Replica of the ceiling of the Altamira cave

Notes on How Art Made the World – The Day Pictures Were Born 2/5

You can view my notes on programme 1, More Human than Human here and programme 3, Art of Persuation here

In this BBC series from 2004, Dr Nigel Spivey investigates everything from cave paintings to ceramics, pyramids to palaces and icons to artifacts across five continents and 100,000 years of history.

Although this one isn’t available online, you can rent it from LoveFilm (or Netflix) and failing that, it is available in Amazon UK and there is also an excellent micro-site on the PBS website with in-depth information and links.

Programme 2 explores how humans discovered the power of images and how this has defined the world in which we live today.

How Art Made the World : Programme 2, The Day Pictures Were Born

To discover the first two dimensional paintings we need to look at the art created in caves such as Altamira, Chauvet and Lascaux, these were created roughly 35,000 years, the time Archeologist describe as the ‘creative explosion’.

Replica of the ceiling of the Altamira cave

Replica of the ceiling of the Altamira cave

The first of these cave paintings were discovered in Altemira by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and his 8yr old daughter Maria in 1879. The paintings they discovered on the walls of the caves where of animals such as Aurochs, a long extinct relative of the Ox, . As these matched images similar stone-age images he had seen, Sautuola concluded they were pre-historic. When the caves were opened to the public, however, they were considered a hoax and unfortunately despite trying to clear his name, his discovery was not scientifically accepted until long after his death. Following this the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet came to light and it is said that when Picasso saw images of the caves he declared “we have learned nothing”.

Today artists create images of every aspect of life, but back then the images were almost exclusively of animals. In Europe, these were particular of horses, bison and reindeer. The contemporary expert of the time Henri Breuil believed the paintings to be linked to rituals that increased chances of successful hunt, however more recent archeology has shown that the animals depicted were not those eaten by the people of the time. In addition some of the paintings were in very hard to reach area of the caves and featured dots and lines. However, it is easy to take a modern view such as this and miss the point completely, that being how did we learn to project our 3D world into 2D.

There are very similar paintings to be found in the Drakensburg Mountains of South Africa, however unlike their European cousins, these were not produced thousands of years ago, but much more recently. These images were produced by the San “bush men” and although they do not produce paintings like this today, Professor David Lewis Williams discovered papers from the late 19th century by a German settler that documented the life and rituals of the San people. It became clear to Williams that their religion was based around traveling in a trance state to a spirit world and that they documented in these pictures their experiences in the trance. Often these transitory states involved animals and the animals depicted were normally large or power animals such as the Eland that were respected by the San people. Williams also noticed another similarity with their European counterparts, that of the dots and lines.

Research into altered states, such as the trances of the San people, show that on entering these states, the transitory experiences visual disturbances similar to migraine Aura that involved lines and dots and this can also be produced by sensory deprivation, for example from being deep in a cave for a long time. Prehistoric man, it appears, had hallucinations , which became of things that were close to them, such as the horses, bison and aurochs. These hallucinations were remembered in 2D and prehistoric man recreated them on the walls of their caves.

It seems, however, that 12,000 years ago people stopped painting. We don’t know why, but the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, in Southern Turkey may hold the answer. Here we find a flint stone working which when excavated revealed monolithic pillars built around 12,000 years ago, just as the cave paintings seemed to stop. These stone pillars feature carvings of animals such as those in the caves. The effort in creating these stone pillars would have required considerable  man power and organisation and the workers needed feeding. Recent research has shown that modern wheat can be traced to wild wheat that grows within 20 miles of this site which has lead scholars to speculate that this was the birthplace of agricultural farming and, in turn, civilisation itself.

You can view my notes on programme 1, More Human than Human here and programme 3, Art of Persuation here

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