It is uncontroversial to attribute modern aesthetic sensibilities to the artists of the African Later Stone Age (LSA, ca. 50,000-4,000 BP) and European Upper Palaeolithic (UP, ca. 40,000 – 12,000 BP). Rock art and cave paintings from both has always struck archaeologists and art historians alike as familiar, even if there is considerable disagreement about specific interpretations. From an evolutionary perspective it is unlikely that this modern human aesthetic sensibility emerged fully formed without any prior development.

Yet neither LSA nor UP art have clear antecedents in the form of less technically adept and earlier examples. One can argue around this evidential lacuna by positing antecedents that left little or no archeological record, such as body painting. However, even if persuasive, these conclusions do not include descriptions of the art itself, and thus are of little use in a discussion of the developments in aesthetic sense per se. The alternative is to turn to evidence that is available in abundance—stone tools—and try to extract evidence for aesthetic development.

On display at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas TX, First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone is an exhibition of early stone artifacts that documents and celebrates the earliest manifestations of the human aesthetic experience. The exhibition consists of two kinds of artifacts: manufactured stone tools and natural objects resembling faces and animal forms that were collected by early hominins. The artifacts range in time from 2.5 million years ago to about 50,000 years ago, well before the advent of cave painting. The artisans were pre-modern hominins: Australopithecus, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and Neandertals.

This exhibit is the product of a unique curatorial collaboration between Los Angeles-based artist Tony Berlant and anthropologist Dr. Thomas Wynn, Distinguished Professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

The roundtable will be based around images of items from the exhibition, with an emphasis on exceptional and controversial examples. Among these are the Makapansgat pebble face from South Africa (ca. 2.5 Ma), the recently discovered FLK West giant handaxe from Olduvai Gorge, the visually stunning handaxes from Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel and Kathu Pan in South Africa (ca. 780 ka and 600 ka, respectively), zoomorphic handaxes from the Algerian Sahara, and figurative stones collected by the Neandertals of Fontmaure, France.

Wynn and Berlant will present on the exhibition, with a roundtable session moderated by Dr. William Harcourt-Smith of AMNH, followed by a live Q&A session.

Click here to learn more about the exhibit at the Nasher Sculpture Center

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