It’s a new trend in art. Museums and galleries all over the world are exploring the use of sounds, smells, and lighting to enhance the viewer’s experience as they interact with pieces of art. The Tate Museum in London is one institution pioneering this innovative approach to experiencing artwork. For example, on display recently at Tate’s Sensorium was Irish artist Francis Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape, a piece that depicts a gray human figure on a bench. Visitors to the Sensorium put on headphones while they view this painting, and they hear sounds of a busy city. Added to the visual and auditory experiences are the bitter burnt smell of chocolate and the sweet aroma of oranges that engulf the viewer. This multisensory experience is meant to depict a lonely, brooding figure lost in the never-ending activities of a city, with the contrasting aromas simultaneously communicating the harshness and warmth of life in an urban setting.
It goes without saying that designing multisensory experiences like the ones on display at the Sensorium requires expertise in sound, taste, and lighting. This expertise makes recent discoveries on ancient cave and rock art found throughout the world all the more remarkable. As it turns out, the cave and rock art found in Europe, Asia, and Africa are multisensory displays.1 The sophistication of this early art highlights the ingenuity of the first artists—modern humans, who were people just like us.
Though many people have the perception that cave and rock art is crude and simplistic, in fact, it is remarkably sophisticated. For example, the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France houses cave art that dates (using carbon-14 measurements) to two periods: 28,000 to 31,000 years ago and 33,500 to 37,000 years ago. These cave sites house realistic depictions of hundreds of animals including herbivores such as horses, cattle, and mammoths. The art also depicts rhinos and carnivores such as cave lions, panthers, bears, and hyenas. The site also contains hand stencils and geometric shapes, such as lines and dots.
The Chauvet Cave human artists painted the animal figures on areas of the cave walls that they polished to make smooth and lighter in color. They also made incisions and etchings around the outline of the painted figures to create a three-dimensional quality to the art and to give the figures a sense of movement.
Multisensory Cave Art
One of the most intriguing aspects of cave art is its location in caves. Oftentimes, the animal figures are depicted deep within the cave’s interior, at unusual locations for the placement of cave paintings.
Recently, archaeologists have offered an explanation for the location of the cave art. It appears as if the artists made use of the caves’ acoustical properties to create a multisensory experience. To say it another way, the cave art is depicted in areas of the caves where the sounds in that area of the cave reinforce the cave paintings. For example, hoofed animals are often painted in areas of the caves where the echoes and reverberations make percussive sounds like those made by thundering hooves when these animals are running. Carnivores are often depicted in areas of the caves that are unusually quiet.
San Rock Art
Recently, researchers have discovered that the rock art produced by the San (indigenous hunter-gatherer people from Southern Africa), the oldest of which dates to about 70,000 years ago, also provides viewers a multisensory experience.2 Archaeologists believe that the art depicted on the rocks reflects the existence of a spirit world beneath the surface. These rock paintings are often created in areas where echoes can be heard, presumably reflecting the activities of the spirit world.
Who Made the Cave and Rock Art?
Clearly, the first human artists were sophisticated. But, when did this sophisticated behavior emerge? The discovery of art in Europe and Asia indicates that the first humans who made their way out of Africa as they migrated around the world carried with them the capacity for art. To put it another way, the capacity for art did not emerge in humans after they reached Europe, but instead was an intrinsic part of human nature before we began to make our way around the world.
The discovery of symbolic artifacts as old as 80,000 years in age in caves in South Africa (artistic expression is a manifestation of the capacity to represent the world with symbols) and the dating of the oldest San rock art at 70,000 years in age adds support to this view.
Linguist Shigeru Miyagawa points out that genetic evidence indicates that the San separated from the rest of humanity around 125,000 years ago. While the San remained in Africa, the group of humans who separated from the San and made their way into Asia and Europe came from a separate branch of humanity. And yet, the art produced by the San displays the same multisensory character as the art found in Europe and Asia. To say it another way, the rock art of the San and the cave art in Europe and Asia display unifying characteristics. These unifying features indicate that the art share the same point of origin. Given that the data seems to indicate that humanity’s origin is about 150,000 years ago, it appears that the origin of art coincides closely to the time that modern humans appear in the fossil record.3
Cave Art and Rock Evince the Biblical View of Human Nature
The sophistication of the earliest art highlights the exceptional nature of the first artists—modern humans, people just like you and me. The capacity to produce art reflects the capacity for symbolism—a quality that appears to be unique to human beings, a quality contributing to our advanced cognitive abilities, and a quality that contributes to our exceptional nature. As a Christian, I view symbolism (and artistic expression) as one of the facets of God’s image. And, as such, I would assert that the latest insights on cave art provide scientific credibility for the biblical view of human nature.