Lost art of the Stone Age: The cave paintings redrawing human history

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Newly discovered cave art gives fresh insight into the minds of our ancestors - and upends the idea that a Stone Age cultural explosion was unique to Europe

Humans 28 July 2021

By Alison George

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This pig painting from Leang Tedongnge cave on Sulawesi is at least 45,500 years old

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IN 1879, an 8-year-old girl made a discovery that would rock our understanding of human history. On the walls of Altamira cave in northern Spain, she spotted stunning drawings of bison, painted in vivid red and black. More striking even than the images was their age: they were made thousands of years ago by modern humans’ supposedly primitive ancestors. Today, nearly 400 caves across Europe have been found decorated with hand stencils, mysterious symbols and beautiful images of animals created by these accomplished artists.

The discoveries led to the view that artistic talent arose after modern humans arrived in the region some 40,000 years ago, as part of a “cultural explosion” reflecting a flowering of the human mind. But more recent evidence has blown this idea out of the water. For a start, modern humans might not have been the first artists in Europe, as paintings discovered in a Spanish cave in 2018 have revealed. What’s more, a treasure trove of cave paintings emerging in Indonesia has dispelled the idea that Europe was the epicentre of creativity. Indeed, discoveries in Africa indicate that humans were honing their artistic skills long before groups of them migrated to the rest of the world.

The real puzzle is why Stone Age cave art seems to be concentrated in a few locations. Could it be hiding elsewhere in plain sight, unnoticed, unrecognised or obscured? Efforts are now under way to track down this missing art, with growing success. …

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