Appreciating rock art opens up ancient human minds to us

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THE oldest known rock art in the world is older than we thought. It is now known that a single red dot on the wall of a Spanish cave dates back at least 40,800 years, meaning it was made around the time modern humans first arrived in Europe – or even later. early.

This unassuming little piece of mural could help us learn more about the sudden proliferation of rock art that is characterized by its absence in our ancestral Africa. Fixing the date so closely suggests it could be a reaction to first contact with Neanderthals, who were already living in Europe when our ancestors arrived.

“The art could have been a reaction to the first contact with the Neanderthals, who were already in Europe”

Or maybe the Neanderthals were the artists (see “The oldest confirmed rock art is a single red dot”) – a possibility that would once have been dismissed out of hand, but has become increasingly acceptable to people. as evidence of their culture has developed, from burying their dead to decorating their bodies. This isn’t the first time Neanderthals have been featured as artists: earlier this year it was claimed that they were the ones who painted seals on the wall of a cave in southern Spain, although that this remains controversial.

This, at the moment, is about as far as science alone can take us. But a host of questions remain unanswered, including about why the paintings were created. To remedy this requires a combination of archeology, anthropology and, most implausibly, an appreciation of art.

Take this approach and intriguing possibilities emerge. Some researchers suggest that the placement of many hand stencils indicates that they mark places of worship, or even signposts. Others associate rock art with shamanism, suggesting it reflects enduring beliefs about the supernatural quality of caves.

Of course, this is inevitably subjective; an attempt to read the minds of humans who lived tens of thousands of years ago from the few marks they left behind – whether they were of our species. But it is one of the few ways we have to begin to assemble hypotheses about the beliefs and culture of prehistoric peoples, in the hope that one day we can test them with new scientific techniques.

There is still a lot of meaning to be extracted from this single red dot. But then, isn’t that science – and art –?

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