Location, Location, Location
One of the most popular pieces of real estate in the Paleolithic has a buried treasure trove of art. It’s the Hohle Fels, a cave in southwest Germany, one of the largest along the Danube corridor. Placed high above the river with superb views, it’s not such amenities attracted our ancestors. The cave shows evidence of long prehistoric occupation by humans just like us.
Cro-Magnons knew how to party
Nicholas Conard, at the University of Tübingen in Germany, has found over many years of digging, thousands of small objects scattered through deep layers in the cave floor. Just recently, nine feet down, he found this object in small pieces (shown below). When carefully assembled and dated, it turned out to be the earliest example of figurative art. It’s been named the Venus of Hohle Fels.
Even more amazing, Conard found another object in the same cave, a beautiful flute made of bone. Not only were Cro-Magnons enjoying amazing views from their cliff top villa, they were making art and playing music — about 40,000 years ago. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with that fun group?
Art says we’re smart
When anthropologists look for examples of modern human behavior, objects like these are considered significant — a big shift to smarter. They infer complex social interactions, rituals, or what a good party does for us today. Anthropologists especially like figurative art, for it is viewed as a cultural innovation showing advanced symbolic communication. The artistry by these early Europeans are tangible evidence of our humanity, something we admire for beauty as well as the ancient history they hold.
Who were these creative types?
The Cro-Magnons and their distinctive Aurignacian culture were the first humans to settle what we know as Europe. PZ Myers is Cro-Magnon and proud of it. I’m haplogroup H (mtDNA), so I’m Cro-Magnon, too. A gulf of 40,000 years hasn’t made that big a difference on how I think about form, stylization, shape — all aspects of the visual language I share with my pre-historic ancestors.
Famous Cro-Magnon artists
Shown below are three artists who may have Cro-Magnon lineages. I selected them for the compact, sturdy shape of the female form they depicted, much like the ancient Venus of Hohle Fels. Matisse’s abstracted woman is reduced to the most simple shapes, resembling a prehistoric object. On the left is “Baboon and Young” by Picasso (Spanish). In the middle is a third panel from “The Back”, a sculpture by Matisse (French). On the right is “the Moon and the Earth”, by Paul Gaugin (French). Photos courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.
About the images shown above
1) Front and side view of The Hohle Fels Venus. Carved from a mammoth tusk, it is the oldest known example of figurative art to date. Small bone and ivory flute found in Hohle Fels cave. This is one of many small bone and ivory flutes found in the same cave. Both items are 40,000 BCE (about).
2) The Hohle Fels cave. Photos courtesy of H. Jensen, University of Tübingen and Nature Magazine.
3) A portion of a DNA Portrait I created for Professor PZ Myers, evolutionary developmental biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris Campus. PZ is Cro-Magnon on both the male Y chromosome (Hapgroup R1B1) and female mtDNA (Hapgroup H) lines.
This article was also posted on Science Friday Art + Science Blog.