When did Art become an Integral Part of Man's Way of Life? / by Jeannine Cook

It's been a day of fascinating coincidences.

Before I go further, I should just say that I am very much a child of Africa, I spent many, many blissful hours as a child along the seashores of Kenya and Tanzania and I still have treasured collections of the seashells I gathered there long ago.

Those reasons were enough to prompt me to read with attention an article from August's Scientific American magazine which my husband waved under my nose. Entitled " When the Sea Saved Humanity", it is an account by archaeologist Curtis W. Marean of how his findings in a cave above the rocky coast near Mossel Bay, South Africa, have afforded insights into how the very small and endangered population of Homo sapiens could have survived the dry, cold glacial age that rendered most of Africa uninhabitable from 195,000 to 123,000 years ago. South Africa's coastal bounty of shell fish and its very nutritious underground geophytes or tubers allowed this small group of people (from whom today's nearly seven billion inhabitants descend!) to survive.

Excavations from this cave, PP13B, at Pinnacle Point, have shown that man began living there 164,000 years ago. Evidence from the cave and others in the same area has pushed back to these very early dates proof of human cognition, technological abilities, tracking of time through lunar phases and sophisticated use of marine resources. But they have also shown another highly important sign of human "cognitive modernity", namely the evidence of art and its symbolic usage.

This is where, as an artist, I read with fascinated glee. Amongst the other artefacts found in the cafe at Pinnacle Point were countless pieces of red ocre, carved or ground to powder to mix with some binder, such as animal fat, to make paint for body or other surface adornment. By 110,000 years ago, red ocre and sea shells, collected and saved for their aesthetic appeal, made their appearance in the cave. These point to the existence of the concept of art and other symbolic activities. Another British archaeologist, Ian Watts, has found worked and unworked pieces of red ocre by the thousands at other sites in South Africa, dating from 120,000 years ago. (Remember - the earliest European cave paintings that use red ocre on the cave walls date from 32,000 years ago.)

Curtis Marean also mentions the discovery, in Blombos Cave, to the west of Pinnacle Point, of pieces of ocre with systematic, abstract carving by Christopher S. Henshilwood of the University of Bergen. Along with the ocre rocks, he found refined bone tools and beads, all dating from 75,000 years ago.

The image of the abstractly-decorated rock is courtesy of Christopher Henshilwood and Francesco d'Enrico, via National Geographic.

 Red ocre incised brick, 75,000 years old from Blombos Cave, South Africa (Image courtesy  of National Georgraphic, Italy)

Red ocre incised brick, 75,000 years old from Blombos Cave, South Africa (Image courtesy  of National Georgraphic, Italy)

This afternoon, I listened to Alix Spiegel, on NPR's All Things considered programme, asking "When did we all become mentally modern?" Symbols again.

 Shells like these, into which holes have carefully been drilled by hand, were used as beads. The beads, which were found at Moroccan Middle Paleolithic sites and are believed to be about 82,500 years old, were used as symbols and indicated status and beliefs, much in the way modern wedding rings or religious iconography do. (Image and text courtesy of NPR.org)

Shells like these, into which holes have carefully been drilled by hand, were used as beads. The beads, which were found at Moroccan Middle Paleolithic sites and are believed to be about 82,500 years old, were used as symbols and indicated status and beliefs, much in the way modern wedding rings or religious iconography do. (Image and text courtesy of NPR.org)

Professors Francesco d'Enrico and Marian Vanhaeren published these illustrations of the beads in the Journal of Human Evolution.

All these amazingly early datings of evidence of art and its use in man's daily life give one an even deeper feeling of the centrality of art's role in our lives. We ignore this heritage at our peril.