Early Origins in Africa
Humankind and the very earliest cultural and visual expressions originated in Africa more than two million years ago. Africa is also where we see the first and earliest physical evidence of the ability to recognize and create pictorial images. Specifically, in 1925 a pebble, approximately three million years old, and thus predating homo sapiens, was unearthed in a cave at Makapansgat in South Africa.
As you can see from the sketch of the Makapansgat pebble, it resembled a human face or skull, due to its natural wear, divots, and markings. The pebble was found along with the bones of an Australopithecus africanus, an early side relation in the evolutionary family of homo sapiens much like the 3.2-million-year-old ape known as "Lucy." The pebble’s location in the cave, several miles from the closest place it could have been found, suggests that these early ancestors recognized the appearance of a human head, and thus picked up, kept, and transported this naturally-occurring object. The pebble, which was not intentionally formed or modified, demonstrates recognition, but not yet representation. Although not produced as art, it may have occupied a similar position in the culture that art would later occupy.
Waterworn Pebbel Resembling a Human Face
Figure 1A Drawing of waterworn pebble resembling a human face, from Makapansgat, South Africa, c. 3,000,000 BCE. Reddish-brown jasperite, 2 3/8" wide. Pebble is located at the Natural History Museum, London. (Drawing: Dr. Cerise Myers, CC BY)
The Beginnings of Art
The first examples of art in the form of purposeful and conscious abstract designs, date back 73,000 years (Pre-Paleolithic) and were found at the Blombos Cave in South Africa. The first examples of art in the form of pictorial images date back to the Paleolithic period (40,000-30,000 BCE). One of these recently discovered pictorial images is not from Africa, where humankind originated, nor from Europe, where the most documented examples are from, but is from Sulawesi, Indonesia, and showcases the most common theme in Stone Age art: figurative depictions of animals.
This discovery, which dates back 43,900 years, is believed to be the oldest documented depiction of the animal world. Found in the Leang Tedongnge cave and made with red ochre pigment, the painting depicts a sprawling and complex hunting scene, including a nearly pristine depiction of a Sulawesi warty pig, a group of therianthropes (mythical beings or deities which are part human and part animal), a type of buffalo called an anoa, and the outlines of human hands—likely those of the artist(s).
From these humble beginnings, art has been an integral part of human existence. Though separated from us by a significant number of years, artisans and viewers have interacted with artworks in the Ancient World in ways that are analogous to the ways art continues to be an important part of our culture. From a means of communication to methods of self-identification to ways to blur the lines between imagination and reality, art holds a stable place in human existence.
Watch the following timeline videos to get a broad sense of the development of civilizations throughout the world.
Art of the Stone Age by Cerise Myers, Ellen C. Caldwell, Alice J. Taylor, Margaret Phelps & Lisa Soccio is licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. https://human.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Art/Introduction_to_Art_History_I_(Myers)/05%3A_Art_of_the_Stone_Age/5.00%3A_Chapter_Introduction. On the Timelines: Smarthistory, "Tiny timeline: ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia in a global context, 5th–3rd millennia B.C.E.," in Smarthistory, December 15, 2020, accessed June 29, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/tiny-timeline-ancient-egypt-and-mesopotamia-in-a-global-context-5th-3rd-millennia-bce/ and Smarthistory, "Tiny timeline: ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia in a global context, 2nd–1st millennia B.C.E.," in Smarthistory, December 15, 2020, accessed June 29, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/tiny-timeline-ancient-egypt-and-mesopotamia-in-a-global-context-2nd-1st-millennia-b-c-e/.