Egypt’s Oldest Known Art Identified, Is 15,000 Years Old

This is a reprise of a story I wrote up back in June, detailing the re-discovery by Dirk Huyge et al of 15,000 year-old rock art engraved into the cliffs at Qurta, in Egypt, first discovered in 1962, which has been remarked upon because of its striking similarities with Magdalenian rock art – and the reason I mention it here is because there is a detail within the National Geographic version that highlights something I mentioned in my original post regarding the Eurocentric views that have prevailed over the years regarding Europe as being the putative cradle of human creativity, with particular regard to the rock art of the Upper Palaeolithic with which many of us are familiar.

Some of the engravings were first found in 1962 by a group from the University of Toronto, Canada. The leader of that expedition, Philip Smith, made the then novel suggestion that the figures were from the Palaeolithic age—the Stone Age period from about 2.5 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago—in a 1964 article in Archaeology magazine.

“The Palaeolithic experts told them, It’s absolutely crazy—Europe is the cradle of art,” Huyge, the leader of the new expedition, said. “And they backed off the idea.”

There are suggestions that rock art may have originated first in Acheulean India, 300,000 – 400,000 years ago, and it was only hundreds of thousands of years later that the galleries of Chauvet, Cosquer, Lascaux and Altamira were painted, with the last two locations closely corresponding in time to Qurta.

Back in 2005, the rock art at Creswell Crags, in Britain, was dated to at least 12, 800 years old, slightly younger and but still placing it in the Late Magdalenian – the linked article contains a particular observation that caught my attention…

Dr Alistair Pike an archaeological scientist at the University of Bristol said: “It is rare to be able to scientifically date rock art and we were very fortunate some of the engravings were covered by thin flowstones. The contemporaneity and stylistic similarity of the Church Hole and Robin Hood cave engravings and many examples in the continent reveals a close connection between Magdalenian peoples stretching over several thousand kilometers.”

Dr. Pike makes a very important point here – the suggestion that Magdalenian traditions extended across thousands of kilometers/miles – and years – seems to indicate a certain societal stability at the time which allowed for the transmission and practice of one or more recognisable cultures that appear to conform at least stylistically with one another.

But the real point I want to make is that if Magdalenian art could have thrived across thousands of miles of mainland Europe, there is no reason, in my opinion, why its influence could not also have extended down as far as North Africa – although I suppose it’s by no means impossible that Upper Palaeolithic rock art couldn’t have evolved in Africa, subsequently becoming adopted further north into Europe, where it has survived better because much of it was painted in the depths of caves, safe from the elements and other erosional factors that would have destroyed paintings and damaged engravings over the millennia.

We tend to think of Palaeolithic populations as living isolated from each other, but I think that may be a false paradigm – it’s likely that humans have been crossing the Strait of Gibraltar for over a million years, and there’s no reason to suggest that people weren’t using this route in the Upper Palaeolithic, possibly making longer journeys across from other locations around the Mediterranean Basin.

While the caves at Lascaux are best known for their painted images of bulls and cows, that artwork is actually outnumbered by stone engravings. And the Lascaux engravings are virtually identical to those in Qurta, Huyge pointed out.

“I’m not suggesting that the art in the caves of Lascaux was made by Egyptians or that [European] people were in Egypt,” he said.

“The art is so similar that it reflects a similar mentality, a similar stage of development,” he added. “When people are confronted with similar conditions, this will automatically lead to a similar kind of thinking, a similar creativity.”

I strongly disagree with that last sentence, which seems to cast humans as some sort of automatons – humans can react in many different ways to similar sets of circumstances, particularly when it comes to creativity and spiritual intent, and the idea that humans had reached a sort of developmental stage that led them to suddenly start depicting bulls at such a specific point in time, the Magdalenian, conveniently ignores the vast majority of other rock art from not only the Upper Palaeolithic, but from considerably further back in time, and across the four continents of Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe. It’s a bit like saying that people only evolved the ability to hold widespread religious beliefs and depict them, with the advent of Christianity, or that French Impressionists could not have created work similar to the later German Expressionists .

The fact that similar art is found in Egypt and Europe c.15,000 bp doesn’t of course mean that people were travelling from one location to recreate art from their place of origin, but it might indicate there was a free flow of people and ideas between disparate locations from North Africa, up through south western Europe and culminating in the northerly reaches of a Britain that was at the time still attached to mainland Europe. Ideas and artefacts only need chains and networks of people to be relayed over hundreds or thousands of miles, rather than single long journeys being made by individuals from one place to distant others.

Moreover rock art is but one cultural component of a myriad that probably existed alongside it, such as archaic languages, myths, stories and songs that leave absolutely no trace in the archaeological record. I support the idea that when marked similarities of behaviour are exhibited in different locations in concert with one another, people were likely to have been communicating with one another, facilitating the spread and uptake of new and existing ideas.   (TJ)

One thought on “Egypt’s Oldest Known Art Identified, Is 15,000 Years Old

  1. Dear TJ,

    I find also these engraving quite fascinating. They demonstrate that there were other centers of Upper Palaeolithic art excellence than the Franco Cantabric zone.

    I completely agree that the Eurocentric views of art’s origins are a fallacy due to a narrow vision of Paleolanthropology.

    I am convinced that there must be other African marvels yet to be discovered, and possibly more ancient than Qurta engravings. There are some more recent in the Sahara which have very similar naturalistic style.

    I have developed an hypothesis that could offer an explanation to the similar styles for art produced thousands of miles from each other and sometimes thousands of years apart.

    It is based upon the existence of people with what we would call now “Savant syndrome”. I won’t develop any more here.

    If you are interested please contact me.

    I’d be happy to know if you have other examples of that naturalistic art style in Africa. Most prehistoric art in the Sahara is far more schematic.

    I have only a few examples of very naturalistic art in Africa, besides Qurta.

    Yours sincerely

    Paul TREHIN

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