How Art Made the World

A Journey to the Origins of Human Creativity


By Nigel Spivey

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In the late nineteenth century, the first discoveries of prehistoric painting were greeted with incredulity. How could there have been such deft and skillful artists in the world over 30,000 years ago? Noted art historian Nigel Spivey begins with this puzzle to explore the record of humanity’s artistic endeavors, and their impact on our own development. How Art Made the World , in conjunction with the PBS miniseries, reveals how artists from the earliest caveman to the most studied Renaissance master have grappled with the same questions in their work: What is a man? Why must we die? Is there a God? With the help of vivid color illustrations of some of the world’s most moving and enduring works of art, Spivey shows how that art has been used as a means of mass persuasion, essential to the creation of hierarchical societies, and finally, the extent to which art has served as a mode of terror management in the face of our inevitable death. Packed with new insights into ancient wonders and fascinating stories from all around the globe, How Art Made the World is a compelling account of how humans made art and how art makes us human.




A Journey to the Origins of Human Creativity



ONCE THERE WAS AN ARTIST who was also a teacher of art. He held classes at an art school, and many students signed up to follow them. So many students applied to take this artist’s lessons that the directors of the art school became alarmed.There was not enough space, they said, to accommodate such a crowd of apprentices.They summoned the artist and ordered him to cut down the number of people taking his lessons. ‘You mean I must reject some people who apply?’ he asked. ‘Of course!’ replied his superiors. ‘Not possible,’ said the artist. ‘Why not?’ they asked. ‘Because everyone is an artist,’ declared the artist. He refused to alter that faith: in the classroom he would chalk up the message, EVERYONE IS AN ARTIST. Eventually the directors of the art school had him dismissed.

We see a hand: it seems to wave or reach to us across centuries and across continents (Fig. 2). It is represented without great dexterity or skilful manipulation, yet it is, at the same time, a significant imprint of the potential for just that – great dexterity, skilful manipulation. For the structure of bone, tendon and muscle within the human hand is one of the key anatomical features by which humans are defined. Compared to the primates - gorillas, chimpanzees and other ape-like relatives of the human species – humans have hands that are distinctive. Chimpanzees can peel bananas and can also (if required) lift china teacups; but their grasp is essentially one of power rather than precision. Unlike humans, they cannot cup their palms. And the digits of a human hand are not only straighter and more extensive than those of the primates. In particular, human fingers have a third joint or phalange, which enables a large range of precise and delicate movements; and each hand has an elongated thumb, set at a wide angle to the palm and providing further possibilities of flexion and grip.Without this ‘opposing thumb’ we should hardly be able to write a word, sketch a line – or fire a gun.

The first detailed anatomical drawings of the hand were made by European artists in the early sixteenth century. And in their isolated studies of the hand, artists around this time surely worked with a sense of conscious dependence (Fig. 3). Hands cannot be represented without hands. Nor, for that matter, can hands be dissected without hands. So the painting of an anatomy lesson in seventeenth-century Holland chooses precisely that moment where a surgeon demonstrates how the thumb and index finger of the hand are operated by the flexor tendons of the arm (Fig. 4).The surgeon himself uses the thumb and index finger of his right hand to hold his forceps, while emphasizing the opposing thumb gesture with his left.The painter recording this scene knows well enough what the message was at the time: that this prehensile capacity came as a divine gift – a gift distinctively raising humankind above all other creatures.

In the annals of human evolution the fossilized relics of these hands, with triple-phalanged fingers and wide-set thumb, are directly related to another peculiarity of the species – the big toe at the end of our feet.The proto-human creatures (known scientifically as Australopithecines) roaming about on the Earth some 4 million years ago can be set apart from apes by this big toe feature. Its anatomical importance is that it facilitates the gait and balance of walking upright on two feet: the bipedal capacity that, as evolution-theorists believe, critically determined how systems of blood circulation flowed into place within the human frame – and subsequently conditioned a gradual increase in size of the brain.

The primary effect of bipedalism? That of freeing up the hands for activities other than getting around.Those activities include the making and carrying of tools and weapons.They also include the creation of art.

When I was a boy the leading attraction of London Zoo was a daily event, billed as ‘The Chimps’Tea Party’. A group of chimpanzees was placed around a table and served with food and drink.Whether they were dressed for the occasion, I can’t now recall; nor quite how far the animals were trusted with crockery or knives. But part of the spectacle must have consisted in witnessing some kind of mess or bun-fight, because grown-ups would describe a scene of domestic chaos by saying that it looked ‘like a chimps’ tea party’, and the balance of entertainment always seemed poised between admiring the apparent etiquette of the animals and waiting for an episode of slapstick clumsiness.

2 A hand image on a rock surface in Arnhem Land, Australia. Date unknown.

3Study of a Hand by an anonymous Milanese artist, c.1500.


4 Anatomical Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (detail) by Rembrandt van Rijn,1632.

The memory dates me. Great apes are no longer deployed for general amusement in zoos or circuses; and one long-running and successful series of television commercials was cut because its trick of putting chimpanzees into costume and making them appear as droll aficionados of a certain brand of tea became morally outmoded.Yet the sentiment persists, among certain zoological enthusiasts, that the affinity between apes and humans is really very close.

Probably the most influential discovery of modern science is the microscopic analysis of nuclear DNA, the genetic molecule in living things that combines the coiled strands or chromosomes present in each cell of tissue. Each given species usually has paired chromosomes of a definite number. In humans the normal number is 46; in types of African ape the average is 48 – in other words, very close in terms of genetic constitution (compared, for example, with the chromosome total of six for a mosquito, or 78 for a chicken).

The DNA proximity of apes and humans, combined with a general sense of evolutionary kinship, has encouraged some researchers to see if there is any shared inclination to behave artistically. Just as chimpanzees can be trained to drink cups of tea, so a number of tamed apes have been taught how to hold pencils and paintbrushes. A chimp named Congo, domiciled at London Zoo in the late 1950s, had an exhibition of his work. Given encouragement, he showed some capacity for what we might call ‘rhythmic patterns’. He seemed to be able to confine his actions to a sheet of paper and make groups or intersections of the lines produced by his movements with the brush. Congo also apparently understood how to daub his paws with paint and make fan-shaped designs by pressing five digits on to a surface.

Congo’s exhibition sold out. But since then, further experiments have failed to prove much more than a certain gift for mimicry among chimps when supplied with art materials and steered by humans to create certain scribbles. ‘Abstract expressionism’ is the most charitable description of what these domesticated animals have displayed. Neither Congo nor any other ape has so far indicated any disposition to represent anything.To claim that primates can produce art is therefore not very meaningful; rather like claiming that parrots can talk.

Is that it – the end to the question of whether any species apart from humans is capable of art? Not quite. None of us will dispute the claim that birds can sing. Some birds, including the so-called birds of paradise and the blue-footed booby of the Galapagos Islands, are known also to dance. And the bower bird of New Guinea and northern Australia is even more exceptional, exhibiting qualities in its pyramidal bower constructions that we associate with art: design, form, tone and colour.

Australian Aborigines have long known about the gazebo-like structures of the bower bird. European explorers, coming across them for the first time, assumed them to be the relics of human creativity. Rising up to 3 metres (10 feet) in height, the twig and branch scaffolds evidently do not serve as nests or shelters. Embellished on the outside with flowers, berries, bright lichens and mosses, and smeared on the interior with colours and glistening resins, the typical bower seems like some improvised jungle folly. When in northern Queensland, my family and I once unknowingly pitched a tent very close to one of these constructions; at dawn we were made fully aware of where we were. Petulant screams filled the air.A male bower bird, feathers fully fluffed, strutted round his edifice, as if enraged. Clearly this bird was a connoisseur of red and pink plastic: select old bottle tops and pegs were spread in a halo about his bower, amid a scatter of other precious collectibles – shells, glass, shards of porcelain. Peeping from behind canvas, we thought he must be trying to evict us from the vicinity.Then we realized that this was a display directed not at intrusive campers, but to impress a dun-coloured female bower bird perched – with her head cocked coyly to one side – in nearby foliage. It was a bravura performance, athletic and spry – jumping, posturing, hissing and thrashing about. I later learnt that if all went well, the bower would serve as a backdrop for one ultimate flurry: copulation.

The male bower bird goes to these industrious and dynamic lengths only during breeding time.The making of the bower seems to be a part of the courtship ritual that happens in its shadow. Unlike the peacock, the male bower bird has no fan of gorgeous feathers to flourish in front of his desired female. He must attract a mate by the vigour of his self-display, and through the extravagance and ingenuity of his bower – which, in turn, he must defend from being vandalized by rivals. Naturalists say that sexual signals in the male bower bird have been transferred away from his appearance towards his faculty for presenting an object of his own artifice.

If this is the correct behavioural explanation for the bowers of the bower bird, then it is hard to resist attributing to both male and female bower birds a sort of decorative or even aesthetic sensibility.The bower bird not only has a scavenger’s eye for glittery and interesting objects, but an exhibitionist’s flair for laying out such finds. And the bird even appears to do a form of painting. It will masticate grass, ash or berries to generate a coloured slime, which is then spread by beak over the entwined bower walls.

The bower bird in action is a marvel to behold. But is it a marvel of art or sheer reproductive energy?

‘Anything can be art,’ declared the avant-garde French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), who made his name exhibiting ordinary objects, such as a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack and a ceramic urinal, as art. He also depicted the Mona Lisa with a dainty moustache and beard.The mischief of modern artists, oppressed by the public expectation that they should be original, is repeatedly typified by following Duchamp’s subversive precedent. A pile of tyres, an unmade bed: who says these are not art?

Predictably, the public reacts with scorn, outrage and bewilderment. Our reaction stems not only from a sense of indignation – the bourgeois horror of being defrauded. It goes deeper than that. Because instinctively we know what art is – because we are all artists.We are the symbolic species: the species that knows how to represent a bicycle wheel or an unmade bed by using its uniquely nimble hands to make an image that symbolizes such an object.

It took another avant-garde artist of modern times, the German Joseph Beuys (1921–86), to voice as a human birthright the slogan that ‘Everyone is an artist’ and to provoke the administrators of an art school by refusing to limit the numbers of students enrolling on the courses he taught.This refusal, dating from 1972, is the source of the parable with which we began; and it was staged as a plea for creativity in all fields of human endeavour, not as a mission to prove each citizen of Düsseldorf a maestro at the easel.Yet the basic truth resides in that sentence, ‘Everyone is an artist’; and renders the heading of this introductory chapter a blatant tautology – or at least a statement of the obvious.

‘The human artist’: what other kind of artist can there be? Not chimpanzees, nor birds, as we have argued. Only we humans have the imaginative power to make symbols, to represent not only the world around us, but also what goes on within our heads.This book explores the history of how we developed and exercised that power: to tell stories, to create social hierarchies, to connect with the environment, to express the supernatural, to make images of ourselves – and to mitigate the hard fact of our mortality.The book’s title, though tendentious, is not meaningless. After all, the human species, or something like it, existed long before humans became artists. More or less upright hominids – of the type whose relics were found at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania – appeared about 2 million years ago.A fully upright human species (Homo erectus) duly followed, using hands to fashion stone tools and make fires.Then, about 200,000 years ago, came Homo sapiens, the ‘knowing human’, in turn yielding to Homo sapiens sapiens, the ‘extra-knowing human’, perhaps 100,000 years ago.This was the species that eventually colonized and ‘made’ the world.

Specialists debate when and how another unique human capacity, that of language, developed. How Homo sapiens displaced another large-brained species, the Neanderthals, is also a matter of academic conjecture. So too, of course, is the arrival of art. Certain sporadic archaeological finds suggest that natural objects bearing a chance resemblance to a human face or figure were picked up and kept as such. Periodically, evidence arises to indicate that human agency in making marks or patterns is older than we think – such as the engraved stone recovered from Blombos Cave on the coast of southern Africa, dated to about 77,000 years ago. But readers will already have realized that this book imposes a specific understanding of what art is. It is not craft – the ability to shape wonderfully balanced tools, as possessed by Homo habilis over a million years ago. It is not embellishment – the sense of beauty in colour and form shown by the bower bird. The human production of art may be full of craft and decorative intent, but above all, and definitively, the art of humans consists in our singular capacity to use our imaginations. Like the habit of walking on two legs, this capacity for visual symbolizing arrived at a certain stage of our prehistoric evolution. So a journey to the origins of art must start with that quest into the past.When was it that we combined the dexterity of our hands with the power of our brains and learnt the knack of representation?


FROM THE 50 or so historical instances where children happen to have been raised ‘in the wild’ by animals, it is clear that art, like language, depends upon human society. A child brought up by wolves or bears neither speaks nor paints pictures. Children create art because they are taught to do so; because they are born into a world where art exists. In many parts of the world children are encouraged to make images as soon as they can manage to hold a pencil. The results of such early attempts are universally similar, fitting patterns of juvenile development established by the influential Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980). A group of four-year-olds, if asked to draw people or objects familiar to them, will invariably produce images that show the following characteristics (Fig. 5):

  • 1 Drawn from memory, not direct observation.
  • 2 Emphasizing certain salient (i.e. memorable) features, while omitting others.The phenomenon of the ‘tadpole figure’, or homme tétard (all-head man) with no apparent torso, is the most common manifestation of this tendency.
  • 3 Conversely, adding other features known to be part of the scene, even if not visible – such as people inside a house.
  • 4 Little regard for scale or proportion; no sense of perspective, foreshortening or other ‘illusionistic’ devices.

These are the hallmarks of ‘conceptual’ art: art that derives primarily from a mental image, not from the effort to match a visual symbol or representation to the object it symbolizes or represents. At a subsequent stage, as Piaget and others showed, children will ‘correct’ their image-making in order to gain the illusion of reality.

Some experts believe that a certain part of the brain favours the ability in some individuals to excel at this representational skill, often identified as a signal of artistic genius: legendarily the Italian painter Giotto (c.1270–1337) was ‘discovered’ as a shepherd-boy, idly scratching pictures of his sheep upon a rock; while the twentieth-century maestro Pablo Picasso liked to boast, ‘I never made children’s drawings, not even when I was a child.’ Aside from this, however, is the stark evidence – illustrated throughout the following pages – that the earliest art of humankind is rarely, if ever, childlike.

  • 5 Drawings by four-year-old children, 2004.


ONE DAY IN THE AUTUMN OF 1879 a Spanish nobleman and his daughter set out on a little adventure.They were going to explore a cave not far from the family estate at Puente San Miguel, in the Cantabria region of northern Spain.The nobleman’s name was Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, and his daughter – not yet in her teens – was called Maria.Together they made for the hillside of Altamira, which had lately been reported as a site of prehistoric occupation.To use the language of the time, Altamira was the sort of place where troglodytes or ‘people before Adam’ were thought to have sheltered.

As a keen amateur archaeologist, de Sautuola had high hopes of what he might find at Altamira.The bones of strange animals might be scattered around; perhaps traces of fires kindled long ago.With any luck, and close investigation of the cave floor, some rudimentary tools or implements might also be retrieved.

De Sautuola was not merely hunting for curiosities.When it came to publishing his discoveries at Altamira, he gravely noted that his ultimate motive for making the expedition with Maria was to ‘tear away the thick veil that separates us from the origins and customs of the ancient inhabitants of these mountains’. Once he and Maria were inside the cave, he crouched down and began to examine the ground by lantern light. It was cool and damp in the cave, but spacious too.While her father was poking andscraping at the floor, Maria wandered off to do some exploring of her own. It was not long before the darkness of Altamira echoed with a child’s wondrous cry.

6 A detail of the cave paintings at Altamira, Spain, c.11,000 BC, which Maria and Marcelino de Sautuola discovered by chance.

‘Look, Papa – paintings of oxen!’

So a young girl was the first modern human to set eyes upon the ‘gallery’ of prehistoric paintings for which Altamira would become renowned (Fig. 6).

Being small, Maria had a better view of the cave’s low ceiling than her father. However, her recognition of the animals whose images were ranged over Altamira’s natural vault was not quite accurate.These were aurochs – a type of bison that had been extinct for thousands of years. Herds of them were depicted – standing, grazing, running, sleeping. And around these aurochs there were other four-legged beasts: horses, ibexes, boar. Gazing up at what his daughter had found, de Sautuola was almost speechless with excitement. He knew instinctively that this art was very old indeed; but it was more than instinct that told him so.The cave was littered with debris belonging to what would become known as the Stone Age – or, in archaeological parlance, the Upper Palaeolithic period (35,000–10,000 years ago). Moreover, de Sautuola could see similarities between the bison depicted here at Altamira and some bone carvings of animals lately discovered in caves in France.

The gentleman-scholar lost no time in communicating the news. It created a sensation, understandable even to this day, although, for reasons of preservation, visitors are now admitted only to a replica of the cave. Gazing over Altamira’s rocky surfaces, the viewer soon appreciates that the word ‘painting’ is inadequate here.The uneven contours of the rock have been ingeniously incorporated to give the animals a bulky, almost three-dimensional presence. Big bovine shoulders loom up in the half-light: and, while the exact species of bison depicted is no longer to be seen, we cannot fail to be struck by the quality of close observation on display. How the animals stood while at pasture, how they collapsed when recumbent or wounded – the Altamira depictions are, as we should say, convincing.The colours, too, are memorable: predominantly red and black, but with shadings of form also picked out in brown, purple, yellow, pink and white. These strong organic pigments, derived from various oxides and carbons, play their part in giving the work a powerfully earthy depth and substance. All in all, it might be concluded that the paintings here are too good to be true.

Sadly for de Sautuola, many of his contemporaries thought just that. After an initial accolade from the press, royal visits to the cave and so on, doubts regarding the authenticity of the art at Altamira began to be voiced. Nothing comparable to their scale and pictorial delicacy had been found at prehistoric sites then known to archaeological connoisseurs. One premature explanation of Altamira suggested that the paintings had been done during the Roman occupation of the Iberian peninsula.Within a year of de Sautuola’s announcement of the find, however, more poisonous rumours were circulating. An artist was seen going into the cave (de Sautuola had commissioned him to make copies of the ceiling): word went round that he was the one who had painted it in the first place. At home and abroad, de Sautuola found himself mocked as a dupe, or suspected of perpetrating a hoax. He died in 1888, a deeply disappointed and widely disbelieved man. His friends said he was brokenhearted by the whole affair.

Young Maria would live to see her father’s honour thoroughly redeemed. But before we lament the scepticism that brought misery to a pioneer explorer of prehistoric art, let us admit our own primary reaction to what we see at Altamira, and at other great underground sites subsequently revealed in Spain and southern France – most notably the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet. ‘Amazing’; ‘incredible’; ‘astonishing’: we reach for the clichéd language of admiration, and for once it denotes a genuine mystery. No sample of early human handiwork is more perplexing than the large-scale cave paintings of Palaeolithic Europe.What follows here is an attempt to make sense of what the images might mean, and why they were painted on subterranean walls.A particular theory is pursued, and other theories rejected – but they are theories all the same. In the end, amazement may remain the proper response.What we can establish for certain, however, is that these paintings are not localized miracles. Altamira belongs to a wider process of human development, and it is all the more exciting for that.


Radiocarbon dating of the pigments used in the Altamira paintings has established that the cave investigated by Maria and Marcelino de Sautuola was decorated between 13,300 and 14,900 years ago.This more or less confirms the notional antiquity assigned to the images by de Sautuola back in 1879. But beyond the element of forgivable surprise, why were the learned contemporaries of de Sautuola so reluctant to believe him?

The answer is that Altamira simply did not fit with prevailing scientific and popular views about the origin and development of the human species. Charles Darwin may have caused theological controversy in Victorian Britain with his theory of evolution by natural selection – a process often summarized as ‘the survival of the fittest’, though Darwin himself did not coin that phrase – but so far as it confirmed stereotypical Western attitudes to the prehistoric past, Darwin’s model was widely accepted. If evolution favoured the survival of the fittest, and humankind was set on an upward curve of progress in adapting to understand and control the world, then those humans left behind – especially those left behind many thousands of years ago – must be congenitally backward, ignorant and clumsy.


On Sale
Nov 27, 2006
Page Count
416 pages
Basic Books

Nigel Spivey

About the Author

Nigel Spivey is a lecturer in Classics at Cambridge University. He has written several books on Greek and Etruscan art. He is the presenter of the BBC/PBS television series “How Art Made the World,” which his book accompanies. He lives in Cambridge, England.

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