Although prehistoric humans developed in different ways and on different timelines throughout the world, they share a common moment. That moment is the first piece of art created by a community of these ancient people. It’s usually something that occurs when people start living in larger groups, and is a way for people to communicate meaning even if they don’t yet have a developed speech or writing system. Images, like those in the ancient rock art lining the Guayabero River in Colombia, become a stand-in for types of objects or animals, and can be used to record stories or educate younger generations.
Ancient and prehistoric art are very difficult to interpret or understand. Prehistory by definition means that societies are without writing, and so there’s no accompanying records that could explain how people thought about themselves and the world around them. Prehistoric images remain one of art history’s best kept secrets.
Using Our Imaginations Responsibly
Archaeologists often rely very heavily on context to illuminate the meaning of images and ancient art. They use scientific methods like carbon dating, stratigraphy, and excavation to find out what kind of animals and plants were around the prehistoric humans, what the climate was like, and how they hunted and ate. Although these pieces of information are limited, they’re sometimes the best that we can confidently equip ourselves with when considering prehistoric art.
There’s often a tendency that’s hard to resist when looking at these pieces of early human visual culture: the tendency to project our own modern attitudes and understanding on these ancient people. However, this leads to misguided interpretations and unfounded assumptions. We read political or class strife into certain scenes when there may be none, and assume things are mystical or religious when they could be literal. It’s always important to check our assumptions, ask ourselves if we have underlying motivations, and consider possible counterarguments.
That said, a good archaeologist and art historian should also be confident in their imagination, curiosity, and willingness to test out new ideas. After all, that sense of wonder and awe is why so many of us are drawn to prehistoric art.
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