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Blombos Cave sits 300 kilometers east of Cape Town on the edge of the Indian ocean. Twenty years ago, an archaeological discovery in this South African cave challenged what scientists thought they knew about human behavior. There, archaeologists unearthed pockets of tiny, perforated shells apparently used as beads by early humans. While human interest in ornamentation had previously been traced back 50,000 years, the Blombos beads—estimated between 76,000 to 100,000 years old—proved that our interest in aesthetics was much more ancient.

With this discovery, the beads entered an ongoing debate. Some archaeologists argued that early humans wore the shells to indicate social status or group membership, making the beads the earliest known evidence of symbolic communication. But what is symbol and what is art? And—a trickier question—how long have humans been making art, really?

The origins of art and other difficulties

“All of art is made up of signs, but not all signs are art,” explains Dr. Larissa Mendoza Straffon, an art scholar and archaeologist who has worked in Blombos with a team of researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway. “[Signs are] one of these elements that make up art. And a symbol is a sign that acquires meaning and stands for something else.”

Straffon is interested in the origins of art, and what early art can tell us about the people who made it. “When people talk about the origins of art, sometimes they include music, or literature and poetry, but I am mainly interested in visual art.” Her reason for this is pragmatic: Straffon’s background is in archaeology, and visual art is the medium that leaves a physical trace in the archaeological record.

From ochre painted on cave walls to beads made from shells, visual art has the power to imprint itself on the historic timeline. But what it can’t do is disclose the artist’s intentions. When archaeologists unearth an artifact that appears to serve as a sign or symbol, it’s difficult to know what it meant to the people who made it—if it meant anything at all. There’s always a chance that one of our early ancestors simply decided to whittle interesting lines on a piece of bone, or that they grew bored on a long afternoon and started doodling.

Questions about what ancient art meant to its creators are murky. But things get even cloudier when scholars try to pinpoint exactly when art-making began. If art is just images, Straffon explains, then the origins of art are fairly recent, around 50,000 years old. The oldest evidence of image-making in Europe takes the form of animal figurines unearthed in Germany. If only paintings count as visual art, then the phenomenon is even more recent. Sulawesi, Indonesia is home to some of the oldest surviving cave art, painted nearly 45,000 years ago. Radiocarbon dating estimates the paintings in France’s Chauvet cave to be around 35,000 years old.

“There’s this whole debate, like what counts as visual art?” Straffon says. “I don’t think that it’s only painting or only images because even nowadays, and especially with contemporary art, a bunch of things are visual art, and we use these things to convey meaning.” She returns to the shell beads discovered in Blombos Cave as an example. Should personal ornaments like jewelry count as a form of art? Some anthropologists think so, and believe that body ornamentation was the first type of art to develop. After all, as Straffon says, “the human body is the first canvas.”

Ancient aesthetic appreciation

In 2018, an exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas argued that artistic intention began far earlier than 50,000 years ago. First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone was the first art museum exhibition to present ancient hand axes and figure stones as works of art. A collaboration between Los Angeles-based artist Tony Berlant and archaeologist Dr. Thomas Wynn, First Sculpture featured artifacts ranging in age from 2 million to 50,000 years old.

Hand axes are traditionally understood as the longest-used tool in human history. Most ancient examples seem purely utilitarian, but occasionally, prehistoric hand axes are designed in such a way that appears downright artistic. They’re carved from visually interesting stones, or crafted in unusual sizes, or even shaped to represent an animal. These hand axes point to some aesthetic decision made by their creator. They indicate that modern humans are not the only people compelled to create for creativity’s sake.

Wynn, who specializes in Paleolithic archaeology, is hesitant to call the hand axes art. He’s not alone; archaeologists typically resist defining what constitutes a work of art. This resistance goes back to the mid-19th century, during what Wynn describes as a “mania” around finding figure stones. “For a while people were going through gravel deposits and picking up rocks that looked like things and insisting that museums put these things on display.” By the end of the 1800s, archaeologists had grown hostile towards the idea of artifacts as art. But over the last few decades, the issue of aesthetics has returned to the front page of human evolutionary studies. 

“[Tony and I] weren’t the first people to suggest early stone tools had an aesthetic component to them,” Wynn says. “But I think we were the first ones who actually put together a coherent exhibition and coherent argument about what that might mean, in terms of the evolution of human aesthetics.”

The human brain is wired to respond to aesthetic stimuli, a characteristic that evolved over time and sets us apart from other primates. “We’ve tended to look at it sort of simplistically, as [if] there was no aesthetic activity before the appearance of art, and then suddenly there was art,” says Wynn. From an evolutionary point of view, in which things develop at a nearly imperceptible rate over huge swaths of time, this viewpoint doesn’t make much sense. It’s more likely that our sense of artistic appreciation developed very, very gradually. “Very early on, by 1.8 million years ago, hominids [were] doing something with artifacts to make them more visually appealing,” Wynn says. “That is really the initial roots of what we now call artistic behavior.” 

Our pre-human ancestors cared about aesthetics. They cared enough to shape hand axes from visually-striking rocks, or carve them in unusual shapes and sizes. And as the artifacts displayed in First Sculpture argue, this aesthetic appreciation has roots that reach back nearly two million years.

From visually-appealing tools to art

But when does a visually-appealing hand axe cross the line from an aesthetic tool to capital-A Art

By and large, the artifacts that would help answer this question have been lost to the sands of time. As early as 300,000 years ago, early humans were creating representations of other things. One example is the Venus of Berekhat Ram, a figurine discovered at a site in Israel. This piece of pumice, smaller than your thumb, appears to have been carved to resemble a woman. But everything goes dark after the creation of this figurine for a quarter-million years. Other than a few scattered examples, we don’t see representations like the Venus of Berekhat Ram again until the Upper Paleolithic period. Part of that is a result of preservation problems. Most materials don’t survive forever, so any artistic artifacts carved in, say, wood, are long gone. This means that from the 300,000-year mark of the Berekhat Ram figurine to the full-blown artistic tradition that emerged some 50,000 years ago, we can’t see the details of what occurred.

Archaeological evidence shows that hominins like our cousins the Neanderthals also shared a rudimentary artistic sense and even painted cave art. But Straffon says these records are too few and far between to tell us anything about a robust artistic tradition. It’s possible that Neanderthals created many more artistic objects made out of less-hardy materials—wood or animal skin—but these artifacts have long disappeared back into the earth. 

One thing is clear, however: once we hit the 50,000-year mark on the historic timeline, archaeological evidence documents an artistic explosion. Our human ancestors living during this time were creators, just like us. 

For many years, the explanation for this creative explosion was cognitive. Researchers argued that a change in the brain suddenly allowed people to produce visual art. But Straffon believes that a social explanation is more likely. “Maybe there’s simply a factor of, there are more people in the world, and when there are more people, you suddenly have to interact with people that you don’t know. And then art is very useful for that.” When you don’t know a group or a person, then you can signal to each other through art. You can symbolize what group you belong to, if there are many people groups. In the absence of shared language or culture, visual art may have stepped in as a medium of communication.

What ancient art says about the people who made it

It’s tempting to look at ancient art—the warty pig cave painting in Indonesia or the human hand outlined in red pigment in France—and wonder, What does it mean? But perhaps a better question is, What does this art reveal about the people who made it

When it comes to cave paintings, Straffon believes, there’s a lot we can infer about their creators. We can glean what animals the painters lived with and what was important for them. We can decide how often they visited the caves, and whether the visits were linked to the seasons, their camps, or how they moved around in the landscape. Changes in the style of painting over time might indicate a change in tools. These questions about tools and seasonal movement patterns “are not very sexy,” Straffon says, “but they bring us closer to the actual people who lived and saw and created those paintings.”

“There’s much we can say through looking at art. Were they smart? Yes. Did they have language? Yes, I think by now, there’s no question about that. But in the end, they were people.”

And what about the pre-humans who did not make art, exactly, but at least intentional, aesthetic choices? What can we learn about our early ancestors who carved hand axes both for function and for visual appeal?

For one thing, we know that aesthetic choices weren’t the norm. Most ancient stone artifacts are mundane: daily tools that people didn’t invest much special effort in crafting. But once in a while, they invested the time and effort in creating something beautiful. If it was simply a matter of making a nice artifact to get access to a mate, Wynn says, there would be more of these aesthetic objects. “Everybody would have been trying to make the nicest hand axes possible, and that’s not what we see. Instead we see, once in a while, somebody would invest a lot of effort in making a beautiful artifact.” Because these visually-appealing artifacts are so unusual, it’s as if the individuals who created them did so for the same reasons that people make art today: out of the pure desire to create. When we trace the artistic impulse back to its beginning, it seems that our pre-human ancestors were driven to create something as an extension of themselves.

The philosopher Alva Noe calls human beings “designers by nature.” We are wired with the impulse to create as an extension of ourselves. And by looking to the earliest creators in history, we can see reflections of our own humanity. “Art can help us frame a better picture of our human nature,” Noe writes. “This may be one of the sources of art’s abiding value. Art is a way of learning about ourselves.”

As Wynn points out, looking at the earliest examples of aesthetic creation also tells what we share in common with our most remote ancestors. We know that they, like us, appreciated regular geometric forms. Not only that, but they imposed regular geometric forms on their objects and tools when they had the opportunity. “If we look at a symmetrical object and find pleasure in that symmetrical object, we know that our ancestors a million and a half years ago did also,” Wynn says. “It gives us a connection to creatures that were, in many respects, not human.” 

In the beginning—some 1.8 million years ago—it seems that our pre-human ancestors were fueled by a desire to make objects not only for function but for the pleasure of creating something beautiful. “This urge to create visually stunning objects is something that I think everyone does. It’s all over the world, everywhere. And it’s something that now we think is very old.”