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Prehistoric Asian Art

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Asia has an ancient artistic tradition, dating back millennia. In this lesson we will discuss some of Asia's oldest art forms and consider the lives of prehistoric artists.

Prehistoric Asia

Do you like music? Of course you do! How about art? Of course you do! Do you want me to stop ask one-sided rhetorical questions? Probably. Anyway, the reason I can assume safely that you enjoy some form of art and music is that the arts are an integral part of what it means to be human. Genetically modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, first evolved somewhere between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago. Now, we don't often think of ourselves as having a ton in common with these people, but they were genetically just like us. They were as smart as us, as crafty and handy as us, and just like us, they loved art and music. Everywhere that early humans travelled, they left behind pieces of their artistic cultures. This is nowhere more true than in Asia.

Overview

When dealing with people who existed a long, long time ago, it's always important to remember that the majority of their art will always be lost to us. Things made of leather, plant fibers, wood, or even body arts like tattoos and face painting are simply not well preserved. Some of the oldest substantial art we have in Asia comes actually from Siberia, in the form of carved female figures we call the Mal'ta Venus figurines that date to roughly 20,000 BCE. These miniature stone statues are nearly identical to some found in Europe, indicating that artistic traditions were being shared between people, and could extend over substantial distances. Now, if Siberia of all places could sustain art-producing cultures, it's fairly safe to assume that by this point all of Asia was inhabited. Over the next several millennia, various regions across Asia would develop distinct artistic traditions, some of which set foundations for cultural practices maintained to this day.

Art of Prehistoric China

We don't have time to cover all of Asia, which is a big place, but let's start with some of the most inhabited places. In China, the oldest artistic traditions we've uncovered are actually musical. Chinese bone flutes are found across the region, and are so carefully crafted that many were still playable when they were excavated. The oldest of these may date as far back as 35,000 BCE. Most, however, date to around 8,000 BCE. In terms of visual arts, two traditions emerged a little later, mostly centered around the Yellow and Yangtze river basins, the same locations that would later give rise to China's first settled societies.

Bone flutes like this amongst the oldest artifacts in China
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The first tradition of visual art we find is pottery. Chinese pots were made by layering circular cords of clay on top of each other, then smoothing the surface. The oldest pottery in China belonged to what we call the Yangshao culture of the Yellow River basin. Not only did they make pottery, they also painted it. These artists were amongst the first in the world to develop paint brushes, and started traditions of brush painting that were maintained in China for millennia. Apart from the Yangshao, other Chinese cultures developed various forms and styles of pottery, and even invented pottery wheels as well.

The other major artistic tradition of prehistoric China was the carving of jade, a soft but durable semi-precious stone. Jade carvings first appeared along the Yangtze River, but spread throughout China. Ancient artists carved many things in jade, from figurines to tools like axes, but since these show practically no sign of wear and tear we assume they were status symbols more than anything else. Most jade objects we've found were grave goods; objects buried along with a person, which could indicate that they had spiritual significance.

Chinese ceremonial jade artifact
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Prehistoric Japan

Another major population center of prehistoric Asia was the area we now call Japan. The oldest cultures of Japan are called the Jomon, who appear in the archeological record as far back as 10,000 BCE. The Jomon cultures also produced pottery, decorating them using bamboo sticks and shells to imprint designs into the clay. By roughly 3500 BCE, as Jomon culture was becoming less nomadic, ancient artists started experimenting more with the forms of these pots, often crafting them to resemble animals that were symbolically significant to their culture. Carving also took off in this time period, with miniature humans and animals both being carved mainly from rock and used for ritual ceremonies.

Jomon vase
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