Modern Humans: The Origin of Human Creativity

The origin of human creativity has been long discussed by archaeologists and art historians. In the past, it was considered the hallmark of modern human behavior that divided the Middle Paleolithic from the Upper Paleolithic — thought to occur in Europe some 45,000 years ago. But as our knowledge of ancient man expands, so has our understanding of the origin of human creativity.

In recent years, shell beads used as jewelry or ornaments, and ochre used as a pigment has been found in sites dating well into the Middle Paleolithic (200,0000 – 45,000 years ago). Moreover, cave paintings which predate the famous European cave paintings have been found in Indonesia and musical instruments and figurines found in Southwest Germany rival the famous Hohle Fels Venus figurine. Check out following major archaeological finds that are redefining our understanding of the origins of human creativity in a big way.

Geissenklösterle Cave, Germany

Geissenklösterle Cave is an Upper Paleolithic site (dating between 43,000 and 42,000 years ago) in Germany. The site contained a collection of flutes (found in the Classic Aurignacian layer) made from bird bones and mammoth ivory. They are some of the earliest known musical instrument in Europe. Replicas of the flutes produced sounds that seem to be oriented in tonal order.

Prehistoric Flutes
Photo: Tübingen University

The Classic Aurignacian layer also contained four ivory figurines depicting a human, a mammoth, a bison and a cave-bear. As well as a painted limestone pebble ivory beads, perforated and dyed fish vertebrae, and carved antler and ivory objects. The art objects rival those found in Southwestern Germany from the Vogelherd Cave and Hohlenstein Stadel.

Hohle Fels Cave, Germany

Hohle Fels is a cave in Germany that has yielded some of the oldest art objects in Europe including the famous Venus of Hohle Fels (35,0000 years old), the Hohle Fels Lion-Man (between 30,000 and 32,000 years old) the Hohle Fels Bird (30,000 years old) and the Hohle Fels Horse (30,000 years old).

The site has also yielded a flute which is one of the oldest musical instruments ever found. The Hohle Fels Flute is carved from hollow bird bone and dates back to around 40,000 years ago.

Marcos Cave, Indonesia

Marcos Cave is a site on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia containing cave paintings dating back 39,900 years ago, some of earliest human art, similar in style to those found in Europe.

Cave Art
Photograph: Maxime Aubert

The cave also contained a painting of a “pig-deer” dating to 35,400 years old and numerous other paintings which date to around 25,000 years ago.

Cueva de El Castillo, Spain

Cueva de El Castillo, or the Cave of the Castle, is near the town of Puente Viesgo, about 30 kilometers south of Santander in the Cantabria region of Spain.

Cueva de El Castillo
Photo: Pedro Saura

It is one of the most celebrated rock art sites in the world and includes five caves; Castillo, Las Chimeneas, Las Pasiega, La Flecha and Las Moneda. Castillo Cave contains numerous cave paintings, that has scientists questioning the origins of human creativity being the earliest known cave paintings on Earth including the ”Panel of Hands” (dated to 40,800 years ago) and the “Gallery of Disks”.

Blombos Cave, South Africa

Blombos Cave is a famous Middle Stone Age site in South Africa with ancestral human occupations that date as early as 140,000 years ago.

Red ochre - abalone shell in Blombos Cave
Photo: Grethe Moell Pedersen

The site is famous for its abundance of stone and bone tools and ochre (used as a pigment for its red color). The layers containing used ochre are dated between 70,000 and 80,000 years ago. In April of 2004, a cluster of deliberately perforated and red-stained shell beads was found at the site. The shells were most likely used as ornaments or jewelry.

Qafzeh Cave, Israel

Qafzeh Cave is a Middle Paleolithic site in Israel dating to 92,000 years ago that contained multiple human burials. The lower layers of the site contained a series of hearths, several human graves, a collection of sea shells, flint artifacts, animal bones, pieces of red ochre, and an incised stone flake. The shells were collected and carried from the Mediterranean Sea shore (approximately 35 kilometers away) and show traces of having been strung. Some of the shells are stained with red, yellow, and black pigments of ochre and manganese.

Skhul Cave, Israel

The oldest shell bead evidence to date is from three human burials found in Skhul Cave a rock shelter located on the slopes of Mount Carmel in Israel.

Skhul Cave
Photo: R Yeshurun – Wikimedia Commons

A recent study suggests all three burials date between 100,000 and 134,000 years ago. The burials that contained naturally perforated shells of multiple species. The shells were probably strung and used as ornaments or jewelry. They are considered a hallmark of modern human behavior because of their very early age.