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The First Artists

In Search of the World's Oldest Art

Michel Lorblanchet, Paul Bahn


Two of the greatest living authorities on Ice Age art take you on a journey across the globe and hundreds of thousands of years into the past to discover the deepest origins of art

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Where do we find the world’s very first art? When, and why, did people begin experimenting with different materials, forms and colours? Were our once-cousins, the Neanderthals, also capable of creating art? Prehistorians have been asking these questions of our ancestors for decades, but only very recently, with the development of cutting-edge scientific and archaeological techniques, have we been able to piece together the first chapter in the story of art.

Overturning the traditional Eurocentric vision of our artistic origins, which has focused almost exclusively on Franco-Spanish cave art, Michel Lorblanchet and Paul Bahn widen the search across the whole world. There are clues that even three million years ago our distant ancestors were drawn to natural curiosities, such as the face-like ‘Makapansgat cobble’ from South Africa, which was collected and carried miles from its source. In the last hundred thousand years we began to create our own art: the oldest known paint palettes, still containing ochre pigment, have been discovered in South Africa’s Blombos Cave; the famous Venus figurines are scattered across Europe and as far afield as Siberia; and rock art is found on every continent except Antarctica.

This long universal history of art mirrors the development of humanity. Images are closely linked to the emergence of the first belief systems, and ways of relating to each other. The First Artists assesses the discovery, history and significance of all the varied kinds of early art. Our ancestors were far from being the creatively impoverished primitives of past accounts, and Europe was by no means the only ‘cradle’ of art; the artistic impulse developed in the human mind wherever it travelled.

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'A brilliantly researched, global survey of the very first stirrings of human art, which shows us, with admirable objectivity, that there is a deep-seated urge in all human beings to go beyond mere survival and impose visually creative patterns on our world, making us the first truly artistic animal'
Desmond Morris

Product Information

Book Details

Format: Hardback

Size: 23.4 x 15.3 cm

Extent: 296 pp

Illustrations: 80

Publication date: 20 July 2017

ISBN: 9780500051870

Contents List

Introduction: What is Art? • 1. Early Attempts to Tackle the Problem: Theories, Chimps and Children • 2. Finding art in Nature: the first stirrings of an aesthetic sense • 3. Can we see art in the first tools? • 4. All work and no play? Looking at marks on bones and stones • 5. Figuring it out – the first carvings • 6. Jingles and bangles: seeking the origins of music and decorated bodies • 7. First art in the landscape • 8. The writing’s on the wall • 9. The appearance of rock art around the world • Conclusion

About the Author

Michel Lorblanchet is a leading French specialist in the field of Palaeolithic art. In his former roles as Director of Research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and research consultant for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies he pioneered experimental methods of reproducing ancient art, as well as scientific methods for its dating. His Art pariétal: Grottes ornées du Quercy (Editions du Rouergue, 2010), the sum of forty-five years of research, is considered the definitive work on the art of the Quercy region, which includes more than thirty painted caves.

Paul Bahn is co-author of Thames & Hudson’s bestselling Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice, and author of Images of the Ice Age, widely regarded as the standard introduction to cave art.

List of Contributors

Pierre Soulages