Archaeologists Discover the World’s First “Art Studio” Created in an Ethiopian Cave 43,000 Years Ago

Images via PLOS

If you want to see where art began, go to a cave. Not just any cave, but not just one cave either. You’ll find the best-known cave paint­ings at Las­caux, an area of south­west­ern France with a cave com­plex whose walls fea­ture over 600 images of ani­mals, humans, and sym­bols, all of them more than 17,000 years old, but oth­er caves else­where in the world reveal oth­er chap­ters of art’s ear­ly his­to­ry. Some of those chap­ters have only just come into leg­i­bil­i­ty, as in the case of the cave near the Ethiopi­an city of Dire Dawa recent­ly deter­mined to be the world’s old­est “art stu­dio.”

“The Porc-Epic cave was dis­cov­ered by Pierre Teil­hard de Chardin and Hen­ry de Mon­freid in 1929 and thought to date to about 43,000 to 42,000 years ago, dur­ing the Mid­dle Stone Age,” writes Sarah Cas­cone at Art­net.

There, archae­ol­o­gists have found “a stash of 4213 pieces, or near­ly 90 pounds, of ochre, the largest such col­lec­tion ever dis­cov­ered at a pre­his­toric site in East Africa.” The “ancient vis­i­tors to the site processed the iron-rich ochre stones there by flak­ing and grind­ing the raw mate­ri­als to pro­duce a fine-grained and bright red pow­der,” a sub­stance use­ful for “sym­bol­ic activ­i­ties, such as body paint­ing, the pro­duc­tion of pat­terns on dif­fer­ent media, or for sig­nalling.”

In oth­er words, those who used this ochre-rich cave over its 4,500 years of ser­vice used it to pro­duce their tools, which func­tioned like pro­to-stamps and crayons. You can read about these find­ings in much more detail in the paper “Pat­terns of change and con­ti­nu­ity in ochre use dur­ing the late Mid­dle Stone Age (MSA) of the Horn of Africa: The Porc-Epic Cave record” by Daniela Euge­nia Rosso of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Barcelona and Francesco d’Errico and Alain Quef­f­elec of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bor­deaux. In it, the authors “iden­ti­fy pat­terns of con­ti­nu­ity in ochre acqui­si­tion, treat­ment and use reflect­ing both per­sis­tent use of the same geo­log­i­cal resources and sim­i­lar uses of iron-rich rocks by late MSA Porc-Epic inhab­i­tants.”

The Ethiopi­an site con­tains so much ochre, in fact, that “this con­ti­nu­ity can be inter­pret­ed as the expres­sion of a cohe­sive cul­tur­al adap­ta­tion, large­ly shared by all com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and con­sis­tent­ly trans­mit­ted through time.” The more evi­dence sites like the Porc-Epic cave pro­vide, the greater the lev­el of detail in which we’ll be able to piece togeth­er the sto­ry of not just art, but cul­ture itself. Cul­ture, as Bri­an Eno so neat­ly defined it, is every­thing you don’t have to do, and though draw­ing in ochre might well have proven use­ful for the pre­his­toric inhab­i­tants of mod­ern-day Ethiopia, one of them had to give it a try before it had any acknowl­edged pur­pose. Lit­tle could they have imag­ined what that action would lead to over the next few tens of thou­sands of years.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Was a 32,000-Year-Old Cave Paint­ing the Ear­li­est Form of Cin­e­ma?

We Were Wan­der­ers on a Pre­his­toric Earth: A Short Film Inspired by Joseph Con­rad

Hear the World’s Old­est Instru­ment, the “Nean­derthal Flute,” Dat­ing Back Over 43,000 Years

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.