The Creative Explosion by John E. Pfeiffer

“Nothing in the twentieth century can match the Upper Paleolithic for its combination of art and setting, content and context. Nowhere in our lives are there comparable concentrations of modern art with a purpose, art in action, as contrasted with passive art hung in out-of-the-mainstream places designed solely for exhibition. The works in caves speak together, individual styles but with an underlying unity, singing in unison like a chorus of individual voices expressing collective feelings, collective goals. That is their special power.”

This bold claim opens up the chapter, “The First 10 Million Years” and gives the reader a clear impression of just how ambitious John E. Pfeiffer’s excellent inquiry into the origins of art and religion is. The Creative Explosion is a thorough and wide-ranging study which seeks to understand the emergence of cave art some 30,000 years ago by placing it in the context of archaeology, anthropology and religion.

Pfeiffer begins by examining Lascaux Cave in France, the site where art dating back to the Upper Paleolithic period was discovered in 1940, and from here provides a vivid account of both the discovery of cave art (and the controversies which surround the study) and its place in the development of early humans from Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon man. What factors caused this abrupt development of artistic expression on such a complex scale?

To answer this, Pfeiffer draws on extensive research into the development of the use of tools and abstract thinking, the patterns of behaviour of numerous hunter-gatherer groups and the emergence of new social and cultural dynamics, for instance the move away from egalitarian tribes towards hierarchical structures, as indicated by the practice of adorning one’s body to signify status.

Rather than suggesting that such art was merely primitive, simplistic representation of daily events made possible by a leisurely life and time to think about “inessential things”, as one investigator put it,  Pfieffer argues that, on the contrary, its importance lies in the emergence of a new kind of consciousness, intimately tied to religious and metaphysical considerations. This is art not as a by-product of higher intellectual capacities; rather, it is an integral aspect of these developments, intimately tied to ritual and ceremony. In addition, it served an essential communicative function in an age well before the advent of writing – art as “bare survival-necessity”.

Nowadays, the artistic temperament appears to be almost innate; a drive that can be seen in practically every young child when given a piece of paper and some crayons (the construction of elaborately adorned nests by certain birds of paradise would indicate that humans are not the only species on the planet with such instincts). The art discovered in Lascaux Cave and elsewhere may well be the earliest examples of a mode of thinking which persists to this day.

[Since the publication of The Creative Explosion in 1982, new evidence has emerged which points to a much earlier “Creative Explosion” dating perhaps as long as 250,000 years ago.  Future research may yet prove that even this is underestimating just how far back into prehistory art goes…]

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