Early Humans and Art

How Homo erectus & Neanderthals
were dominated by modern humans
in tool-making and creation of art

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Painting of early human hunter-gatherers outside Le Moustier Cave
Early human hunter-gatherers. Image is 'Neanderthal Flintworkers' (1920) by Charles Robert Knight. Now in the Public Domain.

Early Humans

In order to understand prehistoric art, one must understand the human landscape that gave rise to it.

In this article, we look at early humans and briefly explore their relationship with modern humans, and with various forms of paleolithic art.

The Stone Age begins about 3.3 million years ago (mya) and ends about 3,300 BC.

Paleontologists have identified several species of hominins who were active during this period, although the precise evolutionary relationships between them are still a matter of debate.

There is one thing we can say. Recent genetic evidence, allied to new fossil discoveries - such as those of a 1.4 million-year-old Homo habilis and the 1.5 million-year-old Homo erectus from the same area of East Africa - indicates that species do not evolve in sequence, one after the other.

Instead, they typically co-exist and even breed with each other - often for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years - before the earlier species dies out.

Main Species of Hominins

The principal species of hominins include:

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Early Humans: A Complex Story in 200 Words

How are Early Human Fossils Dated?

For a simple explanation of all major relative and absolute dating techniques, please see: Dating Methods in Archaeology.

Tool Cultures

The 'Paleolithic' (whose name comes from the Greek words palaios, meaning old, and lithos, meaning stone) was the period of the Stone Age when stone tools were invented and used the most.

It was an important time in human evolution because lithic technology - along with art and body ornamentation - is an indicator of cognitive development among early hominins.

Which is why the period is subdivided into separate but overlapping tool cultures - each characterized by advances in tool-type, tool-size and flint-knapping.

For more, see: History of Stone Tools.

Tool-Making as an Art

One could say that the main type of paleolithic art practiced by early humans was the creation of stone tools, not least because it was pursued for two and a half million years - far longer than cave painting or rock carving.

But as tools gradually became more efficient and flexible, they also became more balanced, and imbued with unmistakable simplicity of style.

The famous French archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan, not only thought that early humans derived significant pleasure from crafting a beautiful object, but he himself recognized beauty in early prehistoric tools made during the Acheulean era.

During the 'creative explosion' of Upper Paleolithic art (from 40,000 BC), improvements in tool design came much more rapidly: a wider range of tools, more standardization of production, and then microliths.

These advances were driven by a wide range of factors, including developments in projectile-point propulsion mechanisms, hafting practices, economizing behaviours, and functional variability. But the key factor in Europe (and elsewhere), was the arrival of modern humans - the modern type of H. sapiens.

Modern Humans

These modern Homo sapiens were still hunter-gatherers, but they possessed greater cognitive abilities than Neanderthals, whom they rapidly displaced.

Indeed, when compared to H. neanderthalensis, Homo sapiens set new standards of creative thinking in almost everything they did. For example:

In addition, modern humans established a number of deep cave 'sanctuaries' where they created much more advanced forms of painting and rock carving, than those made by Neanderthals and other early humans.

Examples include the red ochre warty pigs in the Leang Tedongnge Cave (43,500 BC), the hunting scene at Leang Bulu' Sipong 4 Cave, the bison, lion and bear at the Basque Cave of Altxerri (37,000 BC), the compelling black paintings of rhinos and lions at Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche (34,500 BC), and the dramatic cave painting in the Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux Cave in the Périgord (19,000 BC).

No one had seen this type of rock art before, depicting animals that seemed to appear out of nowhere and then disappear into the rock itself.

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Evolution of Prehistoric Art

But this new and highly creative form of cave art didn't just appear out of nowhere. It emerged at the end of a very long learning process - a journey of artistic trial and error which had begun two million years earlier, during the Lower Paleolithic.

It started witha few simple hand axes and hammerstones, made by Homo erectus, which over time enabled the creation of cupules and other crude forms of expression.

Sharper flints led to rudimentary motifs being incised onto bone and pebble.

The discovery of ochre pigments by Neanderthals led them into new forms of body painting, while other materials like mussel shells were made into necklaces and other personal ornaments. See: Cave of Los Aviones shell jewellery (113,000 BC).

Neanderthals also painted abstract signs in caves and created hand stencils by spraying paint onto cave walls through thin pipes.

But as a species, they were reaching their limit.

Take the hand axe, for example.

Homo Erectus made the first hand axe around 1.8 million years ago. Homo Ergaster and Homo Heidelbergensis continued the tradition, as did Denisovans and Neanderthals.

But it wasn't until 45,000 BC that someone - had the idea of adding a handle to it. Who was that someone? Homo sapiens.

Paleoanthropologists aren't sure how and when modern Homo sapiens culture superceded Neanderthal culture.

But there's clear evidence that many of the distinctive hallmarks of behavioural modernity had already developed in parts of Western Asia and Africa by at least 43-48,000 BC - that is, at least 5,000 years before Europe.

Modern Humans Dominate Upper Paleolithic Art and Culture

The arrival of modern humans in Europe (at Mandrin Cave and elsewhere), was the beginning of the end for Neanderthals and other non-moderns, who were rapidly eclipsed and displaced.

As a result, Upper Paleolithic art and culture soon came under the exclusive control of modern humans, who lost no time in demonstrating their capababilities.

After creating the hafted axe, their next invention was the burin.

This tool triggered a new genre of rock engraving, which burst out in French caves like Les Combarelles, and others.

It also led to more precise ivory carving, as seen in the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel and other masterpieces from the Swabian Jura.

But the moderns' greatest contribution to Stone Age culture, was their remarkable figurative cave painting, which represents the true visual art of prehistory.


(1) Posth C, Renaud G, Mittnik M, Drucker DG, Rougier H, Cupillard C, et al. (2016). "Pleistocene Mitochondrial Genomes Suggest a Single Major Dispersal of Non-Africans and a Late Glacial Population Turnover in Europe". Current Biology. 26 (6): 827–833.
(2) Leroi-Gourhan, André (1977). "Esbozo del Arte". El Arte y el Hombre. Vol. 1. Fournier, S. A., Vitoria. ISBN 978-84-320-2001-8.
(3) Reich, David (2018). "Who We Are And How We Got Here – Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past." Pantheon Books. ISBN 978-1101870327.
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