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Cave art from 30,000 years ago?

By Marsha Walton

The waterbird and other mammoth ivory figurines from a German cave date back 30,000 years or so.
The waterbird and other mammoth ivory figurines from a German cave date back 30,000 years or so.

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(CNN) -- The first modern humans in Europe were not just hunters and gatherers; some were quite skilled artists as well.

Three small ivory carvings found at Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany suggest a high level of artistic skill among craftspeople living between 30,000 and 35,000 years ago.

"A lot of colleagues have suggested that art would evolve gradually, with primitive pieces first," said archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tuebingen, Germany.

But it's clear that these three figurines, of a horse, a water bird, and a part human, part cat-like creature are "well developed and aesthetically well executed," said Conard, whose work appears in the scientific journal Nature this week.

While life was far from cushy during the time period, early humans were not on the edge of starvation.

"They had good weeks and bad weeks just like we do," said Conard. But for the most part, they had day-to-day life under control, he said.

Other scientists studying human evolution have a couple of theories about these and other early artifacts found at four different German archeological sites. The objects are considered the oldest examples of figurative art in the world.

One hypothesis is that the carvings, of lions, bears, mammoths and bison, depicted powerful animals that early humans viewed with awe and perhaps fear.

The part human, part lion creature may have been used by a shaman or spiritual advisor.
The part human, part lion creature may have been used by a shaman or spiritual advisor.

Others believe the artwork reflected a "spiraling development of complexity among humans," said Conard, specifically a reflection of shamanism. A shaman was an intermediary, someone who could connect with both the spiritual and ordinary worlds. Often the shaman worked with "helper spirits," which often took the form of animals.

The part human, part lion carving would reflect that dual world; and so would the water bird, a creature that can move effortlessly from land to water to the skies, according to researchers.

Conard said there's something else important about the discoveries: It shows "cultural modernity," or evidence that the humans living 30,000 years ago were "a lot like ourselves."

These societies collected plants and hunted reindeer and horses, but also had a wide range of tools they made from ivory, bone and stone.

The carvings, in addition to other evidence of art, music and language, are signs of cultural sophistication, Conard said.

The upper Danube River area where the figurines were found us viewed as an important center of cultural innovation during the Paleolithic period, the earliest period of the Stone Age.

The carvings found in Hohle Fels were most likely created within caves in the region, where scientists also found hundreds of pieces of debris, also composed of the ivory of mammoths, prehistoric relatives of modern elephants.

During the cold spring and winter months, there would have been time to produce the carvings. Other types of jewelry and ornamentation also have been found, including objects with small holes in them, which have been part of necklaces.

The horse was one of many carvings depicting fast, powerful animals.
The horse was one of many carvings depicting fast, powerful animals.

Art history professor James Janson said many people wrongly think of prehistoric cultures as primitive and backwards.

In some ways, he said, the living and working conditions of these early artists deserve admiration.

"They couldn't just walk into the cave and turn on central lighting or buy pigments; they had to make all of those," said Janson, professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.

In spite of those drawbacks, Janson said the craftspeople who carved in southern Germany, or created cave drawings or textiles thousands of years ago showed a "tremendous sense of form and sophistication."

Conard said it was not just elite artists creating figures like the lion-man or the bird in flight. Working in ivory was a common activity, with some pieces of remarkably high quality, others not so impressive.

SCAD's Janson said that's not so different from contemporary humans.

"With all the ethnic, cultural and religious differences today, looking at objects like these points to a creative impulse that links us all together, no matter what the time period," he said.

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