The term culture represents the shared values and beliefs of a group of people that develop over time and are passed from one generation to another. Culture can be seen in art, religious or spiritual beliefs, systems of laws, or the customs that comprise the way a group functions. Human culture, under this definition, dates back at least 30,000 years and probably much further. The Paleolithic (or Old Stone Age) cultures of Europe hunted wild game and gathered plants to sustain themselves, and their groups were small in number.
By the time the last Ice Age diminished and the Neolithic (New Stone Age) cultures began, around 10,000 BCE, new groups of people, whose lifestyles became increasingly more sedentary and based on agriculture, started to replace the nomadic hunting and gathering groups. With the rise of agriculture, complex societies arose throughout the world.
Map 1. Map depicting the spread of early civilizations.
In the Americas, Africa, the Near East, and Asia, societies developed monumental architecture, passed down unique spiritual beliefs to future generations, and developed systems of law that influenced civilizations for centuries to come.
The birth of human culture predates writing. Evidence of culture is found in the earliest humans, Homo sapiens and Homo Neanderthals, who were toolmakers, wore animal skin clothing, cooked with fire, and possibly performed ritual burials of their dead. Paleolithic man’s culture is evident in cave paintings such as the ones at Lascaux, France (see below image), located deep within the caves instead of at the opening where people might have lived and where natural light was available.
Fig.1. Cave painting of a bird-headed man, bison, and rhinoceros, Lascaux Cave, Dordogen, France. ca. 15,000 – 13,000BCE. (Sayre, 2013, p.3)
The image found in the Lascaux Cave depicts a hunt scene where a “hunter’s spear has pierced the bison’s hindquarters, and a rhinoceros charges off to the left” but it is unknown if the man image is original to the painting. (Sayre, 2013, p. 3). Other images in the Lascaux Cave show geometric shapes, bulls, horses and felines. There is speculation about the use of this cave and other caves found throughout Europe (see map below). Some archeologists and art historians believe the caves were possibly used as sanctuaries “for the performance of sacred rites and ceremonies” since they “elicit a sense of power and grandeur.” (Sayre, 2013, p.3)
Map 2. Locations of major Paleolithic caves in France and Spain. (Sayre, 2013, p.2)
Along with the cave images found in Lascaux, France another 27 caves have been discovered in along the Ardèche Region in the cliff side. It was not until the discovery of the Chauvet cave that “our thinking about prehistoric peoples” changed to realize these were “previously discovered cave painting had appeared to modern eyes as childlike, this cave contained drawings comparable to those a contemporary artist might” create. (Sayre, 2013, p. 1)
Fig. 2 Wall painting with horses, Chauvet Cave, Vollon-Pont-ďArc, Ardèche gorge, France ca. 30,000BCE
This cave alone gives scholars insight into the minds of early humans. Many scholars deduced these images “were created to exert some power or authority over the world of those who came in contact with them.” (Sayre, 2013, 2) In fact, most scholars believed images on cave walls were associated with hunting and conjuring up a successful hunt. However, this is not the case at Chauvet because more than “60 percent of the animals on its walls were never, or rarely, hunted”. (sayre, 2013, p.3)
It is now proposed cave painting played a role in rituals. These caves rituals are the first recorded evidence of religious ceremonies being practiced by a group of people.
“The caves for instance might be understood as gateways to the underworld and death, as symbols of the womb and birth, or as pathways to the world of dreams experienced in the dark of the night, and rites connected with such passage might have been conducted in them. The general arrangement of the animals in the paintings by species and gender, often in distinct chambers of the caves, suggests to some that the painting may have served as lunar calendars for predicting the seasonal migration of the animals.” (Sayre, 2013, p. 3)
No matter the reason for the images on the cave walls around the world we can safely presume the development of human culture was underway. There was a clear and decisive movement toward expressing life experiences and recording the world one inhabited.
The longest continuously practiced cave and rock paintings stretching from 40,000BCE to present day are found in Australia and are made by the Aboriginal culture. Since these artistic traditions have been passed down from generation to generation we know more about their meaning. For the Aboriginal “the act of painting creates a direct link between the past and the present” and the individual “artists do not believe that they create or invent their subjects; rather, the mimis (or ancestral spirits) give them their design” for the artist to simply transmit caves, rocks or flat boards. (Sayre, 2010, p. 976-7) The most interesting aspect of Aboriginal art can be seen in the below image. These artists depict both the external features as well as the internal anatomy of certain organ structures. (Broomer, 1997, p. 85) This alone shows some degree of primitive dissection investigation on the deceased animal.
Fig. 3. Mimis and Kangaroo, rock art, Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Australia. Older painting before 7,000 BCE, Kangaroo probably post-contact. (Sayre, 2010, p. 975)
Other, nomadic, hunter-gather cultures were more interested in creating works of art they were take with them while they wandered from location to location in search of food and shelter. In one particular sculptural figurine named the Venus of Willendorf, a 4 ½ inch statue dating from 24,000–21,000 BCE, depicts a female figure with certain body parts being enlarged, such as the breasts, abdomen and genital while other body parts are ignored (see below image), may have a connections to human fertility. The Venus of Willendorf is just one of a handful of tiny female figures found throughout Europe, all of which have similar exaggeration of certain body parts and almost complete denial of other body parts.
Fig. 4 Venus of Willendorf, found in Willendorf, Austria ca. 24,000-21,000 BCE. (Sayre, 2013, p. 4)
These disparities in depicting the female anatomy can easily be understood by using the science of evolutionary psychology to summarize the ideas behind human behavior in sexual selection terms.
“If we accept that the development of the human species was determined by the principle of the survival of the fittest, it follows that the primary criteria for assessing bodily fitness in a man or woman depend upon perceived or evident capacities to keep the species going. The predominant male and female physiologies that evolve will be those showing most promise of successful reproduction…A man will be judged by his physical ability to protect the family and supply it with shelter and food; a woman, by those bodily resources that help her to endure the trauma of childbirth, and the potentially difficult phase of first feeding.” (Spivey, 2005, p. 58)
In the beginning of the hominid species, Homo sapiens, there was widespread use of stone tools, which occurred around 120,000 – 100,000 years ago. During the Middle and Upper Paleolithic human beings started creating cave paintings and sculpture figurines around the World. The cave paintings discovered in the Chauvet Cave show artists’ with a greater skill for rendering their subject matter. These images have helped scholars “understand that the ability to represent the world with naturalistic (reliability) is an inherent human skill, unrelated to cultural sophistication.” (Sayre, 2013, p.35) Human beings ability to create images showed our earliest signs of the formation of culture – a way of living based on religious, social, and political classifications. What will happen over the next thousands of years will be the passing of this newly formed culture from one generation to the next.
Brommer, G. F. (1997). Discovering art history. (3rd ed.). Worcester, Massachusetts: Davis Publications, Inc.
The Cave of Lascaux. (n.d.). Retrieved June 9, 2006, from French Ministry of Culture and Communication Web site: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/arcnat/lascaux/en/
Sayre, H. M. (2013). Discovering the humanities. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.
——-, H. M. (2008). The humanities: Culture, continuity & change. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice Hall.
Spivey, N. (2005). How art made the world: A journey to the origins of human creativity. New York, NY: Basic Book.