Art and the First Humans

Four You Gallery
March 3, 2021| Christine

“Art is when a human tells another human what it is to be human”
Adrian Elmer

Do you remember when we’d come home from school and show our parents the drawing we’d worked on in class? And how it felt when they hung it on the refrigerator for everyone to see? Our expression was acknowledged. It was validated. It meant something. Your drawing could have been of a memory, an idea, an object etc. Anything really that you experienced and wanted to express. When you were feeling happy your drawings were colorful and bright and when you were feeling sad, you would draw sadness in the way you knew how to express and represent it. And the older we get, the more our brains would develop and the more expansive our tools of expression would be – moving from simple drawings to more elaborate and comprehensive means of communication, whether art or words.

Altamira Bison, artist unknown, pigments on limestone, Spain, c.15000 BC

Long before spoken and written language were developed, communication was visual. For thousands of years, across continents, through the rise and fall of civilizations, mankind has relied on art as a means to connect – as a means of expression and interaction, both with their outer worlds and their inner worlds. And as mankind evolved, so did the use of art. As mankind evolved, so did the expression of art. So, who were the first “people” who saw the world and decided to document what they were seeing? Who were the first “people” who interpreted the world with no tools of interpretation? The first human ancestor to walk fully upright and display evidence of using fire evolved around 1.9 million years ago. And it took thousands of years for our ancestors to later develop what theorists of early human cognition call “higher order consciousness”.

According to the Smithsonian, “it enabled symbolic thinking – our ability to let one thing stand for another – it allowed people to make visual representations of things that they could remember and imagine.” Benjamin Smith, an art scholar at the University of Western Australia states that “we couldn’t conceive of art, or conceive of the value of art, until we had higher order consciousness”. In that sense, “ancient art is a marker for this cognitive shift: Find early paintings, particularly figurative representations like animals, and you’ve found evidence for the modern human mind” says the Smithsonian.

Lena Brazen - Cozy Dens, 2021, Acrylic and oil on linen on limewood, 30 x 30 cm Modern day representation of animals.

Cave art is universal. It exists everywhere, just like human language. It can be found in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, North and South America – anywhere inhabited by homo sapiens essentially. According to MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa, “cave art displays properties of language in that ‘you have actions, objections, and modification’…art is not just something that is marginal to our culture, but central to the formation of our cognitive abilities”. So, how did we go from drawing in caves around 40,000 years ago (if not more!) to art in the way we define it today? The simple answer is the human mind. The more elaborate answer is we’re still trying to figure it out.

Rock Art in the Hail Region of Saudi Arabia Showing numerous representations of human and animal figures, covering 10,000 years of history

According to Professor Nathan H. Lents, “appreciation and understanding of art seems to be among the highest-order functions of the human brain, as little of it is seen in children or the developmentally delayed, even when language and other advanced human functioning is present”. So, if you think about it, art runs deep in our evolutionary genes – from the first cave paintings over 40,000 years ago to its different forms as we see it today.

“Without culture, there really can’t be art, as we know it, because art cannot exist separate from culture. Art reflects culture, transmits culture, shapes culture, and comments on culture.” – Professor Nathan H. Lents

Sally Kindberg - Fish Lady, 2020, Oil on canvas, 150 x 105 cm Depictions of the world around us have become part of every design.

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