cave painting

All posts tagged cave painting

Photo by Michael D. Gumert. – CC-BY – No larger image available

Some years ago I published a series of articles about evolution in my local newspaper. It generated some interest and a spate of letters to the editor, and my publisher liked it. There was even a creationist who challenged me to a debate over it. I decided to reproduce it here. This is part three, which I called Walk This Way. See also Part One and Part Two.

The first primates show up in the fossil record about 50-55 million years ago. They are part of the resulting explosion of new species that evolved to fill environmental niches vacated by the non-avian dinosaurs, after they went extinct sixty-five million years ago. Many of the new species are mammals, and we see a mammal-dominated landscape right now. Of the mammals, it is the primates which interest us the most, as they are our ancestors. Primates spread out and evolved into many different species, including lemurs, monkeys and apes. They can be found in most parts of the world, but it was in Africa where the line led to humans.

Between seven and eight million years ago a primate living in Africa split into two species. Such splits normally result when two populations of one species get separated somehow. Something like that happened to the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans. A fossil from that period shows definite signs of an upright, two-legged gait, but the oldest hominin fossil with extensive bipedal adaptations is Ardipithecus ramidus. That was the beginning of the hominin, or human-like primate. Since then it evolved and radiated out into many different hominin species, most of which have gone extinct.

The first evidence of stone tools shows up at least 2.6 million years ago, with some evidence that pre-homo hominins were using them as early as 3.3 million years ago. Undoubtedly they were using tools made of other materials like wood and grass, but only stone can survive long enough for us to find.

Homo erectus is thought to have tamed fire by about 1.8 million years ago. Others put the use of hearths beginning later, at about 800,000 and even only 300,000 years ago. Much of the discussion revolves around whether we were simply burning grasslands to improve hunting, or actually sitting around a hearth cooking food on a regular basis. Those favoring the earlier date cite the shrinking jaw and growing brain of H. erectus as evidence that they were cooking their food. The pinnacle of upright hominids seemed to have been reached, but their brains were only about half the size of ours. Larger than the brains of similar-sized animals, but still too small by our standards.

Increasing brain size was the next big step. By the time we reach the age of Neanderthals, about four hundred thousand years ago, and modern humans at about half that, our brains were as big as they are now.

Since then it’s been a matter of social and technological evolution. The first jewelry shows up about 75-100 thousand years ago. The first garments appear to have been manufactured about 100 thousand years earlier, based on the evolution of body lice. The tool set became extremely sophisticated.

Neanderthals died out about thirty thousand years ago, leaving only a single hominid species on Earth for the first time in millions of years. Our cultural evolution continued to accelerate, as evidenced by sophisticated cave paintings, bringing us to the present state of high civilization.

Let’s hope we’re not due for another mass extinction.


Photo Credit - Greg Laden

Photo Credit – Greg Laden

Among the most popular posts on Green Comet is the Cave Art series, parts One, Two and Three. They make a nice summary of the state of the discipline for anyone with a casual interest. A good way to get a sense of what is out there in the way of cave paintings and rock art in general. On Scienceblogs I found a post by Greg Laden that goes into it in more depth, with emphasis on when and where our human ancestors began to produce it. From his post, How are art and human evolution related:

“Art is almost certainly important and has a place on (the) list of things to consider when wondering about the evolution of our species.” – Greg Laden

Laden does a good job of exploring the subject and makes useful suggestions for further thought and exploration. If you enjoyed the Cave Art series, I recommend furthering your education with his blog post.


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See also parts one, two and four.

The study of cave art continues to produce new revelations. For example, Suzanne Villeneuve of the University of Victoria has recently shown that the best paintings, the ones demonstrating the most skill, tend to be in places where the most people could see them. That would be in the larger galleries with the best surfaces for both working and viewing. A striking example is a cow painted high on a wall in the Lascaux caves in France. Up close, where the artist would have been working, the proportions of the cow look wrong. It’s too tall. From down on the floor, though, it looks normal. This shows that the artist painted it with the viewers in mind. Meanwhile, the less skilled artists had their work relegated to more obscure areas. Continue Reading

Altamira Bison

See also parts one, three and four.

Cave art is one of the most interesting discoveries in paleontology. The fossilized bones of our ancient ancestors let us see what they were like millions of years ago, and how they changed over time. Stone tools show us when they started systematically creating and using technology, and how they improved it. Needles for sewing and beads for decoration mark the time when we were becoming the modern human beings we would recognize as being like us. But with the cave art we can see evidence of people who consciously created a lasting record of . . . something. Here was something that our ancestors deliberately did to communicate with each other, and with following generations. Continue Reading

Update: Continuing study has shown that cave artists might have been trying to show animation in some of their subjects. “Sprawling, graphic, and often chaotic narrative scenes captured movement with repeated sequences.”

See also parts two, three and more.

People have been studying cave art since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. In Europe it took fifty years for the cave paintings found there to be accepted as the ancient work they are. Over three hundred sites have been discovered in Europe, dating between forty thousand and ten thousand years old. That is the period in human paleontology known as the Upper Paleolithic. Many more examples have been found around the world in Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas. Continue Reading