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.

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