “art” it probably is more adequate.
        to “return to the human world” via much of the art of the last century plus, never mind religion, would certainly be difficult; at least as most people would think of the “human world.”

        religion in particular is definitionally an attempt to “leave” the human world.
        modernism was a gigantic rebellion against monotheistic religion, among many other things. to what extent it succeeded is also beyond my pay grade.

        it also strikes me that the question of representation without an image is problematic. more like representation without an object?
        image as used in aesthetics seems extremely complex, also beyond my pay grade.

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