People everywhere in the world create visual symbols. We make art to communicate, claim status, stir emotions and transcend the material world. Where did this urge to create come from, and when did it strike for the first time? European cave paintings of astonishing beauty date back as far as 35,000 years and are among the oldest visual images discovered so far. Yet the symbolic thinking needed for art probably developed earlier in Africa, the continent where our species emerged.
© Stan Ambrose
Ostrich eggshell beads
Archaeologists have unearthed disk-shaped beads cut from ostrich eggshells at sites in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa dating back some 40,000 years or more. They may have been strung for ornamental use, as with similar beads made by modern !Kung communities in Botswana.
Photo: Paul Chesley/Stone/Getty Images
Geisha applying make-up, Kyoto, Japan
Painting The Body
Body art is a form of expression used by people around the globe. Men and women may color their skin to signal they belong to a group or play a specific role in life, or to take part in festivals or religious ceremonies. The origins of body art are unknown, but some evidence suggests it has very ancient roots. The common pigment red ocher has been found in sites dating to more than 100,000 years ago. It might have been used in body decoration, although it has more practical uses as well.
© John Cancalosi/Peter Arnold, Inc.
Australian aboriginal boy. Traditional costume
Lumps of ocher and other pigments have been discovered at many early human sites. Some of the oldest paintings were colored with hematite (red ocher), limonite (yellow ocher) and charcoal or manganese, often powdered and mixed with a binder such as oil, water or blood.
© Paul Taçon
Aboriginal rock art, Kakadu National Park, Australia
A Long tradition
Rock shelters in Kakadu National Park in northern Australia display many layers of patterns and images, as generations of artists returned to these sites over thousands of years. Many of the oldest paintings show human figures in dynamic motion. Some depict animals such as the long-beaked echidna, which disappeared from the area around 18,000 years ago. While these pictures have yet to be chemically dated, details like this offer clues to their minimum age.
© Gunther Michel/BIOS/Peter Arnold, Inc.
Cave paintings, hands. Patagonia. Argentina
Touch of Color
Images of human hands appear in ancient rock art in nearly every region of the world. These silhouettes were made at Cueva de las Manos, in the remote Pinturas River Canyon of southern Argentina.
Lascaux: Art From The Ice Age
Credit: The Granger Collection, New York
Bison from the Cave at Lascaux, Montignac, France, c. 15,000 B.C.
Some of the world's most remarkable paintings are also among the most ancient. Lively images of horses, deer and wild oxen cascade across the walls of Lascaux Cave in southern France. Rich in detail, full of color and movement, this vivid composition was created some 17,000 years ago.
The rock face recreated above you shows five stag heads in profile. Some visitors to Lascaux have suggested these images represent a deer swimming across a river, portrayed at different moments in time. Painted by lamplight deep in the cave's interior, they were certainly created with a purpose in mind. Yet today we can only guess at the ideas or emotions they were meant to convey.
© AMNH / Rod Mickens
An Underground Wonder
In 1940, teenagers Jacques Marsal and Marcel Ravidat were exploring the hills near their home when they discovered a narrow opening in the ground. Together with two friends, they squeezed through the hole and slid into an underground chamber, hoping to find a secret passage to the nearby manor of Lascaux. But when they lifted a lamp, what they saw was far more amazing: ghostly horses, cattle and stags seemed to dance along the cave walls. Within weeks of their discovery, experts declared the Lascaux Cave paintings a masterwork of the Ice Age.
Inside The Cave
Nearly 2,000 figures have been painted or engraved in the corridors of Lascaux. Shown here are just a few of the striking images that decorate different parts of the cave.
Hall of The Bulls
In the largest chamber, shadowy horses and delicate stags appear alongside imposing aurochs, or wild cattle. One monumental bull stretches 5.5 meters (18 feet). Artists blew powdered pigment against the wall to paint the lower half of these enormous images, reaching up with a brush to complete the top.
A Lost Language
Geometric marks appear in many areas of the cave, part of a system of symbols that is hard to interpret today.
Here thin, branching red lines graze a red aurochs, and a horse's front legs seem to dissolve into a trail of black dots.
Light and Shadow
Lascaux's deepest chambers received no natural light. Early visitors brought torches, or lamps like the one shown here, found near a painted scene inside the cave. Made to burn animal fat, with moss or juniper fibers for a wick, the lamps cast a flickering light that made the art seem to tremble and move.
Twenty horses and a large black aurochs decorate one passage of Lascaux. The outlines of these graceful forms were engraved, then filled in with color. Mysterious checkerboard patterns of yellow, black, red and violet appear near the aurochs's hooves.
Ice Age artists paid close attention to the natural curves in cave walls and often used them to suggest animal features, or to portray depth and motion. These bison, centered on a bend in the rock, seem to leap from a corner of the cave.
© N. Aujoulat/CNP/MCC
Six dots in the Chamber of Felines, Lascaux Cave, France
End of The Line
Six red dots, neatly arranged, appear in the most remote corner of Lascaux. Some researchers have suggested symbols like these helped mark the geography of the cave.