The global society in which we live in today is just a ceiling tile on the top floor of the towering skyscraper that is human history. It stretches back two hundred thousand years, from the point in the fossil record when humans with modern-looking anatomy begin to appear. It can be hard to grasp this fact when we look back from an entirely Westernised perspective. By dating the Gregorian calendar from the erroneous birth date of Christ, we have created an arbitrary separation between ourselves and the civilizations that built the Great Pyramids, Stonehenge, and the Göbekli Tepe.
The Italian-American scientist and pioneer of Ice Age studies Cesare Emiliani proposed changing our calendar to help change our perspective. The Holocene Era adds ten thousand years to the calendar to encompass the Neolithic Revolution; the age when humanity transitioned from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agrarian communities.
However, evidence from around the world argues that the idea of “modernity” is far, far older than even that date. It’s though the art our ancestors left behind as their legacy that we can truly sense our shared history. The stories they told in their paintings and carvings tell fragments of a silent story almost entirely lost to us.
Fragments of shell jewellery discovered at Skhul Cave in Israel and also at Oued Djebbana in Algeria, around 100,000 years old in both locations, are claimed to show our ancestors developing the ability to think conceptually.
In the following nights I’d like to document some other examples of artistic relics that have survived from all around the world to show how humans expressed themselves in the thousands of years before we finished off the last mammoth for supper.
The Diepkloof Eggshells
In rock shelters in the Western Cape of South Africa, stones, bones and ostrich eggshells have been found decorated with engravings. Two of these received the most attention for the design of the intricate geometric patterns left on them, and have been dated to be 77,000 thousand years old.
At the Diepkloof Rock Shelter, humans saved the shells of the ostrich eggs they ate, and used them to convey abstract imagery. Since 1998 excavations at Diepkloof have uncovered hundreds of engraved eggshell pieces decorated with converging, intersecting and cross-hatched lines.
After the inevitable damage that comes with eighty thousand years of trampling, burning, and salt erosion, the surviving fragments are small, though archaeologists have been able to piece some of them together to show how these eggshells were reused as containers, and decorated by their users, possibly with more complex abstract designs.
“The motif is two parallel lines, which we suppose were circular, but we do not have a complete refit of the eggs,” explained Dr Pierre-Jean Texier from the University of Bordeaux, Talence, France. “The lines are crossed at right angles or oblique angles by hatching. By the repetition of this motif, early humans were trying to communicate something. Perhaps they were trying to express the identity of the individual or the group,” he told BBC News.
Stanley Ambrose, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois, thinks they are symbolic. “The diversity of design motifs is impressive. It is an important new addition to the corpus of evidence for the development of modern human symbolic and artistic expression in Africa.”
This interpretation isn’t universal, however. The engravings could have been done for aesthetic purposes unrelated to symbolism, says Thomas Wynn, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado.
The Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka
The Indus Valley is one of the cradles of civilization, at least a hundred thousand years old by some accounts. The earliest cave paintings are claimed to be at least thirty thousand years old.
A little south-east of Bhopal in modern-day India is where the rock shelters of Bhimbetka are nestled, in the foothills of the Vindhyan mountains. Translated into English, the name means roughly “Bhim’s Resting Place,” from the character in the ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, not the mobile payment app.
The cave complex, numbering into the hundreds, were research in 1957 by the archaeologist Dr Vishnu Wakankar. The earliest art they contain has been reported to be at least twelve thousand years old, a document in stone of how civilization in India grew and changed.
For countless generations these cave walls were a static art gallery revisited by each new generation. Paintings have been made one atop another, charting the evolution of drawing style as artists saw the creations of their ancestors and added their own.
Bison, tigers and rhinoceroses are like ghosts painted in black, green, and red. Spears and bows and arrows start to appear as hunting skills are learned and refined. Inevitably, tribal warfare is eventually depicted. Musical instruments, mothers and children, and religious figures are also shown, as elements of movement and perspective are introduced into the paintings as the artists grew more sophisticated.
The Serra da Capivara Cave Paintings
The vast Serra da Capivara National Park in the state of Piauí, Brazil, encompasses an area of 214 kilometres in circumference. Over three hundred archaeological sites dating back fifty thousand years have been uncovered, forcing a re-evaluation of the history of human settlement in the Americas.
The rock art found in these sites depict animals as well as battles amongst different tribes, hunting game, and opaque ceremonies. The dating of this art is controversial, however, and is based upon the calcite covering the paintings. The thickness of the limestone is how archaeologists have determined their age. If correct, this challenges the widely held view that the Americas were first colonised from the north, via the Bering Straits at around 10,000 BC, only moving down into Central and South America in the millennia thereafter.
“If they’re right, and there’s a great possibility that they are, that will change everything we know about the settlement of the Americas,” said Walter Neves, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of São Paulo whose own analysis of an 11,000-year-old skull in Brazil implies that some ancient Americans resembled aboriginal Australians more than they did Asians.
The Shigir Idol
Obviously, the art of prehistory that has survived into the present day is usually found in isolated areas of the world, safe from harsh weather conditions and urbanisation; in dry caves and remote shelters. Carved artworks made from wood are much, much rarer, surviving only through slim chance.
Near the remote city of Yekaterinburg in Russia at the tail-end of the Nineteenth Century, gold prospectors discovered a carved wooden idol in a peat bog. Five meters long and made from a larch tree, recent radiocarbon techniques have dated the idol to being close to eleven thousand years old, making it the earliest known example of wooden sculpture in the world from an era where the glaciers of the last Ice Age were still slowly retreating.
Presumably created by a tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers, the idol is covered on both sides with human faces and hands, along with zigzag lines and other markings, their meanings lost to time. It is topped with a human-like head, its mouth open.
Archaeologist Professor Thomas Terberger, of Göttingen University in Germany described the statue as changing dramatically our views about the birth of ritual art. The precise purpose of the idol is lost to us, of course, being the product of a culture that left no writing or other physical hisotry. “From our current perspective, it is very hard to work out what was going on in the minds of the creators of the Shigir Idol,” Terberger said.“What is certain is that its makers were saying a lot more than just an announcement that ‘I can build a big pole.’”
It’s an eerie, imposing statue that surely provoked unease in anyone who stumbled across it as they hunted a stray bison.
The Maliwawa Figures
Aboriginal art in Australia can be dated back as far as thirty thousand years, the oldest confirmed rock paintings in the world.
In Western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, there resides a vast collection of curious paintings discovered only this century, and numbering in the hundreds, in rock shelters dotted around the area. The large paintings of human figures and animals have been named the Maliwawa Figures and were publicised across the world in September of 2020.
Photograph: Paul S.C.Taçon
They have been described as very different from the other rock paintings found elsewhere, suggesting they were created by artists of a whole other culture. The paintings are sometimes life-size, although there are also some small ones (20–50 cm in height). Various lines of evidence suggest the figures most likely date to between 6,000 to 9,400 years of age.
Photograph: Paul S.C.Taçon
There is a mixture of human and animal images depicted. The humans wearing nothing other than headdresses, whilst the animals include wallabies, the marsupial known as a bilby with its long snout and pointed ears. and even a dugong. This has been described as “unusual” considering the distance of the caves from the nearest ocean.
Photograph: Paul S.C.Taçon
The people in their headdresses are shown dancing hand in hand with the animals, as if their relationship with their local wildlife far more harmonious than any we might have today.
The Rock Art of Alta
Way, way up in the remote parts of Norway, far north of the Arctic Circle, at the head of the Alta Fjord, there are thousands of ancient paintings and carvings are found on the smooth rock surfaces near the water’s edge.
The rock paintings were discovered by scientists in the 1960s, though they were commonly known amongst the locals. Alta was an important meeting place far north of the Arctic Circle from around seven thousand years ago. Across five different areas there are engraved images of elk, bears, geese, whales, fish, and all manner of local wildlife in vivid, wonderful drawings.
There are also images of hunting, fishing, and herding reindeer, as well as dancing and rituals, a true insight into real-life events as well as the myths and legends of the chilly north.
Similarly to other sites around the world, art from many different generations mingle amongst each other, reflecting the change of the hunter-gatherer societies and the evolution of their styles.
Archaeologists date the rock art via estimating the land upheaval and the changing shoreline as the last Ice Age came to an end. The sea level at Alta was over 20 metres higher 7000 years ago. The carvings move in different phases as the dwellers of the land moved with the sea, the oldest being further away from the current shoreline at the highest points of the current landscape.
The Cochno Stone
There are at least six thousand known prehistoric carved rocks in the United Kingdom and a similar amount in western mainland Europe. Doubtlessly, many more will have been lost in the millennia since their creation to elemental erosion and industrial development. In Scotland alone there are almost three thousand, created by communities between six and four thousand years ago. The Cochno Stone is near Glasgow and has been described as the most important of all the stones discovered in Europe, due to its size and the number of markings on it.
Dating back five thousand years, it was first identified as significant in the late 19th Century, and became a tourist attraction when Ludovic McLellan Mann, a local amateur archaeologist and apparently something of a buffoon, decided to use oil paints to colour them red, blue and yellow according to an obscure cosmology of his own devising (he liked his Ley lines).
The Cochno Stone looks a lot like the other stones across Scotland, decorate with abstract symbols: circular hollows nicknamed cups, as well as concentric rings, rosettes, and grooves. With the area becoming more densely urbanised in the 1960s, leading to vandalism and damage, the stone was buried without consultation or warning. It has remained hidden and largely forgotten, having been excavated once in the time since, in 2016, only to be reburied after computer scans were taken.
Despite being so numerous and widespread, their original purpose, the message their creators intended, is unknown. The cultures that created these markings are lost to us forever, and we can only speculate on why they made such abstract art, instead of human or animal figures as in other parts of the world. Giving them latter-day “cosmic significance” does nothing to add to the conversation.
Unfortunately the general public weren’t allowed to see the stone when it was unearthed in 2106, with only selected schoolchildren being able to take a peek. Have you ever paid a visit to see any ancient art in your part of the world? Do you have any photographs or impressions to share? Please do! And thanks for reading.