The Aesthetic Sense of Prehistoric Man

by Michael Sones

Did Mozart play a magic flute

While Picasso danced and painted on the walls

Auroch dreams in firelight

Flickering stone becoming flesh

As Shakespeare chanted Hamlet

Dissolving in the dust of time

‘Til we’ve forgotten what forgetting is?

Humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor until about 6,000,000 years ago. Stone Age peoples gradually evolved during the countless millennia of our early history when we were hunter-gatherers. Modern man is the product of 6,000,000 years of evolution. The last Ice Age ended 15,000-10,000 years ago. We have been farmers and then ‘civilized’ (whatever that means after the bloodshed of the 20th century) for only a small proportion of those 6,000,000 years.

Anatomically modern man emerged from the African savannah over one hundred thousand years ago and quickly spread himself over the globe and coexisted with the Neanderthals until the Neanderthals became extinct about 25,000 years ago.

Australia was colonized by the ancestors of the Aborigines over 50,000 years ago and, as there was no land-bridge, it must have been by boat. The Americas were colonized anywhere from 12,000-30,000 years ago. There was a landbridge across the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska but many authorities believe that ancestral man may have reached the Americas much sooner than 12,000 years ago. Archaeological discoveries keep pushing all the dates back.

Many people think of Stone Age or Cave Men as being little more than unsophisticated brutes with rudimentary grunting skills. Stereotypically, the club, rather than flowers and a box of chocolates,was the method by which they expressed their feelings of love and romance. We don’t know much about the romantic lives of cavemen but we do know they rarely lived in caves and we are far more like them psychologically than we might care to admit. The emotions we feel now and our cognitive capacities are part of our evolutionary heritage. We are the evidence that they, like us, had rich and complicated emotional lives.

The famous paintings in the cave of Altamira near Santander, Spain, were discovered in 1879 by de Santuola. Very few prehistorians believed they were genuine and thought that they must have been faked. In the late 19th century even our prehistoric Cro-Magnon ancestors were thought to be incapable of such aesthetic sensibilities. Likewise these days some people still believe that our earliest hominid ancestors were brutish creatures without any conscious aesthetic sensibilities and that ‘art’ did not really begin until about 40,000 years ago in Western Europe.

However, even animals seem to find other animals attractive or beautiful depending upon their markings which can be a sign of fertitility or strength. Does not a bee find an orchid beautiful? Perhaps there is an unconscious aesthetic attraction? Why is it so difficult to believe that our earliest ancestors also had a love of or appreciation for a beautiful flower or a gorgeous sunset?

In 1925, in a cave in Makapansgat in South Africa, a roundish piece of ironstone about six centimeters across was found. Naturally occurring indentations give it a remarkable resemblance to a human face. This of interest because it originated at least twenty miles away and was brought to the cave by one of our earliest hominid ancestors, an Australopithecine, approximately 3,000,000 years ago. Archaeologists speculate that it was because of its resemblance to a human face that it attracted the attention of whoever picked it up. Whether or not this is evidence of the earliest beginnings of aesthetic sensibility is debatable. It does show that even at this very early time in hominid evolution there was some interest in objects which were non-functional.

It is common for archaeologists to point out that there is evidence of an interest in symmetry in Acheulian handaxes which are hundreds of thousands of years old. The Acheulian technology was developed by the hominid species Homo Erectus who existed from about 1.8 million years ago about 50,000 years ago. The hand-axes were shaped in a particular way so that both sides are symmetrical and beyond what is functionally required. There are examples of flint handaxes in which fossil shells were embedded and the flint shaped around the fossil shell thereby preserving it. Symmetry is of intrinsic appeal or attraction to humans because symmetrical patterns tend to signify health and fitness whereas asymmetry is something to be cautious about and can be a sign of disease or other problems.

There is abundant evidence for the early use of ochre dating back hundreds of thousands of years. Ochre is a general name given to three different iron ores haematite (red), goethite (yellow) and limonite (brown). It was used by prehistoric peoples both as a drawing crayon or painting material and, it is thought, to colour their bodies. It was also mined by prehistoric people in large quantities. Pieces of ochre with wear marks on them, indicating unknown use, have been found which are hundreds of thousands of years old. Archaelogists have argued about the use that this ochre was put to-some say that it was used for body painting and had symbolic use-others say that it may have just had a functional use and been rubbed on the skin as a primitive form of protection from the sun or as insect repellents.

There are also bones from caves in Western Europe, dating from the Acheulian period, which were deliberately engraved with lines though no recognisable object seems to have been intended. There is also a piece of basalt, dating between 233,000-800,000 years ago, from the Acheulian site of Berekhat Ram in Israel which is shaped like a female figurine. The wide range in the dating of the object is because it was found between a later volcanic layer of about 233,000 years and a much earlier one of about 800,000. A microscopic analysis of grooves on it, by the American archaeologist Alexander Marshack, has revealed that these were intentionally made. It seems that this was a piece of material which had a natural likeness to a female human figurine and this likeness was then deliberately enhanced quite possibly making it the oldest confirmed piece of art.

This much later carving is known as the Venus of Brassempouy. ‘Venus’ is the name given by archaelologists to the small carved statues of women found in many paeleolithic sites throughout Europe. Their exact significance is a matter of debate. However, this one is approximately 25,000 years old and the hairstyle indicates an elaborate social network as well as evolved ideas of beauty or attractiveness. At the famous site of Dolni Vestonice in Czechoslovakia two human faces were found with apparent ‘droops’ on their left side. The site dates about 26,000 years ago and nearby was the body of a forty year old woman who apparently suffered from a bone disease that would have resulted in her face ‘drooping’ on the left. These faces might be among the first known attempts at some kind of ‘portraiture'(Daniel McNeil, The Face: A Natural History).

Further articles on the appreciation of beauty in prehistoric societies will be published soon.

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