In 1884, Georges Seurat strategically placed dots atop a canvas, leading people to believe they were looking at an image of park-goers lounging along the Seine River in France. The technique was known as pointillism, and it seemed new at the time. But 38,000 years ago, people living inside caves in southwest France were doing something similar, according to findings published last month in Quaternary International.
“Their skills speak of a very high ability to observe in detail what surrounded them and reproduce it with great economy of means,” said Vhils, a Portuguese street artist who is known for his own chiseling of dots and lines into walls, and was not involved in the study.
These pointillist creations of early modern humans were recently discovered when scientists revisited Abri Cellier, a cave site in France’s Vézère Valley. There, they found 16 limestone tablets left behind by a previous excavation. Images of what appear to be animals, including a woolly mammoth, were formed by a series of punctured dots and, in some cases, carved connecting lines. Combined with previous images from nearby caves in France and Spain, the tablets suggest an early form of pointillism, and a very early point on art history’s timeline.
“Imagine the first time a human convinced someone else that a line, or a group of lines is an animal,” said Randall White, an anthropologist at New York University who led the excavation. “Today we live in an extremely visual culture, and we digest and interpret, on the run, a million different kinds of illusions that we take to be reality,” he said. It is impossible to say that this was a magical moment when humans invented art. But in these tablets, he thinks he and his team may have gotten close.Continue reading the main story
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Step back, 38,000 years to what are now the forests of southwestern France. There lived the Aurignacians, Europe’s earliest known modern humans, a hunter-gatherer society. In the steppe grasslands, they stalked reindeer, mostly. Horses, aurochs (ancient bison), woolly mammoths and rhinoceroses were also around.
During winters much colder than the ones in France now, one group of Aurignacians lived beneath a rock shelter, about 20 feet deep and 67 feet long. Across its open mouth, suspended animal skins trapped the heat from a fire. Someone butchered a reindeer. Another person made ornamental beads of ivory and animal teeth. Their bodies, which were probably painted with ochre, were covered in animal skins, which were painted, too. Someone also decorated the ceiling, walls and tablets with images of vulvas and animals.
“In circumstances where we’d probably have a tendency to sit in a corner by the fire and shiver,” Dr. White said, the Aurignacians “are engraving, and painting and making ornaments.”
About 10,000 years later, the ceiling of this cave collapsed in such a perfect way that it preserved all the stuff they left behind. Some archaeologists found it in 1927, and put some of what they excavated in museums. But they left behind 16 tablets that appeared to have been turned over just after they were made, for some unknown reason. Nearly a century later Dr. White returned with an international team of 21 scientists and even more student volunteers to find them. When the undersurface of the first tablet was revealed, Dr. White got chills.
There was no paint, but someone had taken the dull tip of a flint stone just half the size of a person’s palm and punctured the surface. Dots formed in the shape of an animal. In other tablets, the dots were connected.
In a paper published in January, Dr. White and his colleagues revealed a similar engraving of an auroch, in Abri Blanchard, another French cave. Combined with dotted images which were first painted on hands and then stamped onto walls in Chauvet Cave, they think the Aurignacians had their own artistic style. It was kind of like connect the dots.
Their subject matter was something more abstract and meaningful than simply dinner, Dr. White said. Dinner was reindeer, primarily, but no reindeer art has been found. The animals used for their body art were also depicted in their wall art. “They’re painting what’s good to think, not eat,” Dr. White said.
Dr. White does not think the art in these caves is the root of Western art, because modern Europeans are not genetic descendants of these cave dwellers. This cave art outlived its creators, who did not hand down their pointillist techniques to European artists tens of thousands of years later.
“All of this stuff got invented, but it’s not continuous,” Dr. White said. “It may well have just disappeared or transformed into something else.” The Aurignacians’ techniques probably developed independently, and the pointillist style employed by Seurat later emerged.
“One of the most interesting things I’ve learnt through my work is how history has a way of repeating itself, despite the change in social and material circumstances,” Vhils wrote in an email. “And these findings seem to reinforce this view.”