First Art

Remember the first art you or your kids made?  Chances are it involved hand stencils or prints. Here’s one my son did when he was 4 year old:

New scientific research reported in Nature Magazine has discovered that hand stencils and drawings on caves in Indonesia (Sulawesi near Borneo) are some 40,000 years old, suggesting that the birthplace of first art, of human creativity, includes Indonesia.  Here’s a picture of the Indonesian hand stencils:

Before this new discovery, scientists and art historians thought that European cave art was the center of first art. Now, that Euro-centric view will be revised.

Why did the first art involve hand stencils? We can’t of course know for sure what was going through the minds of human beings 40,000 years ago when they placed their hands against cave walls and stained the rock to create images of their hands. But is there something in common between the hand prints of a child’s first art and the cave stencils of 40,000 years ago?

The child’s art says:  this is me, here’s my hand, I made this and I’m here. It’s a child’s first self-aware making of his or her tangible mark. Children smile with pride and amazement over their first artwork, put their names on it and can’t wait to show their parents. It’s the sort of self-awareness that, even in our Paleolithic past, makes human consciousness distinct from other creatures.

Maybe the cave painters felt the same sort of amazement that a child still does when the hand is marked in stone:  this is my hand, I’m here, I made this. To have this message still resonating from a cave wall 40,000 years later in digital images around the world says something about human creativity.