200,000-year-old handprints may be the world’s oldest artwork, scientists say

Quirks & Quarks·Analysis

Bob McDonald's blog: The handprints and footprints were made by children near a Tibetan hot spring.

Researchers discovered the impressions on the Tibetan Plateau in 2018.(D.D. Zhang et al. / Science Bulletin)

A group of fossilized handprints and footprints found in Tibet, dating back roughly 200,000 years, could be the earliest examples of human art. And they were made by children.

Every parent knows that children love to get their hands and feet into mud. Such seems to be the case long ago at what used to be a hot spring at Quesang, high on the Tibetan Plateau at an altitude of 4,269 metres (14,000 feet) above sea level.

A report in the journal Science Bulletin suggests these impressions were intentionally placed, not just the result of wandering in the area. The foot and hand prints fit exactly within a space, arranged close together like a mosaic. Their size indicates they were made by two children, one the size of a 7-year-old, and the other the size of a 12-year-old.

Researchers discovered what is possibly the world's oldest artwork, rendered here in a 3D scan, on a rocky promontory at Quesang on the Tibetan Plateau in 2018.(D.D. Zhang et al. / Science Bulletin)

During that time, travertine, which is a type of limestone formed by hot mineral springs, formed a pasty mud which was perfect for making handprints. Later, when the hot spring dried up, the mud hardened into stone, preserving the prints over time.

The rocks have been dated to between 169,000 and 226,000 years ago. It is not known exactly who the people were that lived on the Tibetan Plateau at that time, but one possibility is the Denisovans, a branch of our early ancestors who lived in Asia and resembled modern humans. Tibetans living today still carry Denisovan genes.

Two ethnic Tibetan children play chess at a Tibetan village at the feet of Kalong Mountain in Tongren County. (Jason Lee / Reuters)

Whether the imprints can be considered art or just kids playing in the mud is up for interpretation, although the authors of the paper told Live Science it may be art in the same way that parents hang scribbles from children on their refrigerators and call it art. The authors describe the medium the prints are in as intentionally altered, which they suggest could have been a kind of performance to show like, "Hey, look at me, I've made my handprints over these footprints."

Or perhaps these impressions represent the human desire to leave marks behind on the landscape that say, "I was here." It's a tradition that continues today with graffiti on walls in back alleys and famous actors and actresses who leave impressions of their hands and feet in cement along Hollywood Boulevard.

A makeshift memorial appeared for late comedian, actor and legendary entertainer Jerry Lewis around his hand and feet prints on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles when he died in 2017. (Kyle Grillot / Reuters)

Little did these prehistoric kids know their handiwork would be preserved for hundreds of thousands of years.

If the carefully made prints are considered art, it pushes the history of rock art back more than 100,000 years. The oldest stencil-type handprints, where a hand is placed on a wall and coloured powder is blown around it to make an outline, have been found along with other cave paintings in Sulawesi, Indonesia and El Castillo, Spain dating back between 40,000 to 45,000 years ago. This is known as parietal art because it is not meant to be moved, unlike paintings or statues that can be displayed anywhere and traded. And the oldest statues also only go back to about the same time period.

A cave painting dating back to nearly 44,000 years was seen in a limestone cave in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Picture taken December 4, 2019. (Indonesia's National Research Centre for Archaeology/Griffith University/Handout via Reuters)

The children of ancient Tibet could be considered among the world's first artists, or maybe they were just playing in the mud like all kids do. But the question of whether the impressions are art or not is almost moot because handprints and footprints from the deep past provide valuable scientific information.

An international team of researchers describe ancient hand and footprints made deliberately which they argue represent art.(Gabriel Ugueto)

Archeology usually deals with fragments from past cultures, such as pieces of pottery, building foundations, monuments and bones. It is up to the scientists to infer, to fill in the gaps and try to determine what the people were actually like. But handprints are the direct signature of a person.

Tourists on Hollywood Boulevard squat down to place their hands in the prints of their favourite actors to get a sense of what it might be like to shake their hand, sort of a virtual handshake. Imagine a handshake that reaches across millennia into an actual moment in time, to a couple of kids who were just messing in the mud.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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