The oldest art

From: Morton, Glenn (
Date: Fri Jan 11 2002 - 02:09:09 EST

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    James Mahaffy and I had a brief discussion on Blombos Cave. I had said that
    when people spoke of bone tools as being amazing from this site, they
    weren't. However, the recently found piece of art which dates to 70,000+
    years has different implications. The report can be found at

    First, this discovery illustrates the nature of the archaeological record in
    two areas. Whatever is the oldest example of a given activity today, will
    not be the oldest example tomorrow. Tomorrow's discoveries almost always
    find the activity earlier. Secondly, it illustrates the gapped nature of the
    archaeological record. Here we have a piece of art from 70,000 years with
    the second oldest being around 43,000 years (in Australia) and the third
    oldest is from Europe around 38,000 years. (I will mention older art in a
    minute) Note that there is a gap of 35-38,000 years in which no art if
    found. Does this mean that no art was produced during that time? No, of
    course not. It means that none has been found. I can guarentee everyone that
    there was art prior to 70,000 years ago because there are examples.

    Secondly this illustrates a bias towards thinking that the guys who made
    this art were physically just like us. The bones found from this time are
    not just like us--they are slightly archaic. There is no definition of what
    distinguishes us modern men from archaics. All there is is a gradual change
    in shape from what the erectus was like to what we are like and very
    arbitrarily at 150,000 years, men are proclaimed to be 'modern' but they
    have features we would find disquieting.

    Third, it illustrates the propensity for a discovery to be claimed to be the
    oldest when in fact it isn't. Earlier art includes the Tata pebble from the
    Neanderthal region of Europe which dates to around 75,000 years, the
    Berekhat Ram figurine (Golan Venus) which is a modified scoria pebble carved
    to make it look like a human figure which dates from around 300,000 years.
    There are bones marked similarly (different pattern though) from the
    archaic/erectus site of Bilzingsleben Germany dating from around 400,000
    years ago (see And of
    course there is the phonolite pebble mentioned in 1963 by Mary Leakey in her
    reports on the Olduvai excavations, which had an intentionally carved human
    face pecked into the pebble. This dates to 1.6 million years old and is
    truly the oldest man-made art in the world, but it is often forgotten.

    Fourth it shows how little many of the apologists have understood the
    archaeological record. This includes many who have made much of the
    'artistic revolution" occurring after 40,000 years. Anyone familiar with
    the process of discovery and how things get older, should have been able to
    anticipate an even earlier art work. And given that it is highly unlikely
    that this is the very first piece of art ever produced on earth, we can
    anticipate even earlier works will be found in the future. Of course many
    apologists will now talk about the 70,000 year old artistic revolution
    forgetting how they blew it in the past.

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