December 18, 2003 | David F. Coppedge

Art Evolution Is Backwards

Early art has again been shown to be the work of advanced intellect and culture (see Apr. 22 headline and embedded links).  Carved animal figurines found in Germany1 estimated to be 30,000 to 33,000 years old, display a level of craftsmanship not expected among primitive humans.  In the Dec. 18 issue of Nature2, Anthony Sinclair laments that this does not fit the Victorian notions of progressive evolution:

The study of early art has been plagued by our desire to see this essentially human skill in a progressive evolutionary context: simple artistic expressions should lead to later, more sophisticated creations.  We imagine that the first artists worked with a small range of materials and techniques, and produced a limited range of representations of the world around them.  As new materials and new techniques were developed, we should see this pattern of evolution in the archaeological record.  Yet for many outlets of artistic expression � cave paintings, textiles, ceramics and musical instruments � the evidence increasingly refuses to fit.  Instead of a gradual evolution of skills, the first modern humans in Europe were in fact astonishingly precocious artists. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

He describes how the cave paintings in Europe, before they were dated by radiometric means, were arranged into an evolutionary sequence from simple to complex.  Then came the surprise that the superb multicolored animal paintings in Chauvet cave in France were dated to be the oldest (see 10/04/01 headline).  Sinclair points out other examples of textiles, figurines and musical instruments that refuse to fall into evolutionary line.  For instance, among some musical pipes found in France,

Microscopic examination suggests that they may have been reed-voiced instruments, like a modern oboe, and that the finger holes have been chamfered to increase the pneumatic efficiency of the finger seal: simple whistles they are not.  Such evidence of complexity is used to argue that these cannot be the first musical pipes, even though they are the oldest in the archaeological record.

So there seems to be a bias among researchers to force their discoveries into evolutionary presuppositions.  Sinclair tries to salvage evolution by saying maybe we haven’t found the primitive precursors yet, but unambiguous finds prior to the dates of these exquisite artifacts “can be counted on the fingers of one hand,” he says.  “The argument in favour of fast-developing artistic skills in modern humans is strong, and certainly one that I find convincing.”  His statements reveal the chagrin of finding out observations do not match predictions, and he cautions researchers that they must face up to the facts:

The Victorian idea of progressive evolution has been a very persuasive metaphor for explaining change in the archaeological record, particularly over a time of biological change in the human species.  Yet the archaeological evidence is now forcing us to come up with new timescales for cultural change and innovation.  This is a challenge that makes the smallest finds of archaeology as important as the largest.


1Nicholas J. Conard, “Palaeolithic ivory sculptures from southwestern Germany and the origins of figurative art,” Nature 426, 830 – 832 (18 December 2003); doi:10.1038/nature02186.
2Anthony Sinclair, “Archaeology: Art of the Ancients,” Nature 426, 774 – 775 (18 December 2003); doi:10.1038/426774a.

While Sinclair’s candor is laudable, it does not go far enough.  The evolutionary metaphor is beyond salvage.  The observations falsify evolution and instead support the creation paradigm, that man was endowed with intelligence and artistic skill from the beginning.  In the Biblical timeline, for instance, metallurgy, farming, ranching and musical instrument making were already advanced by the seventh generation from Adam (see Gen. 4:16-22).  After the flood and Babel, it is certainly plausible that technology took a huge setback, and as post-flood ice ages ensued, generations of humans dispersed into whatever habitats they could find, including caves.  For a Q&A list on creation anthropology, see Answers in Genesis.
    The fact that some human artifacts are found in caves does not mean the artists were primitive.  Some people like living in or visiting caves (even today).  Besides, it could be a selection effect, either that cave environments preserve artifacts better, or that archaeologists are more wont to explore caves than surface terrain.  The dating methods Sinclair trusts are flawed anyway, being built on evolutionary presuppositions, so his whole predicament is a prison in his own mind.  Our enlightened post-Victorian era must now wake up to the realization that progressive evolution was just a persuasive metaphor, and as scientists should know, metaphors bewitch you (see July 4 headline).

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Categories: Early Man

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