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Tuesday, January 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Did Ice Age have its own Rodins?
By Guy Gugliotta
What does it take to become an artist?
Do you need to study it first, or do you just pick up a brush or a knife and do it?
That question lies at the heart of a prolonged debate among archaeologists and anthropologists over the origin of figurative art drawing, sculpting or otherwise creating recognizable images of figures or objects and what it implies about human cultural development.
For years, scholars regarded the appearance of figurative art as the initiation of an evolutionary process that art became progressively more sophisticated as humans experimented with styles and techniques and passed this knowledge to the next generation.
But a growing body of evidence suggests that modern humans, virtually from the moment they appeared in Ice Age Europe, were able to produce startlingly sophisticated art. Artistic ability thus did not "evolve," many scholars said, but has instead existed in modern humans (the talented ones, anyway) throughout their existence.
Writing in the journal Nature, anthropologist Nicholas Conard, of Germany's University of Tuebingen, added to this view, reporting the discovery in a cave in the Jura Mountains of three small, carefully made figurines carved from mammoth ivory between 30,000 and 33,000 years ago.
The artifacts at Hohle Fels Cave of a water bird, a horse's head, and a half-human, half-lion figure made up the fourth such cache of ancient objects found in Germany. All are more than 30,000 years old, and, taken together with cave paintings of a similar age in France's Grotte Chauvet, constitute the oldest known artworks in the history of modern humans.
"It was a big cave, filled with ivory-making debris," Conard said from his Tuebingen office.
All three figurines are skillfully shaped, and the water bird is exquisite its long neck extended in flight and its wings swept back with decorative ridges to mark layers of feathers.
Also, noted Lewis-Williams, Conard and others, the Hohle Fels artifacts and the Grotte Chauvet paintings are as sophisticated as art produced thousands of years later.
"Those who argue for development from primitive scratches are perhaps unconsciously extending the idea of human evolution to encompass other forms of human endeavor," Lewis-Williams said.
Still, though the development of figurative art may not be a marker for biological evolution, many experts suggest that its emergence is a major "threshold event" for cultural development, comparable perhaps to the invention of agriculture, the domestication of animals or the development of metal tools.
"The crucial move seems to be when humans make something that stands for something else," said Oxford University art historian Martin Kemp. "It usually starts with 'indirect tools,' implements that go beyond simple sharpened tools or a needle and thread. This conceptual step is the evolutionary aspect of ancient art."
Also, noted Kemp and others, art itself does indeed "evolve," but these changes are more likely to be dictated by the purpose served by the art, or by advances in technology or materials, than by the supposed attainment of progressively higher levels of "talent."
"What these people achieved is amazing, given the bare subsistence in which they lived and the tools they had," said Cornell University psychologist James Cutting, a specialist in perception.
"There's a sense that they were just as smart as we are but didn't have societies in which information could be passed, or places where they could work. It's not easy to paint on the walls of a cave."
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