Prehistorical Development of Artistic Media, Approaches & Values

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  • 0:04 Art in Human History
  • 1:23 2-D Forms of Prehistoric Art
  • 3:16 3-D Forms of Prehistoric Art
  • 4:34 Lost Prehistoric Art
  • 5:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Art is a really important part of human culture and history. In this lesson, we'll talk about the development of ancient art and what it may have meant to ancient people.

Art in Human History

What defines anatomically modern humans? That's a scientific question, but we can also pose this as a philosophical one: what defines humanity? What makes us unique as a species? While one question is scientific and the other philosophical, both may result in the same answer. The conscious creation of sophisticated art is continuously identified as one of the things that fundamentally defines humanity. Scientifically, it indicates a level of cognitive maturity that distinguishes the species. Philosophically, it suggests a level of conscious awareness and ability to subscribe meaning to life.

So art is important. We get it. But when and where did this actually begin? Art that is clearly created as an act of conscious effort first appears between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago. This is considered the time of the appearance of anatomically modern humans. Art first appeared amongst human communities in Africa, then spread to Europe, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas as human populations spread around the globe. We have yet to have identified a single human community in all of time and space that does not create art. It's more than just pretty, it's something that defines us in every way possible.

2-D Forms of Prehistoric Art

When we look at the art of prehistoric peoples, or those who exist in groups before the advent of settled societies, art historians and archaeologists noticed many trends and have categorized them into four types, starting with Petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are carvings or engravings made into a rock's surface. We find these all over the world. While they may seem like simple designs to us, many have special significance. For example, in Chaco Canyon of New Mexico, simple spirals adorn a series of rock faces. What you may not realize is that this was a sacred site for ancestors of the Pueblo peoples, likely used as an observatory to capture the motions of the stars. On the summer solstice and autumnal equinox, the sun casts shadows from nearby rocks that align with the direct center of the spiral petroglyphs. Do you know how much advanced planning and observation that takes? These designs are more than what they seem.

Ancient people were also fond of pictographs, or pictorial images like paintings. We have major evidence of painting on wood bark from Australia and Polynesia. Cave paintings are also found from South America to Australia, but perhaps the most famous are in Europe. Caves at Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain display layers of images, many of which we don't fully understand. Ancient humans created pigments from natural minerals found in rocks, plants, charcoal, and even at times beetles to create the colors they used. Some of these images are of recognizable things, like mammoths, while others are abstract shapes and patterns. Did these have spiritual or ritual significance? Who painted them? We don't know for sure, but these paintings do likely have complex cultural significance.

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