Skip to main content

Early art’s tireless champion

How old is the oldest art? As discussed in my essay, many researchers have given up on chasing after ever-earlier objets d’art in the archaeological record, preferring instead to look for early signs of symbolic behavior—of which art is simply one manifestation.

But one archaeologist who has not given up is Australia-based independent researcher Robert Bednarik.

Since at least the early 1980s, Bednarik, head of the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations and numerous other archaeological groups, has been at the center of many often contentious debates about the earliest art. While most archaeologists are doubtful about claims for early art that predate 100,000 years ago, Bednarik has passionately championed a number of objects and engravings dated much earlier—such as the so-called Venus of Tan-Tan found in Morocco and dated to between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago, and the 250,000-year-old Berekhat Ram “figurine,” found in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Bednarik has also collaborated with the Indian archaeologist Giriraj Kumar of the Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra to study the site of Daraki-Chattan Cave in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The cave walls are covered with more than 500 “cupules,” cup-shaped holes dated to between 200,000 and 500,000 years ago and which Bednarik and Kumar think are clear signs of artistic expression. Indeed, in an e-mail to me last month, Bednarik said that the cupules are “undeniable evidence of very complex symbolic behavior” and that my essay would be “worthless” if I did not mention them.

Bednarik’s primary argument is that research into the origins of art has been biased by the tendency of archaeologists to focus on the spectacular and relatively well-preserved cave paintings and personal ornaments of the European Upper Paleolithic period, which begins about 40,000 years ago, and ignore older evidence from other parts of the world, particularly Asia. In one comprehensive review of paleoart around the world, published in 2003 in Rock Art Research, Bednarik argued that the further researchers go back in time, the less likely that early art would have been preserved in the archaeological record. That, in Bednarik’s view, makes it all the more important to take those rare objects that do turn up seriously.

Bednarik is also well-known for his feisty debating style: He often calls his opponents in the controversy the “Paleolithic art lobby” and accuses them of “Eurocentrism” for being too influenced by Upper Paleolithic art. Yet while Bednarik’s viewpoint is a minority one among archaeologists, he has gotten hundreds of articles published over the years, including in major journals such as AntiquityCurrent Anthropology, the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, and World Archaeology, among others. Who knows, he may just turn out to be right.

About the author

The origin of art ignites strong passion among the people who study it. Michael Balter, who wrote an essay on the origin of art and symbolic behavior for this week’s issue of Science, offers additional insight into one controversial figure of the paleoart world.