Sunday 6 February 2011

Discipline for the eye, brain & hand

IN MID September 1940 several young lads and a dog, from the village of Montignac in the Dordogne region of France, stumbled upon a cave in Lascaux that was crammed full of beautiful pre-historic paintings. The paintings cover the walls and ceilings of a large interconnected cave system and show about 2,000 figures of animals, humans and abstract symbols.

Breuil, H.(1941). A Remarkable Painted Cave on the Estate of Lescaux (Montignac, Dordogne). Nature. 147, 12-13. 

The animal depictions are stylish and accomplished and some of the symbols include non-figurative dot clusters that may be rudimentary star-charts. This incredible collection of paintings was made about 20,000 years ago by Cro-Magnon's; fully modern Homo sapiens who about 40,000 years began migrating into Europe, displacing the resident hominids, Neanderthal man or Homo neanderthalensis, in the process. 

The images found in Lascaux provide beautiful evidence that although modern humans, Homo sapiens, and their close hominid relatives Homo neanderthalensis, had much in common anatomically, modern humans have always had cognitive capacities that distinguish us from all other species. In fact there is a striking contrast between the records left behind of the lives that Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis led thousands of years ago. Currently there is no evidence that any extinct human species had a complex symbolic existence. It appears that only modern humans have a highly developed capacity to create complex symbolic marks using artistic media. In other words not only have we always loved to draw, we are uniquely capable of drawing. 

An image of the now extinct Irish Elk, Megaloceros giganteus, from the Lascuax caves. Image from Wikimedia.