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 Photograph by Maxime Aubert, Griffith University, Australia

Photograph by Maxime Aubert, Griffith University, Australia

Art = Survival

“And while a hundred civilizations have prospered (sometimes for centuries) without computers or windmills or even the wheel, none have survived even a few generations without art.”

from Art & Fear, by David Bayles & Ted Orland, 1993

This month the news came out that the paintings on the ancient cave walls in Sulawesi, discovered some fifty years ago, are actually a lot older than the 12,000 years that scientists originally had determined. Now, with more advanced ways of calculating the true age of artifacts, these paintings in Sulawesi are at least 40,000 years old. The National Geographic interviewed Alistair Pike, one of the archeologists who worked on this project.

 Hand outlines found on a cave wall in Indonesia are at least 39,900 years old, researchers said. Credit Kinez Riza

Hand outlines found on a cave wall in Indonesia are at least 39,900 years old, researchers said. Credit Kinez Riza

Why did our ancestors decorate their cave walls? Why do humans create works of art? When you think of the word, ‘art’, do you think mainly of paintings, or do you include all art in all its forms - from dance to drama, from music to sculpture, from pottery to jewelry? Why do we spend time pursuing what some consider unnecessary to our survival, especially during times when our survival is at stake?

While researching an answer to all that, I found an old article in the New York Times of March 27, 1921 entitled, “Why Art? - that is the Question.” The article went on to ask, “What was it that impelled the hairy, stoop-shouldered aborigine of perhaps a hundred thousand years ago to indulge in an effort entirely unrelated to his stomach or his safety?”

Interestingly, the New York Times published an article on October 8, 2014 about the recent findings in Sulawesi. I thought about the article from 1921. The debate continues nearly a hundred years later. Scientists are quoted as to their theories on the reason why humans create art, how long we've been doing it, and where it all started. Here is part of their conclusion:

Dr. Delson, of CUNY, said he tended “to prefer the idea that art came as part of the ‘baggage’ of Homo sapiens as they spread into Eurasia, mainly as we know that so many of the cultural features once thought to have developed in western Eurasia in fact occurred far earlier in Africa.”
He cited the examples of early use of pigments and engravings in Africa, as well as bodily adornment with shells and advanced stoneworking technology.

In their report, Dr. Aubert and Dr. Brumm took no sides in the debate. “It is possible that rock art emerged independently around the same time and at roughly both ends of the spatial distribution of early modern humans,” they concluded. “An alternate scenario, however, is that cave painting was widely practiced by the first H. sapiens to leave Africa tens of thousands of years earlier.”

If that is the case, the Australian-Indonesian research team predicted, “We can expect future discoveries of depictions of human hands, figurative art and other forms of image-making dating to the earliest period of the global dispersal of our species.”

Either way, it's clear to me that, whether as part of our collective 'baggage' or not, art is an integral part of our existence. We create paintings, sculpture, pottery, and jewlery because we want to document the beauty of our surroundings for future enjoyment. We create dance, music, and drama to share our stories. All art serves to connect our experiences so that we can hear our common voice. Art constructs our humanity, strengthens our compassion for each other. Without art, we become destructive, devaluing one another, as in war. Art is the opposite of war.

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Cover photo by Kathleen Franks

Background image by Getty Images

© 2014 - 2017 Kathleen Franks