The First Art Was Body Art

Question: At what point in the evolutionary timeline did humans develop creativity?

Donald Johanson:  Yeah, well, everyone when asked that question or ponders that question immediately thinks of the beautiful caves in southwest France, the most famous of course being Lascaux, where you have beautiful polychrome paintings of animals on the walls and so on.  Those are only 20,000 years old.  The work that my colleague at the Institute of Human Origins is doing, Curtis Marean, in sites on the very southern tip of Africa, he is finding pieces of ochre that are engraved.  There are no animal pictures them.  They’re simple geometric designs, small pieces maybe four or five inches long.  Ochre could certainly have been used, those little ochre pieces dipped in water and used as a stamp for example and maybe that identified those individuals as belonging to the same clan or the same group.  There is extensive discovery of ochre pencils and as we know one of the frequent minerals that is used to decorate…  I was recently with the some Masai people in Southern Tanzania, and it was so interesting because I went to a wedding and they used this red earth to paint their faces, and here I appear, you know, looking very different and really feeling like the other, like the outsider, and one of the elderly women came up to me and started painting my face, and a number of things happened.  The first thing that happened was I felt I was included, that I was part of them, that they had accepted me and I felt an intimacy with that person.  You know how it is.  We keep a distance from one another.  We have this personal space around us.  Decorating each other has a very interesting byproduct, which is developing social bonds, and the other thing was that I felt like I could participate and not just simply be an outside observer.  I was there to do photography, but I felt like I was involved in that cultural ceremony of Masai marriage, and we find these 160,000-year-old, four times as old as Europe, implements of ochre that are clearly pencils, so people were decorating one another and themselves and probably mostly each other, because they didn’t have mirrors, so they were probably decorating one another and this was like in a broad sense like when you look at nonhuman primates that groom one another.  It’s a way of developing and establishing social contact and social connectiveness and cohesiveness, so the earliest art really goes back to Southern Africa.  We find…  A little bit later we find pierced shells in the Serengeti.  We find them in North Africa.  We find them in the Middle East, so Europe wasn’t really the place where the creative explosion happened.  It came along with us into Europe and developed over time to the point where you have the first impressionists 25,000 years ago.  I think that is the first sense I had when I walked into Lascaux in the early 1980s was, wow, here was a whole age of Impressionism that preceded our age of Impressionism by 20,000 years.

Recorded on March 19, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

\r\n

Living with the Masai people of Tanzania convinced Donald Johanson that art first emerged from bodily decoration—which in turn emerged from the earliest human bonding rituals.

Related Articles

Scientists discover what caused the worst mass extinction ever

How a cataclysm worse than what killed the dinosaurs destroyed 90 percent of all life on Earth.

Credit: Ron Miller
Surprising Science

While the demise of the dinosaurs gets more attention as far as mass extinctions go, an even more disastrous event called "the Great Dying” or the “End-Permian Extinction” happened on Earth prior to that. Now scientists discovered how this cataclysm, which took place about 250 million years ago, managed to kill off more than 90 percent of all life on the planet.

Keep reading Show less

Why we're so self-critical of ourselves after meeting someone new

A new study discovers the “liking gap” — the difference between how we view others we’re meeting for the first time, and the way we think they’re seeing us.

New acquaintances probably like you more than you think. (Photo by Simone Joyner/Getty Images)
Surprising Science

We tend to be defensive socially. When we meet new people, we’re often concerned with how we’re coming off. Our anxiety causes us to be so concerned with the impression we’re creating that we fail to notice that the same is true of the other person as well. A new study led by Erica J. Boothby, published on September 5 in Psychological Science, reveals how people tend to like us more in first encounters than we’d ever suspect.

Keep reading Show less

NASA launches ICESat-2 into orbit to track ice changes in Antarctica and Greenland

Using advanced laser technology, scientists at NASA will track global changes in ice with greater accuracy.

Firing three pairs of laser beams 10,000 times per second, the ICESat-2 satellite will measure how long it takes for faint reflections to bounce back from ground and sea ice, allowing scientists to measure the thickness, elevation and extent of global ice
popular

Leaving from Vandenberg Air Force base in California this coming Saturday, at 8:46 a.m. ET, the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 — or, the "ICESat-2" — is perched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, and when it assumes its orbit, it will study ice layers at Earth's poles, using its only payload, the Advance Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS).

Keep reading Show less