Archaeologists have discovered what they believe to be a 27,000-year-old drawing
of a face, which would make it the oldest in history. Like many other ancient
portraits, it is reminiscent of the work of some of the great modern artists,
writes Jonathan Jones - and speaks volumes about the way we see ourselves
Tuesday June 6, 2006
No one is ever going to put a name to this face. Its owner
lived before writing, agriculture, or towns existed, before there were states
that kept records, and long before a Greek man named Herodotus decided to
write something called "history". The only reason we can be sure
the people who painted in caves during the Ice Age were as human as we are
- that is, they used their brains in the same way we do - is that they made
art. No other animal makes art. And now the earliest art has a human face
The eye is a bold horizontal slash that connects to a downward
diagonal apparently signifying a nose; below is a thinner line suggesting
a mouth. These features are drawn in black on a face-shaped rocky mass in
a cave near Angoulême in western France; discovered in February, the
image has only now been made public after scientific testing by French archaeologists
that has apparently convinced them of its authenticity and age - they claim
the drawings in it were done 27,000 years ago, which makes the Vilhonneur
grotto one of the oldest sites of rock art in the world, predated only by
Chauvet in the Ardèche (32,410 years old) and some of the paintings
at Cosquer in Bouches-du-Rhône (28,370 years old).
This face was made by human beings whose lives were more
animal-like than we can imagine, hunting and being hunted in a world of woolly
mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers and the other animals who - up to now - have
seemed to be the main characters in cave art. And yet the portrait shows they
recognised the animal that was different, that could look back at you in a
special way and mirror you (did they know the concept of a mirror? Presumably
they noticed their reflections in water).
So familiar were these people with the emotional significance
of the human face that they didn't need to fill in every detail as they did
when they painted animals. It is, of course, ironic that an ancient image
discovered in France so uncannily resembles the Parisian modernism of the
1920s - one visitor to the cave has said it reminded him of Modigliani; to
me it resembles the way Picasso and Braque notated facial details in their
synthetic cubist paintings; you might also think of Brancusi. Is this a bit
fishy? Presumably not, because the bones and use of charcoal in the cave means
its contents can be carbon-dated.
Why did the first artists draw like Picasso? It has to be
because of their attitude to the face, to their own embodiment and that of
the people they lived with - it has to be because of how they saw human beings
specifically, because this is very different from the way they painted animals.
Stone Age artists could paint with a verisimilitude that takes your breath
away; the horse panel in the Chauvet cave, older than this drawing, is covered
with acutely observed heads of aurochs (extinct relatives of cattle) and horses
whose tufty manes are painted with a clarity Da Vinci would have admired.
Why is the human face so much harder to decipher, so stylised?
Look at the other portraits on these pages, all made in
prehistory or at history's dawn, and you start to guess why. The earliest
human instinct was not to photograph the face, but to decorate it, to ennoble
Yesterday I stood at the top of a staircase in the British
Museum, staring into a case, making contact - I suddenly felt - with a person
who died nearly 10,000 years ago. The head from Jericho is both a portrait
and an actual human head. After this person died, an artist took the skull,
placed sea shells in its eye sockets, and built up a new face on it in lime
plaster; other examples of this art have hair and moustaches painted on. The
British Museum skull is disconcerting because it challenges all my preconceptions
about what art is, what a portrait is.
Has there ever been a more touching portrait made, in the
history of the world, than this? Like a modern pathologist's reconstruction,
the nameless Neolithic maker moulded a portrait of the actual face of the
dead person, as relatives and neighbours must have remembered it. Ancient
Jericho - millennia before it was besieged by Joshua - was one of the first
agricultural communities; the tough walls and towers discovered by archaeologists
suggest it was a threatened, enclosed little world. The people here were creating
an urban, settled life for pretty much the first time in world history. They
were vulnerable - and they wanted to be remembered when they were gone, to
be preserved. And they evolved a way of doing so that was both a depiction
and a physical relic; a sculpture of a head, with a head inside it.
The same happened in Egypt, where, a few thousand years
later, the natural preservative qualities of sand inspired people dependent
on the river Nile for their agriculture to mummify their dead. A mummy is
an artefact, and in a sense can be seen as a portrait; on top of the mummy
was a mask, an ideal image of the dead person's face. Egyptian tombs also
included, as early as the third millennium BC, portrait sculptures of the
dead - the portrait here of "the dwarf Seneb" and his family is
a heart-stopping example, in which, before anyone wrote a history book, a
man of restricted growth was shown with his wife and children.
There is, in fact, something very sensitive about the earliest
portraits. The Royal Standard of Ur in the British Museum (about 2,400 BC)
is not a depiction of a king but of the everyday life of ancient Mesopotamia,
in modern Iraq: it portrays an entire society with people ploughing, leading
animals, and making war. Soon, artists would be portraying the visages of
powerful kings, like the Akkadian king from Nineveh in the Baghdad Museum,
or the famous "mask of Agamemnon" from the early Greek city of Mycenae.
But in the beginning, portraiture was egalitarian, it was universal.
The reason the cave painter could draw like Picasso is the
same reason Picasso could; because everyone knows what a face looks like.
The face is so much part of our consciousness that long before there was writing,
it could be simplified to a striking stylised mark. This was, surely, as emotional
as the act of the Jericho artisan who placed seashells in eye sockets, suggesting
the changes wrought by death as mysteriously as Shakespeare: those are shells
that were his eyes ...
There are still books that will tell you that the portrait
was invented in the Renaissance and reflects the irrestisible rise of western
individualism. The discovery in France adds to evidence from all over the
world, as far as Australia, with its astronaut-like rock images of humans,
that people have been imagining the face for as long as we have been people.
We are all the same under the skin, as they knew in Jericho, and in Ice Age
A cave painting believed to be the earliest known portrait,
from Angoulême, France, c 25000BC. Photograph: AP