From cave paintings in Indonesia to engravings on ostrich eggs, archeologists have discovered that art has been a part of human activity for hundreds of thousands of years.
When we look at the first examples of human art, it is exciting to see that people around the world all had the same ideas. Humans in Africa and Indonesia would both draw pictures of animals they hunted.
People in Tibet and Australia would share their handprints as proof they existed. We always sought out new ways to be creative and new ways to express ourselves.
We have always been fascinated by animals, sexuality, and violence since the beginning of our species. Our earliest examples may have been marks on a wall, we soon created complex statues, jewelry, and even art that tells stories.
Here is a list of the top 10 oldest pieces of art ever discovered:
1. Cave Pig
The oldest confirmed example of representative artwork ever discovered was found only recently in a limestone cave in Indonesia.
The painting of a native species of pig was found in the Leang Tedongnge cave by archeologists who have been documenting the hundreds of artworks that are within the cave system.
The painting is of a Sulawesi warty pig and fortunately, due to being deep in the cave far from water, it is extremely well-preserved. The painting was made by hand and the “ink” was likely from a mixture of mulberry-berry juice.
Quite near are the remnants of another painting of a pig, leading some to believe it was a larger work of animals fighting. Hand stencils have also been found nearby with the same dating.
2. Venus of Hohle Fels
An ivory statue of a naked woman, found in Hohle Fels, Germany, is said to be the oldest statue ever found. Discovered in 2008, the statuette is less than sixty millimeters long and was carved from the tusk of a mammoth.
While one of the earliest pieces of representational art (that which looks like something, rather than just figures or hand prints), it is also extremely important in teaching us about the sexuality and ideals of early humans.
The woman in the figure would be considered overweight by today’s standards but her full figure and large breasts would likely be considered desirable as evidence of being well-nourished and healthy for motherhood.
2. The Lion Man
A statue that is likely only a little younger than Venus is the “Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel”.
Discovered in a German cave in 1939, this statue with the body of a human and the head of a lion looks eerily reminiscence of much younger statues of early gods.
“Zoomorphic art” such as this has always fascinated anthropologists, who are not entirely sure why we first wanted to create such objects.
The statue is twelve inches tall, made from mammoth ivory, and was cut using a flint-stone knife (as evidenced by remnants left in deep gashes).
Some academics believe it would have been the same societies that created the Lion Man and Venus of Hohle Fels, as similar figures were discovered in the same area.
Artists attempting to recreate the statue using similar tools discovered that it takes nearly four hundred hours to create such a piece, giving rise to the suggestion that this would have been quite valuable to the people who owned it.
3. The Handprints of Tibet
In Quesang, on the Tibetan Plateau, there is an unusual collection of hand and foot-prints near a local hot spring. Because of how they are arranged, it is clear that it is a form of mosaic, rather than simply the recording of travelers across the land.
This art is over one hundred and sixty thousand years old, making it possibly the oldest artwork in the world. Beyond it being among the earliest examples of art, the existence of any prints at all is extraordinary.
Quesang is forty-five thousand meters above sea level, where conditions can be rough due to cold and wind. That there is evidence of humanity in such a vicious climate that is hard to reach is an interesting find all by itself.
4. Shapeshifters Hunting Animals
In a Sulawesian cave not too far from the Cave Pig is a more complex work that is a few thousand years younger. This work depicts the earliest hunting scene in human art, at around 44 thousand years old.
The work, which may also be the oldest “narrative artwork” (art that tells a story), depicts a group of shape-shifting hominoids as they hunt giant pigs and other animals.
These human-like creatures may represent the gods worshiped by the people at the time and parallels the rise in similar mythology across the rest of the globe.
5. Diepkloof Eggshell Engravings
While far less detailed and not figurative, the engraved eggshells found in Diepkloof, South Africa, are interesting in that they show art designed and produced as fragile objects.
These sixty thousand-year-old pieces were likely complete eggs at one time, as the patterns suggest they encircled the entirety of the shell.
The eggshell in question is that of an Ostrich. The carvings include thatched bands and parallel lines.
While these images are now simply markings, it may have been that these shells were once painted, and might even have looked similar to the easter eggs of today.
6. Apollo 11 Cave Stones
Discovered at the same time as the famous moment in space exploration, the Apollo 11 Cave in Namibia has been the source of some spectacular rock art.
The most impressive of these are the seven slabs of rock which contain trace work of several animal figures. Created around twenty-five thousand years ago, these stones contain pictures of cats, bees, and antelopes.
Also found in the cave were more traditional wall paintings that included hands, lines, and less representative artworks.
7. Blombos Cave Engravings
In Blombos Cave, South Africa, rock art sometimes involved painting, but other versions also existed.
Among them is work that involves using beads and quartz embedded into lines within the rock to make intricate engravings, while the remains of jewelry are found in the sands of the bottom of the cave,
Blombos Cave also has a section that appears to be some form of ochre mine and workshop. Many tools have been discovered in this one hundred thousand-year-old section, and Ochre “paint” was stored in abalone shells.
This may be one of the earliest examples of a workshop that remains today, and has given the Blombos Cave the informal moniker “the ancient paint factory”.
8. Kimberley Kangaroo
While relatively young compared to others on this list, the painting of a Kangaroo found recently in the Kimberley, Australia, is worth mentioning for both its level of detail, and for being a part of a larger group of cave paintings that tell us a large amount of information about human life 17 thousand years ago.
This painting is the oldest-known rock art in the country, and its method mimics much of the rock art found in Indonesia and other parts of SE Asia.
This means that even as far back as twenty thousand years ago there was cultural communication and sharing of ideas between people across the area.
9. Borneo Cattle
In the jungles of Kalimantan, Indonesia, scientists have uncovered a large wall filled with artworks, including cattle.
Dating of the pictures shows the mural was created over tens of thousands of years, with some going back over forty thousand. Other artwork, lines, and stencils rather than pictures, date back fifty thousand years.
Because of the long period between the first and last pictures, scientists have been able to learn more about tracking human creativity and found a similar timeline in Indonesia to the cave art found in Africa and Europe.
One of the more interesting aspects of this wall is the range of colors, suggesting that people were beginning to experiment with color, using different forms of clay, organic matter, and iron oxide when creating art.
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