The “Ice Age – arrival of the modern mind” exhibition at the British Museum in London is proof that there is much more to art than mere depiction of our surrounding or visual pleasure. Something innate in the act of creating beyond the immediacy of survival and practicality is fundamentally linked to humans, as indeed art precedes the advent of agriculture and civilisation in our evolution.
The creativity, attention to detail and imagination demonstrated by Palaeolithic art is undeniable, particularly in the case of decorated antlers: some of these implements bear pictures that cannot be seen whole at a glance from one angle. (The fourth picture below shows the modern cast of such a carving “unrolled”.) Abstract patterns were less common but no less sophisticated, revealing an appreciation of beauty and a wish to apply it to functional objects too.
While we can but speculate as to the intentions and significance behind early Homo Sapiens art, many of these small and delicate pieces look so contemporary in style that we cannot fail to feel connected to our ancestors, as if the essence of our human nature had never changed: the urge to create, explore and experiment has spurred us on through the ages and has never left us.
(For a report on genetic research into our urge to explore and take risks, the article “Restless Genes” in the National Geographic January issue may be of interest.)