Pondering the origins of creativity.
Homo Sapien Sapien – wise man, knowing man, the wisest of wise men, modern man. We do think highly of ourselves, don’t we?
Anthropologists say that our species, the modern human being, came into existence about 200,000 years ago. For the first time on earth there was a species which was aware of its own existence. It was even aware that it was aware. It was able to understand a past, present and future, could plan ahead, could plan in groups, had language, could tell stories and could understand existence beyond the visible world. The primal connection between modern man and the world around him became less complete than it had been in the past. Now, man stood apart from other large mammals that shared the wilderness world. Up to the point of becoming “knowing man,” we were animals ourselves.
Some people would question whether we really separated from animals at all. But that’s another subject. I’ve been pondering the origins of creativity lately. At what point did we go from being homo sapien sapien to being homo artifex – creative man? For how long in history has the urge to create beauty and embellishment been a fundamental part of being a human being. Did that uniquely human characteristic begin 200,000 years ago?
Inscribed ochre from 70,000 years ago.
Up until about ten years ago, the oldest artworks we were aware of were about 35,000 years old. They were associated with the people who occupied the famous caves of Spain, France and Germany. Then, in 2002, the age of the initiation of creativity was suddenly doubled. Now our understanding of when modern man first employed art goes back to 70,000 years ago with finds of inscribed ochre in South Africa. Some scientists have said they believe the geometric designs are simply meaningless doodles. And they may well be the case, despite their high degree of organization and the very purposeful workmanship required to make the objects.
Four horses from the cave near Chauvet, France. Approximately 35,000 years old.
But there is no question that 35,000 years after the inscribed ochre was made (and 35,000 years ago) human beings were doing art. I’ve been making art the greater part of my life and I can assure you that such exquisite works of art are not the product of a spontaneous genius. These works are a function of an established tradition, passed down from generation to generation within a stable cultural framework. Can anyone seriously look at this image of the four horses and think that this is a product of leisure time which spontaneously sprung into existence 35,000 years ago? No. That is not possible.
Such an expressive depiction is the result of a stable culture which had been in existence for quite some time. The reason we date the beginning of artistic expression to 35,000 years ago is simply that this one cave (Chauvet) has the oldest evidence we’ve found of true art. But the art surely could not have begun only at that moment in the evolutionary timeline. Such expression requires a well from which to draw such sophisticated creativity. At the time of the Chauvet drawings the well was already rich with the history of a unique category of human endeavor – creativity outside of utility.
Finds in Algeria and in Israel show us that humans were decorating their own bodies with jewelry at least 100,000 years ago. The items found were beads made of shells. But what of objects made of grasses, of earth, of wood and of other less durable (but more easily worked) materials. Surely they go back further than 100,000 years ago. Such objects no longer exist for us to find. Personal decoration could actually extend back to the first homo sapien sapiens. It is possible that ‘knowing man’ and ‘creative man’ were never separated in time.
This brings me to the conclusion that there is no firm beginning point for the creation of art. We will not find the first drawing, painting, carving or decoration. Little by little the edifice of human understanding and creativity was built upon until we reached the point of being able to create these, the oldest surviving masterpieces of intentional, undeniable art at 35,000 years ago.
Of the thirty-five millenia between then and now, about six of them have some degree of recording which puts them in the category of history. There is a 6,000 year gap between the last paintings in the caves of Europe and the beginning of recorded history (and the beginning of civilization). These six millenia must have been a dark time, culturally speaking. But prior to this dark interim, there was a span of 20,000 years of consistent, culturally based art which survives in the caves. Twenty thousand years of a consistent cultural foundation…. What an idea!
The image of cave men (and women, of course) takes on a new light when described in the context of a stable culture that lasted more than three times the length of recorded history. Obviously these were not the stupid brutes I grew up thinking they were. Consider, for instance, that some of the cave paintings are done on ceilings that are three times the height of a man. Scaffolding was clearly necessary to do these images.
And what grand images they are! Some individual animal paintings are as much as five meters long. The surfaces they were working on were rough stone which required informed preparation. The groupings of animals are purposeful and fairly consistent in their arrangements and their depiction, despite tens of thousands of years separating the cave of Chauvet from the cave of Lascaux. The artists were working in pitch dark with oil lamps for light and nothing more than charcoal and earth for pigments. The logistics to pull it off even today would be quite a challenge! Thirty five millenia ago, it is an achievement of profound importance on an epochal level.
Cave paintings in Lascaux caves. Approximately 12,000 years old.
I’ve done large paintings and I know that they take not only planning, but some considerable and concerted effort to execute. The cave paintings were not just the efforts of the lone artist. These were endeavors which took a community’s cooperation over a span of time and for a specific purpose. (The span of time is sometimes thousands of years between different drawings on the same wall.) Remember, these folks were still hunter-gatherers. Yet they felt this was so important that they removed themselves from the necessary activities of food gathering, protection and shelter to coordinate their efforts to create pictures of animals on the ceilings of caves – pictures which possess remarkable beauty and power on a grand scale. The level of their artistic achievement is considerable and it humbles an artist such as myself.
It is said that Picasso reacted to the cave paintings by saying something along the lines of, ‘We haven’t learned anything in 12,000 years.’ I have to admit to having a very similar reaction myself. Only now the lament is updated to 35,000 years of creative dormancy.
Our present time is continually being turned over. Our future is quite unknowable in its seemingly perpetual and accelerating state of dramatic change and innovation. We find ourselves in a similar state of affairs as we consider the past. Perpetual renovations from scholarship and discovery dramatically remake our understanding of our past selves with notable frequency. What we thought we knew about paleolithic man is suddenly not so. It could be that the overarching characteristic fueling the exponential blossoming of modern man’s achievements is our innate creativity. It could be that without the admixture of artistic expression, an appreciation for beauty and creative problem solving in human activity, our existence would be little more than comfortable utility. It is a gift from the universe, this creativity. Art is not a luxury for an educated elite. It is a fundamental part of being the wisest of wise men.
The caves of Chauvet and Lascaux are well represented online. If you are interested in getting a clearer picture of what these treasures are like, take a look at these sites: Chauvet Cave
and Lascaux Cave
are both French government sites that provide fabulous virtual tours of these two caves in great detail.
The Cave Painters, by Gregory Curtis, was published in 2006. Although I would not recommend it for its shining literary turn of phrase, it is a very good review of how the European Caves were discovered, percieved, studied and revised up to the present. If you’re interested in the subject, paleolithic art, it is a good read.
The two virtual tours above of Chauvet and Lascaux caves are enough to keep the interested person busy for hours. But Werner Herzog’s documentary of Chauvet cave, Cave of Forgotten Dreams can be truly moving. Herzog’s personality sometimes gets in the way of the stunning cave and its art. The music is often too overpowering. His film sometimes diverges in the most annoying ways from the jaw-dropping spectacle of the cave art. But you must see this. And if you can see it in 3-D, even better. The annoyances will fade in the memory of this astonishing place. I was nearly in tears while watching this film, it is so startlingly beautiful.