Posted on August 21, 2007

Abstract: The Dawn of Art

Andrew Curry, Archaeology, September/October 2007 (Vol. 60, No. 5)

A controversial scholar claims modern culture was born in the foothills of the Alps.

The search for the origins of civilization has taken archaeologists to less pleasant places than Swabia. Nestled between France, Switzerland, and Bavaria, the German region is the heart of Baden-Wuerttemburg, a state that markets itself as a center for creativity and innovation. It’s no idle boast. Hundreds of small high-tech firms dot the region. Giants such as Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Zeiss are all based in the gleaming, modern state capital, Stuttgart.

American archaeologist Nicholas Conard is convinced Swabia’s tradition of innovation goes back a long way: 40,000 years, give or take a few thousand. Excavating in caves east of Tübingen, a medieval town 20 miles south of Stuttgart, Conard has unearthed expertly carved figurines and the oldest musical instruments in the world. The finds are among the earliest art ever discovered, and they’re extremely sophisticated in terms of craftsmanship, suggesting a surprising degree of cultural complexity.

Conard claims his finds are evidence of an intense flowering of art and culture that began in southwestern Germany more than 35,000 years ago. Although older art and decorations have been found—including geometric patterns on stones and personal ornaments in South Africa, as well as drilled shell beads on the shores of the Mediterranean—the figurines and instruments in Conard’s caves are symbolic representations that reflect a state of mind with which modern humans can easily identify. “Figurative art began in Swabia, music began in Swabia,” he says. “It couldn’t have developed elsewhere, because the dates are just later elsewhere.”

If he’s right, it could change the way we look at the development of humanity. But Conard’s conclusions have been controversial from the start, and he’s still fighting an uphill battle to convince colleagues that the evidence backs him up.

[Editor’s Note: The complete article is not available on-line. The entire article is quite long and is in the print edition of the September/October issue of Archeology.]