Ice-age art hints at birth of modern mind

Sumit Paul-Choudhury, editor


Figurines from the Don river valley (Images: Kirstin Jennings)

The world’s oldest portrait, the world’s first fully carved sculpture, the world's oldest ceramic figure, the world’s earliest puppet - there’s no shortage of superlatives in the new exhibition of art from the ice age at the British Museum in London

But focus too closely on the exhibits’ record-breaking ages alone, and you might miss the broader point: these beautiful objects are the earliest evidence we have of humans who seem to have had minds like ours.


Consider, for example, the "lion man" found in 1939 in south-west Germany’s Stadel cave (pictured above). As the name suggests, this statue, standing 30 centimetres tall, harmoniously combines human and leonine features: the head is unmistakeably a lion’s, while the body and lower limbs are more human.

This is clearly the product of artistic creativity rather than a naturalistic drawing from life - suggesting that whoever carved it some 40,000 years ago had the capacity to express their imagination, as well as to replicate what they saw around them.

The temptation to speculate about what symbolic meaning the lion man might have had is, of course, irresistible. It was clearly valuable, taking around 400 hours and enormous skill to carve from a single piece of mammoth ivory.

The exhibition also includes a second, much smaller, feline figure found in another cave nearby, pointing to the idea that such imaginative objects might have cultural significance, perhaps as ritual objects within a shamanic belief system, rather than being isolated art objects.

Given what we know of modern traditions, that would make sense - but there is no hard evidence that anything resembling those traditions existed in Europe during the ice age.

Almost every object on show invites similarly thought-provoking consideration. Thumb-sized figurines from settlements along Russia's Don river (top) seem to present a woman's perception of her own pregnant body in an age before mirrors: no face, bowed head, the shelf of the bosom, the protrusion of the hips and buttock muscles and the swell of the belly. Were they carved by the women themselves, perhaps as protective talismans for themselves or their unborn children? And if so, what are we to make of those that were apparently deliberately destroyed subsequently?

Only a few of the animal models found at the Czech site of Dolní Věstonice are intact. The rest had shattered into thousands of clay fragments when they were heated while still wet. This must also have been deliberate: was the dramatic shattering part of a rite?

A tiny relief of a human figure with upraised arms invites interpretation as a celebrant or worshipper. Was he or she participating in a ceremony to promote social cohesion during tough times - perhaps to the accompaniment of music played on instruments such as the flute displayed nearby, which is precisely carved from a vulture's wing-bone?

Such interpretations deserve a healthy dose of caution, of course. The note accompanying an elegantly carved water bird (perhaps a cormorant) found near the smaller lion man drily reads: "This sculpture may be a spiritual symbol connecting the upper, middle and lower worlds of the cosmos reached by a bird that flies in the sky, moves on land and dives through water. Alternatively, it may be an image of a small meal and a bag of feathers."

In the total absence of documentary evidence, there is no way of telling which is correct: archaeological material might help clarify the utilitarian perspective, but it is far less helpful when it comes to discovering any symbolic value.

In any case, there is very little archaeological evidence on display at the British Museum. Curator Jill Cook says she was keen to avoid exhausting visitors with copious background material about the evolutionary and environmental contexts in which these objects were made.

Humans were capable of complex behaviour long before they reached Europe - as demonstrated by discoveries such as the 100,000-year old "artist's workshop" in South Africa's Blombos cave - but Cook thinks the explosion of art among Europeans 40,000 years ago may reflect changing social needs during the ice age.

When Homo sapiens first arrived in Europe some 45,000 years ago, "the living was initially probably reasonably easy", explains Cook. They would have found temperatures only about 5 °C lower than they are now, she says, and grassy prairies would have been well stocked with bison. As the human population grew, they would have had to find new ways of building, socialising and organising themselves.

“And as it turns desperately cold, around 40,000 years ago, suddenly we have all this art," she says.

That may have reflected the need to communicate and develop ideas - a need pressing enough for people to spend hundreds of hours creating objects that generally seem to have had little quotidian function.

"This is all about planning and preconceiving and organising and collaborating and compromising," suggests Cook, "and that is something art and music helps us do."

The dazzling array of objects on display, spanning tens of thousands of years, anticipate practically every modern artistic tradition. The first portrait, dating back 26,000 years, includes closely modelled details of its female subject's unusual physiognomy, perhaps the result of an injury or illness.

But nearby is an extraordinary figure of similar age whose facial features are utterly abstract, resembling a visor with a double slit in it.


Another (above) has a body whose angular patterns anticipate Cubism by some 23,000 years: Picasso kept two copies of it in his studio. Elsewhere, there are doll-like models of women with stylised faces, and female forms streamlined into little more than slender, strategically curved lines.


Representations of animals, too, come in all forms, from incredibly realistic illustrations scratched onto stone or ivory, to elegantly minimal sculptures; there are even carvings designed to create the illusion of movement when viewed from different angles or rotated (above) - a form of prehistoric animation.

The masterpieces in the latter part of the show include - and sometimes combine - both precisely observed, superbly rendered naturalism, and more abstract work that is still beautiful, but much harder to interpret.


Carved mammoth tusks

"The brain likes to tease us," says Cook. "We don't just represent things with great realism and naturalism, we like to break things down into patterns. That sparks your imagination, and makes you curious and questioning.

“What’s so spectacular about the modern brain, and the mind that it powers, is that it doesn't just make everything simple, it pushes us to new ideas and new thoughts."

After tens of thousands of years, the objects displayed in this extraordinary exhibition still have the power to do just that.

Ice Age Art: Arrival of the modern mind runs at the British Museum from 7 February 2013

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