How can we know what our early human ancestors believed when there are no written records to tell us about what they believed? We are able to draw conclusions about the past by studying the tools, artefacts and art objects left behind.
We know that human beings made objects from very early on in our evolution – including non-functional objects: objects we would now call art. Some of these same people conducted burial rituals and tended to the bodies of the deceased after death, suggesting a belief in an afterlife or religious dimension. This suggests that, unlike any other member of the animal kingdom, early humans thought about the deeper meanings of life and death, of an existence beyond death and a spirit world.
We can see the continuation of these ancient traditions in many modern belief systems, but if we really want to understand how our early ancestors lived and what they believed, we need to turn to groups that still live today as hunter-gatherers. Some
groups of people still live a similar lifestyle to our early ancestors. By studying their way of life and religious views, we may be able to gain insight into what people thousands of years ago believed about themselves and their immediate environment, as well as about the spirit world.
The earliest image-makers
But is this the earliest evidence of image-making? In 2014, researchers found an engraved shell in a collection of fossilised shells which had been gathered long before, at a site in Java, Indonesia. Archaeologists knew, from fossilised bones, that
a Homo erectus group had once lived there. This community seems to have used specially sharpened shells, rather than stones, as their tools. What surprised researchers about this shell was that it seems to have been decorated. It was incised
– also with zigzag lines – by a member of the Homo erectus group, about 350 000 years ago. This suggests that our ability to make images or patterns goes back even further than we had previously thought.
In Europe and Russia, many small carved figures made of limestone or ivory have been found, that are thought to be between between 25 000 and 30 000 years old.
The famous “Woman of Willendorf” is one of these. This small figurine is believed to have been a fertility symbol.
“Woman of Willendorf” was found in 1908 near the town of Willendorf in Austria. The statue was carved from limestone and was coloured with red ochre. It measures 11 cm in height and is about 28 000 years old. Her hair is carved to look braided, in seven concentric circles.
It is possible that two-dimensional art was created on surfaces that have not survived the centuries, perhaps on animal skins or as decoration on human bodies. But many paintings rendered on rock surfaces have survived.
Some of the earliest paintings ever discovered are in south- western France and in Spain. The paintings are concealed deep inside immense caves far away from daylight; some can only be reached by creeping along narrow passages or braving dangerous drops.
Most of these paintings are of animals.
They are very sophisticated, and the animals are accurately observed and depicted. Clearly these painters were extremely familiar with their subject matter. Some of these depictions are of animals that may have been hunted in the area, while others show animals that were deeply feared and dangerous to humans.
But animals are not the only subjects. In a cave called Trois Freres, there is a painting of a strange figure that has been named “The Sorcerer” – as well as hundreds of animal engravings on the walls. The Sorcerer has an antlered head, owl-like eyes, the beard and legs of a man, front paws like a bear and the tail of a horse or wolf. What did this composite creature represent to the person who painted it, and to the group of people who would have looked at it? Was it a depiction of a shaman or of a god or spirit? Or could it be of a man dressed up to go hunting for deer? Experts believe that images like this point to a deeper meaning: that the artists were not just recording everyday life, but were painting figures related to their religious beliefs.
Talk About This
We can only speculate about some things; we can never be quite certain of the answers.
So, let us speculate:
Making these figurines or paintings was time-consuming. They involved searching for the materials, painstakingly making the tools. It took time away from finding food or shelter or clothing – from digging roots, hunting and killing animals, for cutting meat, scraping skins. And yet these artworks exist. Why do you think these early humans would have spent time making these objects and images we now call “artworks”?
And why do we say, as a result, that these humans seemed to be capable of “symbolic thought”? Symbols require us to think of some things as having meanings, meanings that are not literal; as having a special value that is not just functional and useful.