Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Animals and Ancient Creativity

June 4, 2010

Earlier this week, it was announced that as possibly as long ago as 40,000 years, a pair of birds was painted in red ochre on a rock overhang in northern Australia. The images speak directly to a human fascination with animals expressed far back in time.

View a photograph of the bird images here:

bird image photo

The focus on animals in this art is fairly unsurprising. Judging from the heretofore earliest-known art from caves or rocks of Australia, Africa, and Europe, the early human mind was preoccupied with all sorts of birds and mammals.

Less predictable perhaps is the type of bird chosen for depiction in Australia. It has been identified as the genus Genyornis—a supersized (“megafauna”) bird that went extinct about 40,000 years ago.

And here’s the conundrum for archaeologists: Does this depiction mean that the images date to the time period when the birds were still alive? That idea, not an independent dating technique, is where the suggestion of 40,000 years comes from; at least one archaeologist believes that the detail is so perfectly done as to point towards an artist who had directly viewed the animal.

Is this solid logic, though? Or could oral descriptions of the birds, passed down through the generations, account for the artwork instead? It’s notable that the bird images are surrounded by paintings of animals that went extinct more recently, for example the Tasmanian tiger (3000 years ago) and an animal like a tapir (18,000 years ago).

It’s been a fascinating week for students of evolved human creativity. If the Australia find raises more questions than it answers, another discovery in South Africa attests at least to the enduring human interest in marking the world with color and flair.

In South Africa, archaeologists uncovered a site devoted to the production of ochre powder that’s about 58,000 years old. Four hearths made of cement showed evidence of ochre, leading scientists to think that the hearths were involved in color production. Red ochre, for example, emerges when ochre of other colors is subjected to heat.

Ochre, scientists know, has been used in prehistory to color objects (and to adorn bodies), and also to bind one part of a tool to another part in an adhesive-like manner.

Discoveries such as these two urge us to think beyond the museum-diorama obsession with human evolutionary milestones such as first stone-tool technology or first big-game hunting. Our ancestors – especially our Homo sapiens ancestors—transformed their surroundings by splashing the world with color, by crafting beautiful art, and by relating with other animals on a number of levels.

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.