40,000 years ago, were people thinking, believing and feeling like us? The answer that the British Museum’s exhibition on Ice Age Art gives is a resounding ‘yes’.
This exhibition brings together over a hundred sculptures and carvings dating somewhere between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago and found on sites through Eurasia. There are naturalistic carvings of deer, birds, bison and so on, alongside more abstract representations of animals. There are sculptures and carvings of individual people and carvings designed to make you think of (probably exclusively female) bodies. There is a puppet, clay sculptures designed to explode when heated, and a lion-man, all pointing to humanity’s imagination and exploration of the imaginative world.
Across Europe and Asia, this was a period of transition, in tool types, in hominid species, in climate. Most of this is not evident from the exhibition itself, as the New Scientist reports:
there is very little archaeological evidence on display at the British Museum. Curator Jill Cook says she was keen to avoid exhausting visitors with copious background material about the evolutionary and environmental contexts in which these objects were made.
I’m not convinced that this was the right approach as I think that this robs the pieces of their invaluable context, which helps make sense of the artefacts. Nonetheless, as the New Scientist article says, the artefacts simply by themselves (supplemented by the information that was there) gave a vivid sense of humanity:
these beautiful objects are the earliest evidence we have of humans who seem to have had minds like ours.
Even with all the archaeological evidence we do have about these artefacts, it is of course impossible to determine the significance or purpose of at least most of the pieces. As the label of the carefully carved diving bird dryly notes:
This sculpture may be a spiritual symbol connecting the upper, middle and lower worlds of the cosmos reached by a bird that flies in the sky, moves on land and dives through water. Alternatively, it may be an image of a small meal and a bag of feathers.
Ice Age Mind
As part of this exhibition, the British Museum hosted a lecture by Clive Gamble and Semir Zeki on ‘Art and the arrival of the modern brain’. This was excellent and gave the pieces their background and interpretive context that the exhibition somewhat lacked.
All this art is the product of the modern human mind; there is no evidence the Neanderthals created art in such a way. And, indeed, neither did modern humans before their experience of the shock of the Ice Age. 80,000 years ago in Africa there is evidence of symbolic thinking (beads, the use of ochre, etc), but nothing like the Eurasian art.
Gamble and Zeki talked about the ways that art aids society and the importance of ‘neuroaesthetics’; what was experienced as beautiful and meaningful 40,000 years ago by Ice Age hunter-gathers is still experienced as such by 21st century urban dwellers, as was shown by the placements of works by Matisse, Picasso and similar within the exhibition.
They talked about the function of art being to intensify people’s lives (increasing their engagement with materials, individuals and communities), to allow the circulation of knowledge, and to enable sharing between groups and individuals, all necessary in harsh environments. High levels of skill and a large investment of time were required to produce these pieces, showing that they were valued and valuable. Moreover, Zeki talked about the people being clever enough to know that there are important things that can’t be communicated through language.
Gamble and Zeki also speculated about why art started to flourish in the context of the Ice Age; whether this was the climatic shock, the globalisation of the species or something else.
What intrigued me was the near-total absence of mention of the religious or spiritual from the lecture or indeed the subsequent questions. There was some discussion of the importance of burial and the inclusion of grave goods (both Neanderthals and modern humans buried their dead, but there is no convincing evidence that Neanderthals included grave goods). This is an imaginative leap forward, possibly hinting at the understanding of a world beyond the dead.
This art (particularly the lion-man) and other art, such as the cave paintings of Lascaux and many other places, and the monumental art of Gobekli Tepe which might suggest some growing awareness of the spiritual. As Charlotte Higgins put it, the pieces show:
The profound need for objects that had no practical function, but seem to have been created purely to delight, to entrance, or to inspire awe or reverence
This awe and reverence, the feelings of wonder that I’ve talked about elsewhere, seem to be a profound part of who we are as humans. This analysis is taken up in Christian theology. Paul wrote:
since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made
Theologians see this possible evidence of a growing spiritual awareness as a way of understanding the creation account: a growing spiritual awareness of God (and subsequent rejection). It also highlights the similarity of humanity and our connectedness, as does the recent suggestions of an Eurasian common language, from which other languages across Europe and Asia derived 15,000 years ago. All this confirms for me the importance of the links between faith and evolution and how they can help illuminate each other.
Edited to add: And now, a year later, new discoveries from Indonesia are changing our understanding of when human creativity arose. Please follow the link to read more!