Since at least the 1970s, the question of when we first acquired our humanness has been tangled up in discoveries about when we began making art. Richard Klein at Stanford used carvings such as the 30,000-year-old Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel to substantiate his theory that a genetic mutation caused a sudden mental flowering in our ancestors 40,000 years ago. (Homo sapiens have been around for 200,000 years, but apparently they spent much of that time twiddling their opposable thumbs.) Yet in 1991, the excavation of 77,000-year-old beads and engraved shards of red ochre in South Africa upended Klein’s hypothesis. It suggested that symbolic thinking had emerged much earlier than anyone had thought—maybe even at the same time that our modern bodies evolved. The notion of a game-changing genetic mutation fell out of fashion as older and older artifacts were uncovered. By 2012, Curtis Marean, a paleoanthropologist at Arizona State University, was voicing conventional wisdom when he told Smithsonian’s Erin Wayman: “It always made sense that the origins of modern human behavior, the full assembly of modern uniqueness, had to occur at the origin point of the lineage.”
It seems likely that our brains have been equipped for abstraction for as long as we have been human. But how does prehistoric art help us understand this capacity—which today asserts itself everywhere from the walls of MoMA to the icons on our smartphones? The images in the Lascaux, Nerja, and Chauvet caverns look far from hyperrealistic. One simple explanation holds that our ancestors didn’t have the time or skill to render horses and cattle exactly as they appeared. Yet researchers in neuroaesthetics are beginning to wonder whether the abstraction in Paleolithic art actually mirrors the way our minds process the world.