Why is visual art produced by people and not normally by animals? (We know that elephants and chimpanzees can and do create interesting art in captivity but not, as far as we know, in the wild.) When did human beings start to create art, and what environmental, physical and neurological changes happened to allow us to do this? Anthropogeny – the study of early humans – has advanced very quickly in the past few decades and is now throwing fresh light into some of the remotest corners of human history.
One of the areas that has opened up the most, giving us a deeper understanding of the place of Homo sapiens, is the discovery of previously unknown members of our human family. Species such as the Denisovans in Eastern Asia and the Homo floresiensis from Indonesia. These recent human family tree discoveries, together with the expansion of insights into more familiar human species such as Homo neanderthalensis (500,000 to 40,000 years ago) and Homo heidelbergensis (700,000 to 300,000 years ago). Due to their full grown adult size of 3′ 6″, Homo floresiensis have been nicknamed the Hobbits.
Another lively area of investigation – being made on the back of these recent findings – is the evolutionary change in the shape of the brains of Homo sapiens over the last 100,000 years. Our brains, it seems, have taken on a more globular form over time, whereas at one time they were similar in shape to those of Neanderthals – that is, more like a rugby ball than a European football. Interestingly, though, Neanderthals had, on average, slightly bigger brains than Homo sapiens do today.
What this actually means for Homo sapiens’s brain–wiring and cognitive ability is hotly debated, as new finds constantly alter contemporary scientific opinion. And this has a direct bearing on questions about the origins of human art, with some anthropologists seeing this change in brain shape as evidence for new cognitive ability that allowed humans for the first time to create complex art – such as the 15,000-35,000-year-old cave art of France and Spain.
What else are these new findings telling us about the origins of art?
Well, Neanderthals were creating art 60,000 years ago in the caves of modern Spain. Their ladder-like shapes, dots and hand prints may not have been as complex or realistic as the art of Homo sapiens, but it is art nonetheless. And recent finds in South African caves and Indonesia (Lubang Jeriji Saléh in Borneo) seem to suggest humans were creating rudimentary art long before Chauvet Cave and Lascaux Cave were painted. So it may be the case that recent changes to human brains don’t entirely account for the origins of art, and that what we might call ‘creative work’ was being produced in some form or other by our very ancient human relatives like Homo erectus and Homo antecessor hundreds of thousands of years ago. That seems unlikely, but it’s not impossible.
We will have to wait and see what is discovered next, but the science and the debate it gives rise to, give me as a contemporary artist much to ponder on. I sense the presence of this early art in aspects of contemporary practice. And I feel able, at least partially, to understand and respond to their ancient mark-making, even though as artists we are separated by tens of thousands of years.
Volume 35 no. 1 September / October 2020