Paleolithic Art: Origin and Intent

As often as I take for granted the comforts and conveniences of today, I also contrive to understand how our culture came to be as it is now. Compelled by an unspeakable desire to connect with my earliest ancestors, to I decided to do a mini-research study into the beginnings of art and civilization. Since the beginning of recorded time, humankind has striven to make sense of the world, inventing progressively complex ways to quantify and explain all they experienced.  I believe the most definitive demonstration of this progression from a primitive, unaffected lifestyle to a thinking,deliberate one dates back to the Stone Age. Artifacts from the Near East and Europe dating back thousands of years tell a story of ingenuity, creativity and determination that explains how our species has become exceptionally dominant over all other species in time.

The Paleolithic Age (circa 30,000 to 8000 B.C.) marks our species’ earliest attempts at adaptation and creation. It may seem that humans are relatively ill-equipped for the rigors of life in nature – lacking fur, claws, venom, or even an efficient metabolism – but we were equipped with a superior intellectual capacity, and able to rationalize problems in order to survive and thrive. The humans who lived at this early point in our history lacked the experience of future generations, and managed a difficult survival through hunting and gathering nomadic societies, leaving each successive area behind when its resources of food had been depleted. They made temporary dwellings of cave mouths, rock shelters and huts. There was no written (and likely little or no spoken) language among them, and they learned to communicate to other humans through the invention of art in rudimentary forms.

Because survival and fertility through hunting and reproduction were the most compelling forces in their lives, these often became the subjects of their first attempts at art. Surprisingly diverse mediums were used in this endeavor, including stone, clay, bone, ivory, and even antler. This fact begs the question whether there were other, less-preservable mediums utilized by these early peoples as well, which would have been destroyed by the ravages of time to leave no evidence of their creation. If hard stone and bone were utilized, it would seem that more pliable materials, such as wood and animal hides, would have been useful in their hands as well. The stone, clay, and other artifacts that did survive, however, provide us with a window into the mind of primitive man.

Nude female forms (of course) were a popular subject for depiction, likely in deference to their seemingly mystical quality to give birth, and consequently, ensure the survival of the species. These early female goddesses were not representative of natural proportions, instead emphasizing and exaggerating the rounded hips, breasts and stomachs of a nubile or pregnant woman. In addition to clothing, these “Venuses” lacked facial features, with detail and attention relegated to the conceptual perspective. A typical example of this type was a free-form sculpture found in Willendorf, Austria measuring approximately 4.25 inches tall. This Venus of Willendorf was also painted with red ochre, and has a texture that suggests hair or a woven hat on its head.

 Animal forms were also portrayed regularly in Paleolithic art, and were almost exclusively in done in profile, to best display the four legs, horns, body and head shape, and overall proportions of the animal. These animals were almost always prey that would have been a predominant source of food for the early humans. One significant example of such artwork is displayed in a network of caves in Lascaux, France. The herds of aurochs, bison and horses are executed extensively and in detail, found often in remote, unlit areas. This suggests that the paintings may have been ritualistic in nature, adding spirituality to the list of early man’s attributes. These herds, like the female forms of the time, were depicted with an eye to a conceptual, descriptive perspective. Horns were depicted in frontal view attached to a head and body in profile to maximize the information that was conveyed in the work. While rudimentary in form and simple in concept, these earliest creations by primitive man reveal to paleontologists some of the most crucial foundations for what we know about them today.

Around 8000 B.C. in the Near East, mankind made significant socioeconomic developments that would forever change the course of human history, ushering in what is now known as the Neolithic Era (circa 8000 to 2300 B.C.).  As game became scarce with the northern migration of herds and disappearance of mammoths, men were forced to adapt and change their way of life. Hunting and gathering gave way to stock animals and agriculture. It seems that necessity was the mother of invention for these previously nomadic tribes, as cultivation, rather than consumption of resources, became necessary for continuance of the species. Wheat and barley were found and cultivated; sheep, pigs and goats were bred and domesticated. These more permanent, localized food sources gave rise to the first fixed dwelling structures, which in turn gave rise to settled communities.

As food became easier to provide, requiring less time and energy in the pursuit of survival alone, more time became available for other pursuits, so art and architecture became more refined and prolific. Stone tools became a household staple, and art expanded to also include textiles, arts and crafts. In this spirit of discovery, invention and resourcefulness arose metalworking, pottery, and the ability to count. New mediums were utilized for art, textiles and architecture, including bitumen, plaster and obsidian. In a self-perpetuating flurry of discovery, the modern world found its roots in early civilizations such as those from Mesopotamia.

One example of these early city-structures is the unique Çatalhöyük, located in what is now southern Turkey, which existed circa 7500 to 5700 B.C. The remains of this contiguous city structure are a wellspring of information about early man. The city consisted of a series of houses connected one to the other without doors or streets. With more time for leisure and socialization, the permanent structures that were built took on new purpose. There is evidence of rooms designated for separate living functions, such as kitchens, shrines and sleeping rooms, and an abundance of tools, textiles and art objects have been found there.

        The subjects of artwork from this time expanded to included men as well as women, with the continued theme of animal life as well. The humans in paintings and sculptures were given new features, such as facial structures and hair, and landscapes became more popular.  These often portrayed humans dominating animals, as in a well-known Çatalhöyük painting hunt scene. Instead of rock walls, many paintings were then being done by brush on prepared canvases of white plaster, giving the painted artwork more color, versatility and depth. Narrative painting also became more prevalent, as did landscapes of nature and topographical features.  The Paleolithic composite view still persisted in Neolithic art, but now included human torsos portrayed from the frontal view with heads turned at a ninety degree angle to maximize subject detail; this echoed the animal head with turned horns from the previous age. The theme of fertility persists as well, as evidenced by plaster statues of breasts and paintings of horns found in the homes of Çatalhöyük. Humans of this new era took what its descendants had accomplished and – with the aid of agriculture, livestock and permanent settlements – paved the way for successive generations’ increasingly elaborate innovations – a trend that still persists to this day.

It is hard to imagine a world without art, textiles, or architecture. Even stranger, try to imagine an existence without cultivated crops or domesticated animals. It’s impossible to say what might have arisen in their place. Perhaps a world-wide trend toward a more efficient style of nomadic herding, hunting and gathering would have grown, as we see in the modern-day Bedouin culture in the deserts of Arabia, or the Romani people in Libya. It could be argued that it is impossible to know what might have been without these advances. We, as a species, have shown remarkable adaptability and ingenuity when challenged with loss of life. As we have proven in the Stone Age, we possess the diligence and creativity to make the most of our surroundings, including the beautification of our surroundings and edification of our species through art.

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