Links with Past Artists / by Jeannine Cook

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Every time that new findings are published about art found on the walls of caves, it seems that our links with artist ancestors get pushed back further and further in time.  In other words, artists have been among the earliest hominoids to be able to organise abstract thought and find ways to express themselves visually. The remarkable announcement, about three days ago, that an Australian-Indonesian team  has dated the ghostly outlines of human hands on the walls of Maros Cave, on the island of Sulawesi,  to 39,900 years ago, has electrified everyone.  Not only is this one of the oldest examples of a form of art (created by blowing pigment dust onto outstretched hands to create the negative outline), but it is the first proof that Europeans were not the only early artists.  Asia had its share of them too. And most likely, given time and luck, examples of this early rupestrian art will be found in Africa too.

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Nonetheless, despite the dating of these hand outlines by sampling minute layers of the minerals covering them and using the radioactive uranium in some of them to fix this date of 39,900 years, there is another earlier artistic site.  In the Panel of Hands in the El Castillo cave in northern Spain, a red dot amongst the hand outlines  has been dated to more than 40,600 years ago.

Panel of Hands, El Castillo Cave, Spain. A hand stencil has been dated to earlier than 37,300 years ago and a red disk to earlier than 40,600 years ago, (Image courtesy of Pedro Saura)

Not so long ago, at the beginning of September this year, there was another fascinating announcement, more controversial, but nonetheless pretty persuasive.  In Gorham's Cave,  Gibraltar, an abstract, almost hash-tag shaped rock engraving has been dated to about 39-40,000 years ago, but has been ascribed to Neanderthal artists.  Just like  their modern descendents,  those far-away artists were capable of creating different types of art, whatever the purpose may have been. Again, this is not the oldest rock engraving - that distinction can be claimed by a 54,000 year old engraved sliver of rock found at the important archeological site, Quneltra, in the Golan Heights, Israel.

Rock Engraving, Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar (image courtesy of Steward Finlayson, Gibraltar Museum)

These early traces of artistic endeavour keep turning up, making for mind-stretching connections if one is an artist.  It is such a fascinating link. Why did those early artists create their images of hand outlines, of amazing animals (like  the strange pig-deer, the babirusa,  from Sulawesi), of deeply incised lines in obdurate rock?  Why, too, did the artist depicting this babirusa exaggerate the animal's different  proportions and, even more rare, place it on a ground surface instead of having it float on the wall as was usually done?

Pig-deer (Babirusa), Maros Cave, Sulawesi (Image  courtesy of Maxime Albert, Griffith University, Australia)

If these artists were driven by the need to invoke spirits of their vital food sources, or signals to fellow inhabitants, or claim shelters, or whatever, they still had to get into deep, dark caves and  have enough artificial light  (fires, flares - flickering and fugitive) to see.  They also had to take in with them the pigments and tools to create the art.  They had to have the mental ability to conceive how to translate their ideas into art. That included a wonderful imagination about how to use the different characteristics and configurations of the cave walls and ceilings to the best advantage for their artistic purpose.

In other words, they are no different from every artist today, in the 21st century.  We all have to conceive of what to say in our art, how to do it, how best to get it seen by others, and - if we be so lucky - get it seen by our descendents millennia hence!