Back To CourseAP Art History: Exam Prep
28 chapters | 314 lessons
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Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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.
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.
There are two other general categories of prehistoric art as well. Sculptures are very commonly found across the world. Early humans relied on stone tools to survive, and the carving techniques easily translated into art. In fact, some stone tools may even have been for artistic purposes alone. There are caches of beautiful, unused spearheads found in North America, which may have been created simply to appreciate the beauty of the stone. However, ancient humans also carved more recognizable images. Across Central Europe and Western Asia, we find miniature statuettes of some rather rotund females, which we call Venus statues. They may have been good luck or fertility charms.
The last of the general categories is megalithic art, which essentially are installation pieces created from the movement of massive stones. The most famous of these assemblages by far is the set called Stonehenge in the British Isles. We generally see Stonehenge as a giant solar calendar, which it likely was, but it was also a work of art. Can you imagine the amount of effort that went into creating it? It was more than just a calendar, but likely part of ritual practices in which people found a unique way to express their place in the cosmos.
Those four categories cover most of the prehistoric art we find. But what about the art we don't find? Much of the art people created probably was not persevered in the archaeological record. The clothing, hairstyles, and even wooden carvings of ancient people have generally been lost to time, let alone their dances, songs, and performances. We have found flutes and percussion instruments that may be as old as 50,000 years old, and some rare finds tell us even more. In 1991, archaeologists found a 5,000-year-old mummy frozen in the glaciers of northern Italy. They named him Ötzi. His body was covered in tattoos, another art form we rarely get to see. So, while we don't get to see all of the art created by prehistoric people, we can be sure that their lives were full of it. After all, it's what makes us, and them, human.
Let's review. Art is considered one of the defining factors of modern humans. The ability to consciously create art indicates a level of cognitive development that defines our species, and it has been used throughout human history for spiritual, personal, and social reasons. Art first appears in the archaeological record about 50,000 to 40,000 years ago, and scholars have categorized prehistoric art into four main types. Petroglyphs are carvings or engravings made into rock surfaces, and pictographs are pictorial images, including the famous cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira in southern Europe. Sculptures were carvings made of stone, wood, or bone, such as the Venus figures that were likely good luck or fertility charms. And megalithic art, which were installations made from moving rock or earth, like Stonehenge, which likely doubled as an astrological calendar and art. Art may be one of the oldest defining aspects of humanity, and ancient people were more than happy to use it to fill their world.
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Back To CourseAP Art History: Exam Prep
28 chapters | 314 lessons