Our Extraordinarily Ancient Artistic Impulse

Using dating techniques that examine the build-up of calcium carbonate, scientists have concluded that artwork found in caves in Spain is more than 40,000 years old.  That makes the particular artistic statement — a red dot, found on a wall that features a series of depictions of hands rimmed by red paint — is more than 4,000 years older than the previous oldest known piece of human art.

The age of the art is extraordinary, because it stretches back to the dawn of human immigration into Europe, which is believed to have occurred about 41,000 years ago.  To give some context to the amazing age of the paintings, consider that the first known civilizations didn’t begin until about 6000 years ago, and that if you went back in time 4000 years from today you’d be at a point centuries before the birth of King Tut.

Discoveries like this make you wonder how old human expression truly is, and when it first was displayed.  Is cave painting the earliest form of human artistic expression, or is another form even older?  When did humans first sing, or dance around the fire pit, or create some form of music?  How soon after language was developed did the first poet or storyteller come into being?

The days of these early humans were consumed by hunting dangerous animals, foraging for food, building fires, creating tools and clothing, and avoiding predators — and yet they spent time creating art on the walls of their cave shelters.  The fact that the artistic impulse is found in such early humans says something very powerful about creativity and the artistic urge as a fundamental part of human nature.