ITHACA, N.Y. – An international collaboration has identified what may be the oldest work of art, a sequence of hand and footprints discovered on the Tibetan Plateau.
The prints date back to the middle of the Pleistocene era, between 169,000 and 226,000 years ago – three to four times older than the famed cave paintings in Indonesia, France and Spain.
To answer the question, “is it art?” the team turned to Thomas Urban, research scientist in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University.
“The question is: What does this mean? How do we interpret these prints? They’re clearly not accidentally placed,” Urban said. “There’s not a utilitarian explanation for these. So, what are they? My angle was, can we think of these as an artistic behavior, a creative behavior, something distinctly human. The interesting side of this is that it’s so early.”
Urban’s involvement with the group grew out of his ongoing efforts to study human and animal footprints in the White Sands National Park in New Mexico as a way to understand the behaviors of human ancestors. One of Urban’s colleagues on that work, Matthew Bennett with Bournemouth University, was part of the initial team that examined the “art-panel” that was found on a rocky promontory at Quesang on the Tibetan Plateau in 2018.
A series of five handprints and five symmetrical footprints were stamped in travertine, a freshwater limestone that was deposited by a nearby hot spring, then hardened over time.
The fact that the panel includes handprints gives one hint. While footprints are common in the human record, handprints are much rarer. Their presence connects the Tibetan panel to a tradition of parietal art – that is, art that is immobile – typified by hand stenciling on cave walls.
Urban’s collaborators used uranium series dating to determine when the art-panel originated. They hypothesize the child who made the footprints was around 7 years old and the child who made the handprints was about 12.
More important than the age of the artists, however, is the question of their species. Were they Homo sapiens? An extinct hominin? One theory, supported by recent skeletal remains found on the plateau, holds they were Denisovans, a mysterious group that were ancient relatives of Neanderthals.
Equally difficult for the researchers to resolve is that perennial question, which no amount of uranium dating will ever settle: What constitutes art?
“These young kids saw this medium and intentionally altered it,” Urban said. “We can only speculate beyond that. This could be a kind of performance, a live show, like, somebody says, “Hey look at me, I’ve made my handprints over these footprints.”
The project was led by David Zhang of Guangzhou University in collaboration with researchers from Bournemouth University, Xi’an Jiaotong University, Education University of Hong Kong, Institute of Geology and University of Minnesota.
The paper, “Earliest Parietal Art: Hominin Hand and Foot Traces from the Middle Pleistocene of Tibet,” published in Science Bulletin.
For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.
Earliest parietal art: hominin hand and foot traces from the middle Pleistocene of Tibet