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Life Is Short, Art Is Long

New find may force a rethinking of who the first artists were

September 29, 1996

Deep in the remote tropics of northwestern Australia, in a place the aborigines call Jinmium, stands a 130-foot-high sandstone monolith. On it and surrounding boulders, reports a study to be published in the archeological journal Antiquity, are thousands of precisely carved circles that are by far the earliest known sign of artistic behavior.

Estimated to be 75,000 years old, the recently discovered carvings are at least twice the age of the former record holders, those rhino ears, bison horns and Ice Age animals wispily drawn on the walls of France's Chauvet Cave.

The Australian find calls into question the currently accepted theory that modern humans reached Australia about 55,000 years ago. What has most surprised the scientific community, however, is something the researchers found several feet underneath the stone monolith: red ochre and stone tools that a new technique involving electrons has determined to be as much as 176,000 years old.

Since modern Homo sapiens are thought to be about 100,000 years old, scientists speculate that the tools and also the later circle carvings were crafted by a hominid (or two-legged primate) lower on the evolutionary chain.

That would be humbling indeed, for traditional archeology has long argued that the ability to make art and other symbolic representations of the world is what distinguishes modern Homo sapiens from primitive Homo sapiens, an earlier species. It is what makes Homo, man, sapient, or knowing.

Or is it? Traditional archeology holds that modern Homo sapiens made their way out of Africa only about 40,000 years ago. It acknowledges that as many as 110,000 years ago, earlier hominids created pendant beads, body decorations and bone musical instruments found thousands of miles away from Africa. But the traditional archeologists nevertheless conclude that "art" began only relatively recently. They rest their conclusion on the argument that the cave paintings and circle carvings involve higher thought, "abstraction and symbolism," while the works of our earlier hominid ancestors do not.

Motivated to reexamine some of their assumptions by discoveries like the one at Jinmium, some archeologists have begun to question this conclusion. Might higher thought indeed have come sooner? Whenever art arrived, it doesn't change what writer Andre Malraux observed: "A man becomes truly Man only when in quest of what is most exalted in him. True arts and cultures relate Man to duration, sometimes to eternity. . . . "

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