The capacity to produce art and technology is an ingrained human characteristic. Identifying the points at which this ability emerged in different locations is a critical question for archaeologists because it marks a pivotal instance of cognitive achievement in human history—an unlocked potential for a deeper relationship between individuals and their surroundings through shared concepts beyond the physical (Merchant). Analyses of two locations, namely a series of caves in Indonesia and a site at Chaco Canyon, demonstrate how past symbols and technologies can provide insight into the workings of ancient cultures.
Sulawesi, an island in Indonesia, contains a slew of deep caves. Within them, painted on walls in charcoal and ocher, a red, chalk-like material, are artifacts of ancient minds. Hand prints and drawings of animals such as deer, roosters, and dogs point to a culture which, as innovative dating methods revealed, existed tens of thousands of years ago (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Ocher Painting of an Animal
One cave in particular, known as Leang Tempuseng, contains stencils of handprints which date to over 35,000 years ago. Before this, the earliest recorded human made figurative art was in France and Spain. The examples in Indonesia challenge this early understanding. They also raise a question: despite the distance between the paintings, they share unmistakable physical characteristics. Two theories exist as to why. First, some have proposed that similarities in lifestyle produce similarities in expression. Others, however, find the explanation of their shared appearance as coincidental to be unlikely. Instead, they propose that human artistic abilities emerged in Africa and as human beings spread out across other continents, so did those techniques. Although they may have altered slightly over time, the unified starting point gave early art a recognizable look. (Merchant). Either way, the findings in Sulawesi are crucial—a clear instance in ancient time when humans interacted with the world in a way beyond the physical.
In Chaco Canyon, a large and flat rock formation juts up from the earth. Within this site, known as Fajada Butte, exists a marvel of technology. Upon a flat sandstone cliff face, two engraved symbols with precise spiral appearances face outward towards the sun (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Sun Dagger at Chaco Canyon
At particular times during the year, specifically the solstices and equinoxes, the sun casts certain patterns of light, or daggers, to indicate the exact date (HAO). In this way, it works as a remarkably elegant calendar. The site was discovered in 1977 and attributed to the Anasazi people of New Mexico. In 1989 the site was altered very slightly due to erosion, possibly as a result of public activity, and no longer works as it did in the past (Exploratorium). Still, the Sun Dagger is touted as an achievement for its simplicity in design yet precision in function.
In spite of boundaries in culture and time, the widespread presence of ways to express, document, or explain the world functions not only as a glimpse into past cultures, but also as a reminder of a shared humanity.
The use of symbols in archaeology:
Robb, John E. 1998. “The Archaeology of Symbols.” Annual Review of Archaeology, Vol. 27, pp. 329-346.
Cave paintings in France:
Merchant, Jo. Jan. 2016. “A Journey to the Oldest Cave Paintings in the World.” Smithsonian.
Pauketat, Timothy. 2009. Cahokia. New York City: Penguin Publishing Group.
“Chaco Canyon.” Exploratorium.
- “The Sun Dagger.” High Altitude Observatory.
Figure 1: 2019. BBC. https://ichef.bbci.co.uk/news/976/cpsprodpb/3FCB/production/_110113361_art2.jpg.webp
Figure 2: Ancient-Origins. https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/sun-dagger-0016806