Finger painting spurred civilization

This is a tale covered in ancient fingerprints. The red handprints in this story have nothing to do with crime, however.

This is a tale covered in ancient fingerprints.

The red handprints in this story have nothing to do with crime, however.

But they have everything to do with sex, survival, art, history and human evolution.

These are the hands of the people who roamed the expansive grasslands spanning from the Klondike, across the Bering Strait and westward to Spain, during the last ice age.

These prints were made by ancient steppe people who ground mouthfuls of ochre into a fine spray, which they spit onto their hands.

They then pressed their hands against cold rock walls, according to retired University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Dale Guthrie.

The handprints often appeared among pictures of animals, he said in a recent interview.

Would studying these handprints reveal something about the artists?

Thumb-width and palm-width varies depending on age as well as gender, said Guthrie, who will be in the territory for a number of talks next week.

Categorizing the prints by age and gender revealed something new to the academic world.

A significant portion of cave art came from the minds and fingers of children, particularly young boys.

“I found hands of every age and hands of both males and females,” said Guthrie on the phone from Alaska.

“Young people predominated, and amongst young people well over half were male.”

The images then started to tell a very familiar story of coming of age.

“It is a book about kids in many ways,” he said.

“For the first time in archeology it starts to incorporate that other half. More than half the people were kids.”

Cave drawings focus almost exclusively on large mammals, edible birds, fish, medium-sized mammals, and human figures.

A bison would be shown grazing or fighting or copulating, said Guthrie.

“It is a logical thing that there should be a real focus on, not only large mammals, but all kinds of testosterone themes.”

A speared lion, with blood coming out of its nose, would likely be one of the most vivid realities for a boy entering into the dangerous and potentially glorious years of an adult hunter.

Figures of women with exaggerated hips, bums, thighs and breasts, also grace many stone walls.

“Those aren’t common themes in women’s art in any culture,” Guthrie added.

The discovery that much ancient cave art was likely painted by teenagers and children also helps to explain the wide range in the quality of drawings.

“You do find really well-done pieces, obviously by people who were very experienced,” said Guthrie.

“But in amongst them you find pieces with a lot of the characteristic mistakes that children make.

“To learn how to do draw, you have to do it thousands of times.”

 Though most of the art was created by males, women were also artistic, said Guthrie.

Their creativity was likely expressed in more-fragile media — songs and stories, hides, furs, beads and baskets.

These items have not weathered the tens of thousands of intervening years.

“Women, of all ages, are really left out,” Guthrie added.

“Women did a lot of art, certainly they do in every culture. But we don’t have too much sign of it.”

The art that tends to survive the years is made of materials like stone and bone. This is why some drawings remain today.

“When children were learning to draw there was no waste bin or crumpled up paper,” he said.

“There stuff was left.”

There is also a larger story underpinning sketches of Paleolithic reindeer and hare. Despite vast distances, these types of images were similar the world over.

Art had not yet become symbolic, according to Guthrie.

A fish was a fish, not a symbol of love or prosperity or power.

Paleolithic drawings were more like diary entries of the most pressing aspects of life for the people in the most recent ice age.

What does it mean that hominids from Northern Canada to Africa to Australia were etching similar things?

It has to do with evolution, said Guthrie.

Cave pictures are a reflection of play. Play during childhood leads to complex learning and higher creativity and more sophisticated intelligence is selected for, he added.

“Play, driven by fun, is an especially evolved system, a virtual experience of complex adult behaviours protected from adult-level consequences,” wrote Guthrie in the synopsis to his book.

“Humans seem to have been the learners extraordinaire in the behaviour of creativity, and for that level of creativity evolution designed a special kind of play.”

It’s now called art.

In his talks Guthrie will be taking Yukoners to the world off art thousands of generations ago.

He will speak at the Beringia Centre April 2 at 7:30 p.m. and at the Kluane National Park Visitor Reception Centre on April 3 at 7:30 p.m.

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