Traditionally, “history” refers to the era after writing (at least writing we can read). Thus, history begins in ~3300 BC. The periods before that – anatomically modern humans or not – are pre-history. I could start with writing, but it would be almost aggressively unsatisfactory. Too many interesting events – scraps, hints, relics of a human life – predate writing for us to just slit the ribbon at Uruk and start typing our story.
We should, then, start with creation.
The first time the universe was called to account for itself, it said something far, far wiser than such a young thought had any right to. This is what it said:
In the beginning, there was a ladder. We began to climb.
The paint dates to about 65,000 years ago, making it by far the oldest cave painting yet discovered. It was found in a cave called La Pasiega in modern Spain. The paper (pdf – here) only was published in February. Our painters were neanderthals (or homo sapien neanderthalensis). Homo sapiens (or homo sapien sapiens) wouldn’t arrive in Europe until some 25,000 years later.
This is not the oldest symbolic art. The same caverns left us seashell jewelry and pigment dating 115,000 years old, surpassing most estimates of the deposits in Blombos Cave. But even if jewelry and pigment speaks to symbolic thinking, it isn’t quite the same as a painting. Jewelry is often, though not always, found as a grave good. It’s associated with an individual’s life and disappears with them. That is, it doesn’t persist in the way a painting of the wall of a cave persists. This painting, however, watched over who knows how many generations of people. From the paper:
La Pasiega is part of the Monte Castillo cave art complex, a World Heritage site that also includes the caves of El Castillo, Las Chimeneas and Las Monedas. Together, these caves show continued human occupation through the last 100,000 years.
I’d prefer to have a text, or a story, but this is the closest we have. 65,000 years ago a neanderthal’s hands placed that paint on that wall. To get there, they had to walk to what is here labeled Gallery C:
To see it, everyone else had to follow their steps. The mind collapses thinking through generations breathing underneath that painting, absorbing it as a part of their history. It is, one may say, the first piece of history.
For the first time, something persists that wants to persist. And, for the first time, we let it.
Then again, it’s just as good as a story. This isn’t the dawn of humanity, much less the creation of the universe, but it is the first sense we have that someone out there had a story for the creation of the universe. Something in that image still speaks through to us. It is an account. If it is not our ancestors’ first account, then it is at least the first that we can hear.
This may not be the start of humanity, but it’s hard not to view this as the real start of human history.
Now, I have plenty to say about the techniques of cave painters and their daily life and everything leading up to and after that. That’s not what this essay is for. No one knows for sure what the paintings mean, so tread lightly. Still.
I’d like you to consider our history a play rather than a novel. With writing, we get Act I, Scene 1; with writing, the novel would begin. But a play does not open with direction and dialogue. It starts with a cast of characters. We just met one, an old one: up in the northwest corner are the stars.
It’s worth noting a certain irony here. It seems to me that, despite the title page reading “Humans”, few or none of our personae are human beings. They are ideals and abstracts and dreams. The very first characters are the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, perhaps, and all their representations. Water, fire, storms. Then more of the cast arrives: numerals, tools. Then crowd-pleasers: good, bad, love, authority, freedom, the unknown, the sacred. Not necessarily in that order. Certainly in some order.
It’s a well written play, which means there are character arcs, revelations, shocking betrayals and twists – the original members, all these abstracts and ideas, change and grow. Humans – real humans – put on these masks from time to time, adopt a role, act the part. They even rewrite sections, form new relations, iterate on old dreams. But the play of humanity is always contextualized by its abstracts. People do show up, but like all minor characters they mostly elucidate the main ones. These minor men – one society’s kings, another’s heroes – are quickly forgotten by the next. The original cast members never disappear. We still stare at the stars. We still know what it means to scurry into a firelit cave and paint stars on its walls. It is deeper in you than your soul.
Perhaps that is why it’s so hard to put into words.
It is easy to wax poetic about the earliest members of our cast of characters. Stars are always nice. Most of the abstracts that drive us are prosaic – “trade” and “money” and “work” and the like. We forget quite how strange this is, what an incredible feat it was to create e.g. “work”, but that’s unimportant for us now.
Those are still not people. Before becoming too reflexively modern, spare a thought for the foolish, naive, antiquated view: what makes us human is precisely that we pledge our history to our own creations. We inhabit a universe of our making – indeed, the universe may best be understood as our relationship to it, not as a bundle of stuff in which we blunder. The universe is symbolic, and the creation of a universe is the invention of a symbol, not the recording of a mute fact. The world we inhabit is certainly physical, but it’s not only that. A portrait is the closest thing we have to a pure human picture, but even our portraits speak through motifs and metaphor. You know a king by their crown, but the material world never announced that crowns meant kings. We live historically.
Accordingly, the La Pasiega painting is the only ancient creation account that we still accept. Most of us do not believe in the literal accounts of present religions, much less the countless lost cosmogonies of antiquity. But we do accept La Pasiega’s creation account. Painted on the walls of an ancient Spanish cave is our own mythology. It still tells us that this was the birth of our world: in the beginning, there was a symbol. There is no myth of the universe’s creation here. The world was created the first time we could mythologize.
We say: the human world must be symbolic, and it must have a sense of history, and it must provide an account.
How was the world created?
I hope you understand me when I answer in the following way:
U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neanderthal origin of Iberian
cave art – D. L. Hoffmann, C. D. Standish, M. García-Diez, P. B. Pettitt, J. A. Milton, J. Zilhão, J.J. Alcolea-González, P. Cantalejo-Duarte, H. Collado, R. de Balbín, M. Lorblanchet, J. Ramos-Muñoz, G.-Ch. Weniger, A. W. G. Pike (here)
Neanderthal artists made oldest-known cave paintings – Emma Marris, Nature (here)