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Imagining the sullen cave girl who became the world’s first artist

Imagining the sullen cave girl who became the world’s first artist
Early time-lapse.

Letter No. 76: Includes someone eating an oyster, disaffected cave youth, and cogitation about color.

The oldest known painters exhibited in caves. Their work was not well lit and their artist’s statements have been lost, as have the show catalogs, but they knew how to use spooky darkness and flickering torch light to good effect. Their work wasn’t portable, but that’s okay because in the full light of day it would lose much of its power to summon deep mysteries.

By what we’ve found so far, the first painters to daub pigment on stone were artsy Neanderthals. Homo sapiens seems more than 20,000 years late to the art party. It’s hard to say why, but harder to imagine that it took 20 millennia for someone of our species to imitate what the Neanderthals living two caves down were up to. Maybe we have not yet poked our noses into the right prehistoric grottoes.

I like to imagine the first person in history to do one thing or another. Who was the first Proto-Indo-European speaker to look at the mutt hanging around the hut and decide the term for it should be kwon, which over centuries became svan- and then spa, then kyōn then canis then hund then dog? Who was first to eat a raw oyster? (My bet is a teenaged boy on a dare.) Who was the world’s first painter? We will never know who she was—I say “she” because 75 percent of the stenciled handprints found on the oldest painted walls have the proportions of a woman’s hand—so I have to invent her. I can’t know her intent—was her work shamanic or commemorative or decorative?—but I like to imagine her. She pays attention, is not easily distracted, is contemplative with an acute visual memory and an urge for which there is not yet a word. She has just feasted on wild pig and now reclines on the grass, content with a full belly, and in her mind’s eye recalls the boar just before the hunters killed it: its rotund body, its tusked snout, its hooves, the way it ran from the spears that finally brought it down. For the past few months she’s been playing around with placing her hand, fingers splayed, on a smooth vertical rock and blowing ocher dust over it to make a stencil. Now a new idea comes to her. Could she use that same red-orange earth to make a picture of a pig? She doesn’t even know what a picture is, but she can see it in her mind and one day decides to try.

This is a monumental cognitive leap: that a flat, abstracted image could represent a living beast. Our proto-artist gathers a pile of powdered ocher and starts fooling around to bring forth something that hadn’t been there before. She looks at the tip of a burnt leg bone and realizes she could use that to make black marks that form an outline, a shape that somehow says pig. Now fill in the shape created by the outline with the ocher. What happens if I use more than one color? She tries it, rubs off the result, tries again, stops when finally it looks right.

While I’m pursuing this fanciful line of daydreaming—there’s probably something else I’m supposed to be doing right now but fuck it—I picture 200 Neanderthals scattered around Europe, all with the same idea (I could paint a pig) around the same time. But 199 of them think, Eh, who cares, I need to pee and then I think I’ll take a nap. It’s just this one outlier, probably the solitary girl with a line of charcoal under each eye and a bit of sullenness about her, who thinks, I’m gonna do it. She paints that pig and then another one and then a deer and then she does it all again and again because it feels so good.

At this point, her parents tell her to stop with all this painting business and do something productive with her life. Art doesn’t put food on the table, young lady.

Cave paintings were made from Earth, Fire, Water, and Air. The earliest pigments were ochers, mostly from ground limonite, a mineraloid that contains iron hydroxide. Limonite ocher is yellow. Probably by accident, some of our jut-browed hominid ancestors discovered that if they heated powdered limonite, it turned orange. Heat it some more and it turned red. (If you’ve ever wondered why that Crayola you had as a kid was called “burnt sienna,” it’s because the color derived from Sienese pigment-makers who applied fire to the local ocher.) Mix in enough water to form a paste and you had paint, of a sort. Now daub it onto a wall and let the air dry it. The water goes away. The pigment stays. Soot, deposited on rock walls by campfires, or charcoal from the burnt ends of sticks and bones, added black to the palette. Somebody else living near a chalk deposit discovered they could mix chalk powder into ocher paste to lighten the color. Along the way, some protochemist figured out that from celadonite or glauconite clay he could create a hint of green, and manganese could be used to make a violet-tinged pigment. Game on.

If the human race has a saving grace—and I’m stretching for a positive here—it is the capacity to entertain two thoughts: I wonder if I could…, followed by, I’m gonna try. There are a lot of us on this earth, which makes it inevitable that now and then those ideas occur to someone whose personality is the right amalgam of attentiveness, ingenuity, persistence, and cussedness to make something new and put it out there, sometimes as art. Now go a big step further by imagining a young man or woman, 45,000 years ago, who has a reputation in the tribe as a great cave painter of hunting scenes. But that no longer feels like enough. The conventions of cave painting have begun to stick in the craw of our young artist, who broods and broods and one day intuits the difference between suggesting a cave bear and portraying a cave bear. Realism is born, and with it the long work of inventing techniques to make a painting that for an instant seems like a magic window.

On the tribe’s last hunt, the speared prey had bled out, but the reddest ocher doesn’t come close to the red of fresh blood. Our artist wants to know, How do I make that color? Last year I painted a deer running on the south wall; the real deer was running on grass and in my memory I see the sky, too, and why not put that in there, but how do I make green and blue? All I’ve got now is goddam ocher and charcoal. I need more. This sparks humankind’s long, obsessive search for more colors. We’re still searching.

The transition from abstract stylized figures to the realistic rendering of the visible world required tens of thousands of years and I’ve no idea how it actually took place. Probably nothing like what I’ve imagined. But I don’t care. I like my edgy Neanderthal girl with her bad attitude and flecks of limonite on her fingers and face.

When they were very young, more than 20 years ago, my niece and nephew showed me a new computer game that allowed them to apply color to scenes from The Lion King by point and click—an early digital coloring book. My nephew was a stringent little boy who in a few years would graduate from coloring Simba to following detailed instructions for elaborate Lego sculptures that were correct down to the smallest piece. Now he carefully examined the digital palette for the precise colors he needed to make an African scene as true-to-life as possible. There was a right way to do this thing and he was thorough and deliberate in his use of browns and tans and greens and black. After he completed his picture, satisfied that it looked right, his younger sister had her turn. She took over the computer and exuberantly made the lion purple and the hyena pink and the plants blue and yellow. Her brother grew so frustrated he couldn’t watch anymore and left the room.

Those hominid tribes 40,000 years ago needed detail-obsessed, exacting craftsmen who could follow instructions to make spear points and tools that worked every time. Guys like my nephew. But they also needed someone who imagined purple lions and thought, Why not?

While we’re here, there are a few other imagined things that I feel strongly about. At some point, members of the tribe would have agreed that one or two painters were better at it than anyone else, and they became mankind’s first commissioned artists. Some paleontologists have theorized that cave painters were priests or shamans, but I don’t think so. Priests or shamans would be self-conscious about their authority and social standing and have minds constrained by dogma and ritual, and none of that is conducive to art. A priest would not make the hyenas pink. The last thing I’m sure of is this: In every tribe, there would be someone who gave the paintings on the cave wall a cursory glance, then shook his head and said, “I don’t get why this is a big deal. My kid could do that.”