Why did humans first start making art?


Yet for me, the first true art is cave painting. Even if we concede that handaxes have sculptural qualities, the leap forward when homo sapiens started painting and drawing animals on the walls of caves in Spain and France during the ice age is astounding, and it is difficult to see how cave art could be sexual display. The sublime charcoal portraits of bisons that I recently saw in Niaux cave in the Pyrenees are located far underground in a vast natural vault: it is hard to picture a cave artist leading a girlfriend or boyfriend this deep underground by the light of a flickering torch in order to have sex in the cold and damp. “Come and see my etchings. They’re a mile underground.”

On the contrary. The deliberate mystery and estranging subterranean location of cave paintings suggests that the origins of art have much more to do with religion than sex.

Handaxes from the Middle Palaeolithic era, circa 70,000 BC.
Handaxes from the Middle Palaeolithic era, circa 70,000 BC. Photograph: Interfoto/Alamy

The sexual display theory is advanced in the Mona exhibition by one of its four curators, the psychologist Geoffrey Miller. The other scientist-curators suggest similarly audacious explanations for the existence of art. Steven Pinker, author of books such as The Blank Slate, shares a hard-headed Darwinian perspective. He suggests that art evolved as a byproduct of other human skills and needs, including conspicuous consumption, and that aesthetic pleasure originates in our practical appreciation of “cues to understandable, safe, productive, nutritious or fertile things in the world”. Brian Boyd, like Miller, thinks art has grown out of the signalling systems that all animals use in mating and the avoidance of danger, while Mark Changizi suggests it reflects our capacity to mimic nature.

It’s fascinating stuff, but such theorising needs to be set against a firm history of how and when art actually did evolve. This story is becoming ever clearer. Some of its milestones can be seen, far from Tasmania, in the British Museum’s South Africa show. It is dangerous to confuse decorative instincts, or even the sense of beauty, which handaxes suggest evolved very early in the human story, with the higher, more complex activity that is art as we know it. The art in ice age caves such as those in Niaux has the same qualities as the art of Rembrandt, Da Vinci and Picasso, and is as hard to reduce to a simple biological urge or obvious evolutionary need. At its point of origin in dark caves deep in the Earth, art is enigmatic, poetic, profound and dreamlike. It is born sublime. You can’t explain it until you can also explain Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals.

Darwin had Raphael prints in his bedroom, but I doubt if he thought they were as susceptible to logic as the honeycombs in his beehives.

… as you’re joining us today from the UK, we have a small favour to ask. Tens of millions have placed their trust in the Guardian’s fearless journalism since we started publishing 200 years ago, turning to us in moments of crisis, uncertainty, solidarity and hope. More than 1.5 million supporters, from 180 countries, now power us financially – keeping us open to all, and fiercely independent.

Unlike many others, the Guardian has no shareholders and no billionaire owner. Just the determination and passion to deliver high-impact global reporting, always free from commercial or political influence. Reporting like this is vital for democracy, for fairness and to demand better from the powerful.

And we provide all this for free, for everyone to read. We do this because we believe in information equality. Greater numbers of people can keep track of the events shaping our world, understand their impact on people and communities, and become inspired to take meaningful action. Millions can benefit from open access to quality, truthful news, regardless of their ability to pay for it.

Every contribution, however big or small, powers our journalism and sustains our future.Support the Guardian from as little as £1 – it only takes a minute.
SingleMonthlyAnnual£6 per month£12 per monthOther

ContinueRemind me in December

Accepted payment methods: Visa, Mastercard, American Express and PayPal


ART REVIEW; A Spectrum of Watercolor Technique – The New York Times


Because Mr. Straight does not come from the traditional ranks of the watercolor world and paints canvases of geometric designs, expectations were considerably raised. However, the show has no major surprises. It reflects a broad range of techniques, but subject matter is rather traditional. Most of the works are very attractive outdoor scenes, like Gwen Kovach’s ”Grand Canal, Souchou, China,” with its exquisitely rendered reflections, or the well-saturated patches of color in ”Clearing” by Deborah Fowler Greenwood of Moorestown.

”Sunday Morning in Riverton,” by Rosemary Hutchins of Cinnaminson, who was one of the 10 winners of the juror’s award, captures bright sunlight as it shines on the wood-framed houses and the laundry blowing on the clothesline. The subject suggests a bygone era, and its classic application of transparent layers of color on white paper even brings to mind the late-19th-century American masters of the medium.