Why Body Painting? — 3A: Origins — Why did we start painting ourselves? Ancient bodypainting kit discovered at Blombos Cave

Abalone Shell from Blombos Cave- Credit: Science/AAAS

by Christopher Agostino

“Archaeologists in South Africa uncovered two 100,000-year-old abalone shells and assorted bones and stones that served as toolkits to make some sort of ochre-based compound. The mixture may have been used as a paint or adhesive. It’s the oldest evidence of humans making a complex compound, and even the oldest evidence of humans using containers.” – from LiveScience article (see article link below)

What I am quite willing to label as “the oldest bodypainting kit ever” was recently discovered in Blombos Cave in South Africa. 2 abalone shells with remnants of ground reddish ochre pigments that had been mixed with some kind of binding agent or liquid, found with implements for grinding the pigment and mixing and applying. Sounds like a makeup kit to me. 100,000 years old—which puts it maybe 40,000 years earlier than any other such discovery, and 20,000 years earlier than that etched ochre stone from Blombos considered the earliest existent example of symbolic art. Blombos Cave is a story in itself, and I’ll get to that below.

But first the question: if 100,000 years ago our earliest ancestors were mixing paint, what were they painting? My perspective makes me confident they were mixing pigments to paint themselves—ochre pigments like these are still used as traditional bodypaint in some places  (although ochre was also possibly used as an ancient adhesive). The anthropologists that make the case for bodyart that long ago point to evidence such as ochre pigment found on bones in burial sites, the universal use of bodyart in tribal cultures and the general rule that when humans appear in ancient art, such as rock paintings, they are depicted with markings like bodyart on their forms, or with animal masks or other transforming imagery. The ubiquitous silhouette hand images that appear in cave art around the world would have been made by placing your hand against the rock and blowing ochre pigment onto it—probably through a hollow reed, the first air-brush—that would paint your hand as it made the silhouette on the wall. One researcher found that if he took the patterns of symbols on isolated sections of a certain painted cave and transferred them to a body they would wrap around in a repeating pattern, as if the cave painter had used his own body markings as the source of the design. In The Painted Body, Michel Thévoz says that the one universal constant in pictorial art is objects painted in a symmetry that follows the morphology of the body: “It is as if the artists of the most diverse tribes and people had all proceeded by transferring onto the wall…or whatever the object being painted, a composition originally conceived as a face or body decoration.” My own view is that art is intrinsically a statement of identity, and our bodies are our most personal vehicles for self-identity, so art has always been linked directly to our bodies, to how we present our self-identity.

The second question is, why did we start painting ourselves? There is no way to know this one. Since I like stories, I think about it in those terms, but one thing to remember is that we are talking about cultural developments that would have happened over a course of many generations and perhaps thousands of years. Craig Tracy once told me a story of how he imagined bodyart may have started, with a couple of our ancestors fooling around. One gets a streak of mud on him and it strikes the other as funny so he laughs. The first one says, oh yeah and puts bigger streak on the laughing one, leading to a mud fight in which they are both laughing and all marked up. The fellows back at the cave get a kick out of it and start playing the game too.

I’ve wondered if it didn’t begin very practically, as camouflage, marking the skin to blend into the dappled forest, or striping it to hide in the grasslands. And then I can imagine how a successful hunter might stylize the markings and wear them as a status symbol, and I can see that over time leading to an establishment of symbolic skin marking as vehicles for individual status and tribal identity. Camouflage and enhancing sexual attraction are both found as reasons in the animal kingdom for creatures that alter their appearance, changing color or decorating themselves. It’s also occurred to me that as a species we humans are relatively dull looking, no spots or stripes, feathers or bright colors, and as we came to be increasingly self-aware we may have begun to decorate ourselves as an aesthetic act, and as an exploration of individuality within the group.

We really can’t know anything for sure about anything going that far back. In his writings on origins of human culture,  Joseph Campbell makes the point that so much of our theories are based on what survives  as opposed to what doesn’t—really only rocks and bones survive from truly ancient times, and only those in protected places, buried in caves. We have no surviving evidence for what art we created on wood or animal skin, or our own skin. The earliest cave wall paintings, like Chauvet Cave, are already so technically and aesthetically sophisticated that we must have done a lot of painting before painting them. 

Blombos Cave - The entrance to Blombos Cave, indicated by the white arrow, about 180 miles (300 kilometers) east of Cape Town. Credit: Magnus Haaland

As for Blombos Cave, it’s better to get the real anthropology from the real anthropologists, but from an artist/storyteller’s perspective, here is one of the most amazing stories there could be to tell, perhaps the primal story: Comparative DNA and other studies of people all over the world indicate that we are all descended from one small band of ancestors. Though there were numerous early human species millions of years ago and many migrations of such species, eventually all of those other species came to an end. All of us, all modern humans, come from one isolated group which arose in Africa, multiplied and gradually filled the world through migration. It was this one group that made the “great leap” and achieved that final spark of intelligence and consciousness that makes us who we are. Although this one ancestral group was part of a much larger population of early Homo Sapiens, about 140,000 years ago glaciers covered most of the world and massive droughts hit Africa, remaining over the course of thousands of years, until the only surviving Homo Sapiens populations were withdrawn into the few remaining habitable sites in Africa. Researchers theorize that the struggle to survive in such difficult climatic conditions accelerated the development of these ancestral humans—to survive they required greater intelligence and ingenuity, and the ability to pass increasingly complex information from generation to generation.

Discovery-The excavation site at the time when the 100,000-year-old toolkits were uncovered Credit: Science/AAAS

Along one such remaining habitable place, the Pinnacle Point region of South Africa, caves (like Blombos) have evidence of a long period of human occupation which remained continuous through that difficult climactic period, and anthropologists, going back in time as they dig down through the layers of artifacts, see in this area a timeline of progressive human development from a technology equivalent to our Neandertal predecessors through to increasingly complex developments seen at this site tens of thousands of years earlier than at any other site in the world, including the earliest indications of art and symbolic activity, such as the pigment processing from 100,000 years ago.

Perhaps 60,000 years ago, as the world climate improved, this new type of human began to spread around the world, carrying with them an ability to understand and re-imagine the world through art and symbology. As an amateur folklorist I’m aware of how many underlying aspects of world cultures seem related, how many folktales touch universal themes, and I imagine that these earliest ancestors also carried with them a fundamental human culture of art, music and stories.

Ancient Tools- One of the abalone shells with the quartzite grindstone found nestled inside. Credit: Grethe Moell Pederson

Shell Toolkit- The other abalone toolkit under excavation Credit: Science/AAAS

Learn more about my work at my Body Painting Page http://thestorybehindthefaces.com/body-painting/

Why Body Painting? — 3: Origins — Touching Ancient Sources

"Chauvet Lions Watching"

by Christopher Agostino

At the core of my approach to bodypainting is my continuing exploration into its traditional sources and cultural functions. Just as a painter on canvas studies the masterpieces of the past to find his own way forward, I study the images and significance of traditional bodyart as a foundation for my work. Searching for an understanding of how and why we paint ourselves leads back to the origins of our humanity and our most ancient art. Whenever I paint someone I am aware of my small place in this vast tradition, one more human seeking to understand how our art can transform us. Although bodypainting is ephemeral, its legacy is timeless.

The Transformation Lecture - click here

This is a primal part of the story I’ve told myself to keep myself painting, that “before we ever painted a cave wall, we painted ourselves…” — my slogan. Going back 30 years when I was first trying to convince people that facepainting could be an art and not just something that clowns did at kid’s parties this was  an important part of my argument.

You search for validation when you are working in a fringe art form and I continue to get jazzed seeing moments like the one in the PBS Nova episode “Becoming Human” where, just as they are describing the final evolutionary shift that made us the humans we are today they are showing a re-enacted image of an ancient human painting themselves. video.pbs.org/video/2098138008…  Or the book How Art Made the World: A Journey to the Origins of Human Creativity by Nigel Spivey, which makes the case that it is our ability to conceive, record and understand symbols (through language and art) that lifted us above the animal state—”we are the symbolic species”—and he also points to our own skin as the original canvas for these social symbols.

Our skin is the physical edge of who we are, the place where we touch the world, and so, as we first gained self-awareness, that spark of consciousness that makes us human, we marked our new awareness onto our skin to tell the world who we are.  And that is a fine answer to the question “Why Body Painting?”

In The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis-Williams  presents a timeline of the development of ancient art and culture. Cave paintings go back about 32,000 years, but art is older than that. The image here of the etched ochre rock from Blombos Cave from 77,000 years ago is considered the “earliest art object” yet discovered, and  there is evidence of ochre colored earths being processed to produce pigment from much earlier. Pigments derived from ochre are still used as traditional body paints. It’s discovery radically reorganized anthropologists’ understanding of the origins of humanity, and the place in our collective history of our ancient  ancestors at Blombos Cave is a truly remarkable story, as depicted in the PBS “Becoming Human” series. See also the links below for more information, including the incredible recent discovery of what might be the earliest facepainting kit ever.

The bodypainting at the top uses imagery from European cave paintings that are 10,000 to 32,000 years old, and I painted it several years ago. Ancient sources, modern inspiration for this bodypainter.

30,000 year old cave painting from the Chauvet Cave

The most inspirational art exhibit I have seen in many years was while sitting in a movie theater this past May watching Werner Hertzog’s 3D film of the Chauvet Cave in France, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Seeing Hertzog’s film, I experienced art that is as great as anything I have ever seen in a museum, both in the technical quality of the painting (as Picasso said upon seeing similar cave paintings: “we have learned nothing!”) and in the depth of response it requires from the viewer. Through Hertzog’s fantastic use of 3D to bring the physical shapes of the painted cave walls to life, and dramatic flickering “torch-light” effects to recreate the experience of the original audience for these paintings, I could imagine myself there and understand how, at our origins, art was a driving transformational force.

Learn more at my Body Painting Page http://thestorybehindthefaces.com/body-painting/

Scraping Paint for the Power of the Ancients — Rock Art from Pecos River area

A caller into today’s Science Friday show on NPR asked archeologist Solveig Turpin how later inhabitants of the Pecos River region responded to the more ancient, more elaborate rock art there as they created their own. She replied that they apparently respected it/ revered it as the work of their ancient ancestors. They didn’t destroy it or paint over it, though they would sometimes add their more modern drawings to it. And then she said something that really caught my attention. There is significant scraping of pigment from some of the ancient rock paintings because apparently the newer cultures would then mix the ancient pigment from the rock paintings into substances they would use or ingest during puberty and other rituals to gain the power of the ancients. “Scraping Paint” kinda feels like what I do when I look to all this stuff and try to find my inspiration in it by re-creating it as bodyart.

She said this Lower Pecos River style of rock art dates back 4-5,000 years, with sophisticated, complex painting techniques.

It features “shamanic” figures (to use that modern term for all of these ancient human/animal transformation figures whose true meaning and purpose we can only guess at), some 12 – 15′ tall. The thematic content of much of the art being interpreted as relating to human to animal transformation (or animal to human?, or humans acquiring animal attributes?) — and the panther is the key animal power figure, just as the lion is in similarly themed “shamanic” images in ancient Eurpoean cave art. Solveig Turpin: Research Fellow, Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory, University of Texas at Austin Author, “The Indigenous Art of Coahuila” (Universidad Autonoma de Coahuila, 2011)

Click here for a video of examples and her discussion of the art:


More examples and some great fotos at  http://www.rockart.org/gallery/index.html (their site asks that they not be reproduced without permission so I am not posting any here) Rock Art Foundation

National Park site information on the area and its indigenous history: http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/amis/crs/sec1.htm

An image of a "shamanic" figure, from the National Parks Services site


Ancient Origins – Chauvet Lions Watching

© 2004 Christopher Agostino "Chauvet Lions Watching"

“Before we ever painted on a cave wall we painted on ourselves.”

It’s a line I’ve used ever since the book The Painted Body  by Michel Thévoz (1984) introduced me to the idea that painting ourselves was the first human art. He states that it is the fundamental human art: “…there is no body but the painted body, and no painting but body painting.”

In my desire to reach back to that initial impulse to paint ourselves, I collect images of cave wall paintings and other ancient art. Cave paintings bring animals to life in naturalistic and stylized imagery that use the outcroppings and shapes of the rock walls, in much the same way body artists use the contours of the human form. Much of this prehistoric art depicts human/animal transformations associated with what scholars think may be the shamanist beliefs of early human cultures.

In The Mind in the Cave (2002), David Lewis-Williams  presents a timeline of the development of ancient art and culture. Whereas cave paintings go back 30,000+ years and the earliest “object of art” yet discovered is from 77,000 years ago, there is evidence of pigment processing from much earlier, possibly as far back as 250,000 years ago. That reaches back to the very beginnings of human culture on the plains of Africa, before the modern human race began to spread into the rest of the world. Pigments like those ochre earths are still used as traditional body paints.

When the Paleolithic paintings in the Chauvet Cave were discovered in 1994 they revolutionized our perception of prehistoric art. Before then, cave paintings were dated based on a study of style: the simpler the art the earlier it must be from. Modern scientific dating techniques show that some of the Chauvet  paintings are from 32,000 years ago, the earliest pictorial art we’ve ever discovered. Yet they are rendered with subtle shading, employ complex pigment processing, and varied illustrative techniques including using multiple images to depict movement (in almost a cubist fashion). Some have such a developed naturalistic style that they look like they could walk off the cave wall today.

I did this bodypainting called “Chauvet Lions Watching” in 2004, with images from European cave paintings that are 10,000 to 32,000 years old. I could call it my first fine art bodypainting — though I had painted full bodies before this, those were usually on assignments for clients, experiments with technique or imitations of other bodyart I’d seen. I think this was the first time I ever approached a body as a canvas to express and explore a strong concept I was trying to understand, with the specific goal of creating a single photograph that might be seen as a work of art.

The Chauvet Lions are watching from the lower right hand corner and, remarkably, they are the oldest image here.

Check out the related post:  Werner Herzog – he likes the lions, too.      http://wp.me/p1sRkg-6O   4/22/11

Drawing of horses in the Chauvet cave.

Image via Wikipedia

English: Lions painted in the Chauvet Cave. Th...

Image via Wikipedia

English: Lascaux Caves - Prehistoric Paintings...

Image via Wikipedia

Werner Herzog – Cave of Forgotten Dreams — he likes the lions, too. –

Cave of Forgotten Dreams — documentary film by Werner Herzog

30,000 year old cave painting from the Chauvet Cave

detail of bodypainting titled "Chauvet Lions Watching"

In an interview on Fresh Air yesterday, Terry Gross asked Werner Herzog which one painting he had the strongest reaction to as he filmed inside the Chauvet Cave. After saying that it was the overall effect of the cave that moved him the most, he singled out the painting of the lions. Paraphrasing his description, it is of five lions stalking something, intently looking at something but we don’t know what they are looking at — and depicted with such a complete naturalism that we could think we are looking at living lions today. Yet, it is among the single oldest paintings ever made. The earliest pictorial images in all of human art. As moving and complex as any art ever created since. I understand how he feels about the lions.

I’m trying to think of another time when I heard of a project and had such an immediate reaction to just how perfect it is. Werner Herzog, given the chance to bring to us this story of what may be the origin of art, the origin of our humanity. He’s one of the most fascinating artists in the world, and here he is making a movie about this cave that has always fascinated me, and been a continual inspiration for my work since it was first discovered in the 90s and I read about it in my Natural History Magazine.

Go to the article from NPR on the film, and listen to the Fresh Air interview there — in addition to talking about the film, Herzog talks about a lifetime of making films that “stare into the abyss” of humanity ( “Grizzly Man” and “Encounters at the End of the World” have both been on TV a bunch lately): http://www.npr.org/2011/04/20/135516812/herzog-enters-the-cave-of-forgotten-dreams

Clip of the movie:


Werner Hertzog speaks of having always been drawn to prehistoric art, fascinated about the idea of paintings being made so long ago and yet we still can feel the connection between the people that made them and ourselves. I share that feeling. I began to explore our earliest art as I sought to find the origins of bodyart. And the connection between painting ourselves and painting cave walls is undeniable, with, for example, in Chauvet Cave — as in so many others —  painted hands being used as stamps to create designs on the cave walls. From the start, though, what caught me most was the constant examples of how these ancient artists expertly used the shape of the cave walls in their paintings, in a way that seems to me the very essence of bodypainting. Speaking only as an artist here, the transference of images on the body to images on the sculptured surface of a cave wall seems a very direct step.

The need to show how the paintings work on the form of the walls explains why Herzog filmed this in 3D: “When I saw photos, it looked almost like flat walls — maybe slightly undulating or so. Thank God, I went in there without any camera a month before shooting. What you see in there is limestone, and you have these wildly undulating walls — you have bulges and niches and pendants of rock, and there’s a real incredible drama of information. The artists utilized it for their paintings. … So it was clear it was imperative to do this in 3-D, in particular, because we were the only ones ever allowed to film.”

There are a lot of videos about Werner and his work, including these two interview segments about this film, particularly fun because he is speaking so off the cuff: