To describe the global origins of humans’ artistic achievement, upon which the succeeding history of art may be laid, is an encyclopedic enterprise. The Metropolitan Museum’s Timeline of Art History, covering the period roughly from 20,000 to 8000 B.C., provides a series of introductory essays about particular archaeological sites and artworks that illustrate some of the earliest endeavors in human creativity. The account of the origins of art is a very long one marked less by change than consistency. The first human artistic representations, markings with ground red ocher, seem to have occurred about 100,000 B.C. in African rock art. This chronology may be more an artifact of the limitations of archaeological evidence than a true picture of when humans first created art. However, with new technologies, research methods, and archaeological discoveries, we are able to view the history of human artistic achievement in a greater focus than ever before.
Art, as the product of human creativity and imagination, includes poetry, music, dance, and the material arts such as painting, sculpture, drawing, pottery, and bodily adornment. The objects and archaeological sites presented in the Museum’s Timeline of Art History for the time period 20,000–8000 B.C. illustrate diverse examples of prehistoric art from across the globe. All were created in the period before the invention of formal writing, and when human populations were migrating and expanding across the world. By 20,000 B.C., humans had settled on every continent except Antarctica. The earliest human occupation occurs in Africa, and it is there that we assume art to have originated. African rock art from the Apollo 11 and Wonderwerk Caves contain examples of geometric and animal representations engraved and painted on stone. In Europe, the record of Paleolithic art is beautifully illustrated with the magnificent painted caves of Lascaux and Chauvet, both in France. Scores of painted caves exist in western Europe, mostly in France and Spain, and hundreds of sculptures and engravings depicting humans, animals, and fantastic creatures have been found across Europe and Asia alike. Rock art in Australia represents the longest continuously practiced artistic tradition in the world. The site of Ubirr in northern Australia contains exceptional examples of Aboriginal rock art repainted for millennia beginning perhaps as early as 40,000 B.C. The earliest known rock art in Australia predates European painted caves by as much as 10,000 years.
In Egypt, millennia before the advent of powerful dynasties and wealth-laden tombs, early settlements are known from modest scatters of stone tools and animal bones at such sites as Wadi Kubbaniya. In western Asia after 8,000 B.C., the earliest known writing, monumental art, cities, and complex social systems emerged. Prior to these far-reaching developments of civilization, this area was inhabited by early hunters and farmers. Eynan/Ain Mallaha, a settlement in the Levant along the Mediterranean, was occupied around 10,000–8000 B.C. by a culture named Natufian. This group of settled hunters and gatherers created a rich artistic record of sculpture made from stone and bodily adornment made from shell and bone.
The earliest art of the continent of South Asia is less well documented than that of Europe and western Asia, and some of the extant examples come from painted and engraved cave sites such as Pachmari Hills in India. The caves depict the region’s fauna and hunting practices of the Mesolithic period. In Central and East Asia, a territory almost twice the size of North America, there are outstanding examples of early artistic achievements, such as the expertly and delicately carved female figurine sculpture from Mal’ta. The superbly preserved bone flutes from the site of Jiahu in China, while dated to slightly later than 8000 B.C., are still playable. The tradition of music making may be among the earliest forms of human artistic endeavor. Because many musical instruments were crafted from easily degradable materials like leather, wood, and sinew, they are often lost to archaeologists, but flutes made of bone dating to the Paleolithic period in Europe (ca. 35,000–10,000 B.C.) are richly documented.
North and South America are the most recent continents to be explored and occupied by humans, who likely arrived from Asia. Blackwater Draw in North America and Fell’s Cave in Patagonia, the southernmost area of South America, are two contemporaneous sites where elegant stone tools that helped sustain the hunters who occupied these regions have been found.
Whether the prehistoric artworks illustrated here constitute demonstrations of a unified artistic idiom shared by humankind or, alternatively, are unique to the environments, cultures, and individuals who created them is a question open for consideration. Nonetheless, each work or site superbly characterizes some of the earliest examples of humans’ creative and artistic capacity.