By K. Nepsa

Recently, I took a hike through the desert and came across some petroglyphs. As I stood viewing the rock art before me, I couldn’t help but wonder what the meaning behind these images was in ancient times. The images were clear and precise as it was specifically sheltered under a huge boulder. After admiring the stunning detail of these images for a few minutes, I began to wonder why we always see similar artwork on rocks when we find them here in the southwest. Is there a reason for this? What purpose did this art have for some of our ancestors? Was it drawn for fun? If so, why does it seem to remain so fundamental in artistic expression? If not, what purpose(s) were there for working so hard to draw on the rocks?

In order to truly answer this question, let’s first define what we are actually seeing along our wandering paths into the desert. Are we seeing petroglyphs? Pictographs? Geoglyphs? We could be seeing any one of these, especially out in the middle of nowhere, here in the southwest. Petroglyphs are made by scratching, rubbing, or chipping at rock surfaces. Pictographs are painted rock surfaces. Geoglyphs are larger, ground markings made usually by trenching or clearing away rocks and the top layer of soil, in patterns or lines that stand out from the natural surface.

What was the first drawing ever made?

Sometime in the Stone Age, human artists began experimenting with a new form of visual art: drawing. From the ancient rubble that accumulated on the floor of a South African cave comes the earliest-known example — an abstract, crayon-on-stone piece created about 73,000 years ago.

What is the oldest artwork in the world?

In November 2018, scientists reported the discovery of the oldest known figurative art painting, over 40,000 (perhaps as old as 52,000) years old, of an unknown animal, in the cave of Lubang Jeriji Saléh on the Indonesian island of Borneo.

As for the purpose of the artwork created by our ancient ancestors, it may have had a few different reasons, depending on the civilization creating it.

Ancient drawings could have been for the purpose of storytelling. The images on the rocks would come to life in the light of a nearby fire, emphasizing the storyteller’s words. Many times, ancient drawings’ purpose was in giving directions to others along nomadic routes. Much of the artwork created by the Ancient Egyptians had to do with their religion. Much of this artwork was there to help the Pharaohs in the afterlife. Ancient Greek art emphasized the importance and accomplishments of human beings. Even though much of Greek art was meant to honor the gods, those very gods were created in the image of humans. Much of the artwork was government sponsored and intended for public display.

What art do you think your own ancestors were creating…and why? Next month, we’ll explore, in more detail, anthropologists’ viewpoints on this subject. They provide a glimpse into the ancient history and artistic expression of past civilizations and discuss theories behind the origins of these fascinating images. Stay tuned for Part 2!

K. Nepsa has a B.S. in Geology and a Master’s in GIS. She has lived in Arizona, HI, CA and Shanghai, China. Her hobbies include enjoying the outdoors via Jeep, Kayak, horse or foot. She has been a Vail resident since 2005.

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