When I studied Art History in college, the class began by looking at the Paleolithic art that adorns the rock walls of deep caves like Altamira, Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, and Lascaux in southern Europe. I remember being amazed at how beautiful and lifelike the horses, lions, and bison appeared. I was fascinated by how an artist could use a single flowing line to evoke the character of a particular creature. Thirty-six thousand years and many art classes later, I still can’t draw, paint, or sculpt with the skill and artistry that those ancient people possessed.
Recently, I came across a National Geographic article “The First Artists” (from the January 2015 magazine) that reported signs of artistic activity at sites much older than the 36,000-year-old Spanish and French caves. Archaeological evidence from sites across Africa and Europe includes 75,000-year-old seashells that had been strung as beads and 60,000-year-old engraved ostrich shells. There were even 100,000-year-old “art kits” used to grind and store the reddish-brown earth pigment called ochre, which could then be used as decorative paint on bodies or objects.
Those dates were hard for me to fathom, so I tried to personalize the numbers by figuring out how many generations ago that art was made. Perhaps my five-thousand-times-great-grandmother was one of those ancient artists.
What astounds me most is that all of these artistic endeavors took place in a society of hunters and gatherers who did not have equipment made of materials like iron, steel, or gallium arsenide. Daily life must have required ingenuity, strength, endurance, bravery, and perseverance on a level that is hard to imagine. And yet, communities found a way for some members to devote time and energy to artistic pursuits that did not directly put food on the table.
There are many theories on the “purpose” of these ancient artistic finds – Were they spiritual or religious? Were they intended to invoke aid or protection? Were they symbols of social status? – but of course no one will ever know what was in the minds of those ancient people. But what is clear is that the act of creating was important long, long, long ago. I find it hard to believe that the people who created such beautiful and evocative art did so without experiencing joy and satisfaction in the creative process.
Thinking about this, I felt an incredible sense of connection to my many-times-removed ancestors. It was as if all the intervening millennia were erased and I was admiring the lioness that my cousin drew so beautifully on the cave wall or the way my sister collected and strung her shell beads in such a lovely pattern.
It is a good feeling to think that my desire to create and my joy in the creative process is integral to the human experience, something that thousands of generations of people before me have made a part of their lives, something that connects us all.
Fotolia.com: Spanish postage stamp stock art
Creative Memories: Papers from Beach Vacation and Grunge Graduation (heavily modified)
Fonts: Quicksand Bold, Le Bouquiniste de Paris