More than Cave Art: Creativity in Prehistory

When we think of prehistoric art, the first image that springs to our mind is cave art. And for good reason- the sheer scale and anthropological importance of cave art cannot be understated. However, our ancestors’ creativity was born far before the emergence of cave art and extended to fields beyond these paintings- from necklaces to figurines, art accompanied every step of their evolution, forever evolving to keep up with our own changing nature and society.

Ancient Jewellery:

One of the most ancient art forms ancient humans practiced was the creation of jewellery. Nassarius shell beads were found in Israel 100 000ya and were found in Morocco 82,000 years ago. Beads made from pierced and pigmented shells were found in Blombos Caves 75,000 years ago.

Creating ornaments required early humans to recognise the potential of objects to be modified by piercing and being strung together. Early humans could have used these ornaments to signal their group identity and social status. This use of ornaments to devise and exchange messages with combination of symbols is why they are thought to mark the emergence of symbolic language.

The doodle that started it all:

The next evolution in prehistoric art comes with the development of decorative patterns, etched onto surfaces such as rock, shells or ochre. Blombos Caves are home to the earliest drawings in history, when an early human used a piece of ochre to scratch a hashtag-like mark on stone.

This abstract design created 77,000 years ago tells researchers today that the early humans who created it were capable of symbolic thought, and could store information out of the human brain. Similar patterns were found on ochre fragments in the same and older archaeological levels, implying that the cross-hatch pattern was reproduced with different techniques onto different surfaces.

Treasures of the Diepkloof Rock Shelter:

250 fragments of ostrich egg shells were found with intricate decorative patterns etched on them. The eggshells are dated to around 60 000ya, and span a few thousand years. According to researchers, these fragments constitute the “earliest evidence of a graphic tradition among prehistoric hunter-gatherer populations.”

Exploring Sculpture:

Prehistoric sculpture also evolved and became more refined in the Upper Palaeolithic period. The lion man of Germany, dated to about 35 000-40 000BP is the oldest example of figurative sculpture. The famous Venus of Vestoniche and Willendorf may have been linked to human rituals and beliefs- they could act as fertility dolls, or reassure women during their first labour.

This tradition of sculpture, along with other forms of art continued into the Mesolithic Period. We can observe stylistic differences in early and later, for example: the increase in portrayal of human figures, such as on the rock art of Spain. As human life changed with the rise of agriculture and permanent settlements, art too evolved to match man’s growing needs. Art in Neolithic society was thus characterised by the production of pottery and advances in architecture.

Art flourishes in today’s technological society, the only thing that has changed is the means of creating it. Art can never be seen as irrelevant since like humans, it adapts, evolving along with our own evolving nature. No matter where you may look, be it the past, the present or the future, as long as there are humans, there will always be art.

Written by: Devi Sankhla