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The Oldest Art in the World

What is the value of art? The French Bohemians of the nineteenth century asserted that art’s true worth is found in the act of artistic expression: “Art for the sake of art.” There is something provocative about this idea. All human beings have the compulsion to create—to make art for its own sake. Perhaps we are bound to create because art (more than other modes of communication) allows us to express deep-seated thoughts, emotions, dreams, desires, disappointments, and hopes in more meaningful ways.

I also consider artistic expression to be a reflection of the image of God, which all humans bear (Genesis 1:26–27). However, I think it is safe to say that most anthropologists and many other scientists reject this biblical view of humanity. Still, a majority regards artistic expression as a defining feature of modern humans. For this reason, anthropologists want to understand how artist expression originated. What are the mode and tempo of art’s origin? Did artistic expression appear coincidentally with the origin of modern humans? Or did it arise much later? Two recent archeological studies address these questions. Though conducted from an evolutionary vantage point, they provide added support for the scientific credibility of the biblical account of human origins.

In the first study, an international team of scientists revisited hand stencils and depictions of animals found in the caves of Sulawesi, Indonesia.1 Discovered in the 1950s, these drawings were originally dated to be about 10,000 years old. The team re-dated them using a newly developed technique that measures the age of calcite deposits—left behind by water flowing down the cave walls— overlaying the art. (Trace amounts of radioactive uranium and thorium isotopes associated with the calcite can be used to date the mineral deposit and, thus, provide a minimum age for the artwork.) They found that the Sulawesi art dates to 35,000 to 40,000 years old. In the second study, other researchers affirmed and extended these results, dating rock art throughout China, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia and finding many of these specimens to be over 40,000 years in age.2

These two studies indicate that modern humans possessed the capacity to produce art when they migrated into Asia around 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. The art found in Southeast Asia is the same age and quality as art in the caves of Spain, France, and Germany. Presumably, modern humans also brought artistic capabilities to Europe around 40,000 years ago.

Until the discovery of ancient art in Southeast Asia, many anthropologists believed that art—and, consequently, symbolic thought—didn’t originate until around 40,000 years ago, coincident with the arrival of modern humans in Europe. If this were the case, then modern humans’ bodies would have appeared almost 100,000 years before modern human behavior. In other words, there would have been a lag between the emergence of modern humans and the emergence of our capacity for symbolic thought. The evolutionary paradigm readily accommodates this scenario; the biblical view of human origins, however, demands that modern human behavior appear at the same time as the modern human body.

The discovery of art in both Europe and Southeast Asia that dates to roughly the same age suggests that humans possessed the capacity of symbolic expression before we began to migrate around the world and pushes the origin of modern human behavior prior to at least 60,000 years ago. Anthropologist Christopher Stringer from the Natural History Museum in London notes, “It is a really important find; it enables us to get away from this Euro-centric view of a creative explosion that was special to Europe and did not develop in other parts of the world until much later.”3 He goes on to say that, “The basis for this art was there 60,000 years ago; it may even have been there in Africa before 60,000 years ago and it spread with modern humans.”4 The discovery of symbolic artifacts that date as old as 80,000 years in several caves located in South Africa confirms Stringer’s suggestion, placing the origin of artistic expression and symbolism closer to the origin of humanity. (Caves are more conducive to the concentration and preservation of artifacts than other locations.)

While not conclusive, a number of studies suggest that modern human behavior emerged even earlier than 70,000 to 80,000 years ago. For example, researchers have uncovered beads made from marine shells at locations in Israel (Skhul) and Algeriathat are remote from the ocean, indicating the shells were transported long distances before being made into jewelry. Using thermal luminescence techniques, these beads date between 100,000 and 135,000 years in age.5 Archeologists have also unearthed evidence for the use of red ocher and pierced marine shells in the Qafzeh cave of Israel that date around 92,000 years old.6 All these artifacts reflect symbolic capacity.

These recent discoveries place the origin of symbolism—a capacity that can be understood as a reflection of God’s image—closer to the origin of the modern human body, painting a beautiful portrait of harmony between science and the biblical story of humanity’s start.

  1. M. Aubert et al., “Pleistocene Cave Art from Sulawesi, Indonesia,” Nature 514 (October 9, 2014): 223–27.
  2. Paul S. C. Taçon et al., “The Global Implications of the Early Surviving Rock Art of Greater Southeast Asia,” Antiquity 88 (December 2014): 1050–64.
  3. Pallab Ghosh, “Cave Paintings Change Ideas about the Origin of Art,” BBC News, posted October 8, 2014,
  4. Ibid.
  5. Marian Vanhaeren et al., “Middle Paleolithic Shell Beads in Israel and Algeria,” Science 312 (June 23, 2006): 1785–88.
  6. Erella Hovers et al., “An Early Case of Color Symbolism: Ochre Use by Modern Humans in Qafzeh Cave,” Current Anthropology 44 (August/October 2003): 491–522.