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Art Origin: 32 Art Symbols that Challenge Human Timelines

Art Cave

Art origin has been for a long time, surrounded by mysteries and missing links.

“Art and the ability to think of abstract concepts is what distinguishes our species from other animals – capabilities that also led us to use fire, develop the wheel and come up with the other technologies that have made our kind so successful” – Pallab Ghosh, Science correspondent, BBC News

The Art origin or birth of art has for long been shrouded with mysteries and missing intellectual links. This has worsened with recent discoveries of artistic representations in places like Indonesia challenging the creative explosion of Western Europe. For long, Paleoanthropologists have believed that art was born about 40,000 years ago during a creative explosion that occurred in Europe. This was after the first modern humans arrived there from Africa 5,000 years earlier. Does this mean modern man left Africa without artistic competences? Was he the first to introduce art in Europe? Was cave art being practiced elsewhere earlier or during the same timelines? But these are questions for another day. Humans are by nature artistic and the history of art is the history of humanity. These 32 artistic and mysterious symbols challenge conventional human and art timelines.

Art Origin, Popular Imaginations and Cave Life

It is in the popular imagination that Homo sapiens (modern humans that first appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago and anatomically identical to us and later spread to Europe) were cave-dwellers. This is informed by representational artistic works that these beings left in caves back then, that depicted quite a number of important aspects of early human life. Consequently, paleoanthropologists have focused on cave paintings and drawings of animals such as horse, deer and bison as well as human figures among other representational art, to formulate theories to explain how our ancestors lived. For centuries, life in the cave has taken the center-stage. Scholars have challenged this notion and suggested that early humans may have produced artistic representations all around their environment but caves were better in preserving the works. Furthermore, did we overuse the caves to near extinction? Or how can we explain the scarcity of caves in our current environment? Urban life is not an excuse for the millennials or even baby boomers to have never seen a cave in real life. The fact is caves are not less common today than they were 200,000 years ago. But did our ancestors only go into the caves to express their artistic competences?

Nonetheless, artistic expressions in the caves have provided important clues on how our ancestors lived, how we evolved and the timelines for each important milestone in our evolutionary journey. According to a study done by paleoarchaeologist Genevieve von Petzinger, cave painting and drawings are important. However, the lines, triangles, disks, circles and dots also found in the caves but largely ignored by researchers for a long time, have something that is more interesting than the animals and humans depicted. In this study, Von Petzinger has examined geometric shapes that were done between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago in the Upper Paleolithic Ice Age.

Art Origin Challenging Conventional Human and Art Timelines

After documenting and analyzing geometric signs and symbols in 52 caves located in Portugal, Italy, Spain and France, what she discovered sent chills down her intellectual spine. In a period of 30,000 years in the whole of Europe, 32 symbols occurred repeatedly. How could this repetition of small number of symbols be explained? “That really small number tells you that they must have been meaningful to the people who were using them, because they were replicating them,” she concluded. In addition to this, she discovered that two thirds of these geometric shapes were already in use before we arrived in Europe meaning that someone else had already developed the skill. The use of the symbols was not an introduction of a new phenomenon but a continuation of a tradition that had already been in existence. So, when did we exactly start using artistic and graphic expressions? Quite earlier than we thought!

Additionally, the researcher posited that some of these signs pointed to potential artistic systems that we left with when setting off from Africa and moved with them as we continued spreading throughout the world. This suggests that modern humans had artistic competences even before leaving Africa, or at least before arriving in Europe. This suggestion is supported by recent discoveries, according to Journal Nature, of cave paintings in a rural area on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi that, before them, paintings as old as these had been confirmed in caves only in Western Europe.

As has become routine in anthropological inquiries relating to early prehistoric era, most of what has traditionally been taken as the “known” is increasingly becoming obsolete or no longer holds water when put into test using contemporary and recent theoretical frameworks. The art origin is therefore quite a bit different from what we have taken as “truth”. The following are the 32 strange artistic symbols made by early humans that challenge the conventional human and art timelines as catalogued by von Petzinger.

Art Origin

The 32 symbols catalogued by von Petzinger in prehistoric cave art in Europe – Courtesy Genevieve von Petzinger.

These symbols catalogued by von Petzinger have brought about new discussions and interpretations of the world around us. As has been observed, these early artists had an affinity to color red (or red ochre). This suggests that the creators of these artistic expressions had since developed a sense of choice rather than using only what was available to them. This in itself suggests that the human brain’s complex cognitive powers were already taking shape this early and hence a bringing to fore a different view in terms of art origin.

Geometric Signs of Ice Age Europe as Precursor of Complex Human Communication

Looking at these documented strange ancient symbols by our prehistoric ancestors, we can easily be persuaded to connect them with what we now call alphabet or glossary. However, we know that humans started developing complex graphic communication systems only 5,000 years ago. Yet, these symbols appear to have some clear communicative propensities, such that it is not difficult to trace the origin of our first rudimentary writing systems back to them (the 32 symbols). This is a preposition that has been put forward by the researcher. Von Petzinger argues that this was a necessary invention to provide a communication system that would stand the test of time and last for tens of thousands of years. These symbols provided a reference point from where modern writing and communication systems would stem and flourish. According to von Petzinger in her video;

“There are three main types of communication, spoken, gestural — so things like sign language — and graphic communication. Spoken and gestural are by their very nature ephemeral. It requires close contact for a message to be sent and received. And after the moment of transmission, it’s gone forever. Graphic communication, on the other hand, decouples that relationship. And with its invention, it became possible for the first time for a message to be transmitted and preserved beyond a single moment in place and time”

In conclusion, art and artistic expressions provide a very important window into the human mind. If early human ancestors were during Ice Age, able to use art and strange symbols to create and convey meanings and realities through time and space, it means humanity and art are in the least inseparable. This brings into question earlier Eurocentric beliefs that art was invented and sharpened when our ancestors reached Europe from Africa. The fact that these geometric symbols were already in use before we arrived, points to the fact that (and other studies have confirmed) someone else was making art (Neanderthals) before we arrived and paints a different picture of art origin. Additionally, recent discoveries of cave paintings and drawings dating the same period on the other side of the globe indicates that man had the capacity to express himself artistically even before leaving Africa.

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Editor, Virtualskillset Inc.

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