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It’s very rare that discussions of art encompass art’s very beginnings. In fact, a lot of people treat Greek and Roman cultures as the beginning of art as we know it. But long before all those columns and sculptures, long before what we typically think of when we think of early art, humans made art on rocks that has, in many cases, lasted to this very day. The typical image of this type of art is the cave painting–natural pigments smeared on walls by firelight, depicting hunting scenes or battles between now-extinct animals. But rock art is much more than just cave paintings. Rock art also encompasses non-narrative images, and images carved into the rock face itself, and images out in the sunlight, rather than in the dark of a cave. Somehow, this art isn’t necessarily viewed as “art,” and doesn’t get discussed often by art historians–we leave it to the archaeologists and anthropologists to research.
But why should we? If we think of the history of art in terms of what is called “visual culture,” the broader category of images made by humans that don’t necessarily fall into the fine art category, rock art is absolutely in an art historian’s purview. Retired rock art scholar Livio Dobrez wrote in 2016 that he felt, quote, “that much greater involvement from art specialists would be beneficial, both for rock art studies and — even more, I suspect — for art history, which surely cannot develop without seriously engaging rock art.” End quote.
So let’s seriously engage some rock art! This episode covers some of the rock art at Serra da Capivara National Park in Piauí state in northeastern Brazil, which first began to be studied in the late 70s by Brazilian archaeologist Niède Guidon. Guidon’s research on Serra da Capivara challenged a number of well-established theories about when humans first settled in the Americas, and also spurred the preservation of the site in the form of a National Park. he rock art at Serra da Capivara challenges our notion of where and when human creativity first bloomed, and prompts us to think critically about how prehistoric art is discussed both in an art historical context and within the media more generally.
A description of one example of rock art at Pedra Furada rock shelter, in Serra da Capivara National Park, Piauí State, Brazil. Dates vary, ranging from 15,000 BCE, to 30,000, to even 50,000 BCE.
A large quadruped animal is outlined in red ochre. Its neck is long, and it has two small ears atop its head. It has a small, perky tail. Its legs have been abstracted into single lines. Its body is filled in with an almond-shaped field of ochre. In the space below its body, between its legs, is another smaller quadruped, with a similar long neck and perky tail, filled in with red ochre entirely. Its legs are splayed almost horizontally in front and back, as though it is leaping or running. The sticklike legs of this animal divide into two smaller stems at the very bottom, perhaps indicating cloven hooves. One article identifies these quadrupeds as deer. Slightly below both, and seemingly partially rubbed away, either by time, environmental factors, or something else, is an even smaller figure that appears to be standing on two legs. Its body is roughly circular, and its head is a small bump on top of its round torso. Its upper appendages are raised towards the quadrupeds, appearing to divide into hands or fingers at the ends of their short length. Its lower appendages are about the same length as the others, and appear to have feet of some kind at their ends. It is unclear whether this is a human, a monkey, a frog, or something else entirely. The rock on which this image is painted is a ruddy light brown, speckled with gray. Another photo of the same image indicates it is painted on an angled rock face, with some hints of other rock art visible on the vertical rock face directly above.
Archaeologist Niède Guidon hopped back and forth between Brazil and France in her early career, studying at the Sorbonne, working in São Paulo’s Museu Paulista, and then escaping back to Paris after general Humberto Castelo’s military coup in 1964. She was able to return Brazil when politics changed around 1970, and from there began working in the Serra da Capivara area.
From early on in Guidon’s research at Pedra Furada, the press recognized the significance of the site: Brazilian magazine Veja said the site had “the most important rock-paintings set of South America.” When findings and apparent dates from Guidon’s research were published in the 1980s, the story made it to newspapers all around the world. Carbon from an “apparently human-made historic fire” at Pedra Furada was dated in Paris using the Carbon-14 method as being 31,000 years old. This significantly predated the hypothesis of one of the predominant late 20th century theories about the first inhabitants of the Americas, which dated the earliest human activity there to around 11,000 or 10,000 BCE. This date conflict was the most publicized aspect of the Pedra Furada findings at the time, but other aspects of the Pedra Furada site also buck many of our assumptions about ancient humans and their creative productions. Guidon herself, along with fellow archaeologist Anne-Marie Pessis, wrote in 2007 about the differences between rock art at Pedra Furada and elsewhere:
Distributed among all ecosystems of the National Park, [rock art works] are most numerous in ravines where the shelters are positioned at different altitudes, from the level of the bottom of the valleys to the top of the tablelands. In Brazil, unlike Europe, there is no evidence of paintings in dark caves. Occasionally one can find paintings in the entrances of caves but always in the open, in the sunlight…. The paintings illustrate transformation in style over time. The oldest rock paintings, being also the more frequent, belong to a class known as the Nordeste tradition. It is characterized by representations of a narrative nature, by compositions illustrating daily life and ritual scenes of the human groups that lived in the region. The paintings have a technical preciseness and refinement of detail that enables the identification of a real social communication system. The figures have features suggesting that over time they were made by succeeding cultural groups. They also represent very diverse themes, such as dancing, hunting, collecting, but also sex and violence depicted in the form of battle, capture and execution scenes…. Paintings belonging to other rock art traditions can also be seen, devoid of any narrative nature or of the possibility of identification, but prevalent in other regions of north-east Brazil.
Just like other kinds of art, rock art also has regional and temporal differences in style and media. While such differences in more recent periods of art history have been due in no small part to cultural and social factors, the development of art styles and traditions among early humans are, unsurprisingly, driven more by survival and physical environment. A group paper by three psychologists from the Universidade de São Paulo highlights a possible list of the kind of aesthetic adaptations humans made in order to better survive: essentially, what would humans need to be able to visually recognize and assign emotions or values to in order to increase their rate of survival? The proposed list includes landscape features, non-human animals, environmental change cues, and human bodily form, among others. “It is probable,” the psychologists contend, quote, “that artistic expression…began by exploiting pre-existing aesthetic cognitive biases in various forms and combinations, co-opting its effects to catch the viewer’s attention.” Put another way, the human tendency to recognize faces in non-human animals and objects, or to recognize patterns more generally, was likely a key aspect of the development of artistic expression among early humans. The ability to look at a cloud and see a face or an animal, for example, is just what allows us to identify the key aspects of a form to reproduce it in a recognizable way for others. The stick-figure deer in the example of rock art from Pedra Furada that I described earlier may not seem as sophisticated as, say, an Italian Renaissance painting or an elaborate Chinese screen painting, but think about how amazing it is that early humans, with so few resources at their disposal, were able to effectively communicate the forms of deer with just a few strokes of red pigment. Perhaps this was a sign to others, as if to say “Deer and their fauns pass by here,” or perhaps it was a short narrative—“I saw a deer and her faun”. Or, it may just be a decorative painting, the product of a creative impulse that could not be stifled by the weight of survival and all that entails. Whatever the case, when you take a little time to think about it, when you take a little time to think about it, that this is unquestionably art—not just evidence to be investigated.
One issue that the study of rock art has that the study of other types of art does not, at least not to such an extreme degree, is the issue of dating. Though evidence from Pedra Furada was initially reported to have been dated at 31,000 years old, that date was far from set in stone. No bones had yet been found as of a 1986 article in Nature magazine, which dated the rock paintings themselves to 17,000 years old. The popular press, conflating the date of the charcoal from the site with the date of the paintings, tended to push the paintings’ date to 30,000 years old. The UNESCO webpage on Serra da Capivara National Park gives the paintings’ date range as “50,000 – 30,000 years Before Present.” A number of archaeologists disputed the findings and dates, some because of their dedication to other theories of human settlement of the Americas, and some because they felt the evidence itself was flawed and that Guidon and her team had made “methodological mistakes.” The popular press moved on from the story, and I can’t tell whether those disputes were ever satisfactorily resolved, but Guidon continued to work to study and preserve the rock art in Serra da Capivara, publishing new findings in 2013 that claimed, quote, “new evidence of human-made stone tools pointed to occupation of the region being ‘more than 20,000’ years ago, dated in France using both radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating techniques.” End quote. These were received somewhat more positively, but there was some criticism about “procedures.” Clearly, the archaeological community does take issue with some aspects of Guidon’s findings, but what’s essential to me about her findings is not necessarily their accuracy but the fact that they were published and publicized. Whether new evidence to support or discredit her findings emerges, that is still part of the story of the Pedra Furada paintings. One of the key takeaways that the New York Times seemed to glean from it all in 2014 related to what is known as the Clovis-first theory, which took hold in the 1950s and contended that the earliest people in the Americas were a group in North America called the Clovis culture that arrived there via a land bridge from Asia a little over 11,000 years ago. The Pedra Furada discovery was one of many discoveries that contradicted Clovis-first, but it seemed to be the one that put it to bed for good.
Guidon was able to use the significance of the Pedra Furada find to get permission from the Brazilian authorities to preserve the site, eventually making the surrounding area a national park. This was great in theory, but in practice, there were some major issues, as Guidon and Pessis express in the following excerpt:
After the creation of the National Park the conservation of archaeological sites was constrained by conflicts with the local population. A structural land tenure problem contributed to this situation. The federal government did not pay the promised compensation to the settlers living in the area in time. For years the settlers, who had not been indemnified for their possessions, remained in the Park. The rule was that settlement activity was to be limited to within the borders of the land they were living on, respecting environmental laws and the management rules of the conservation unit. However, transgression of these rules became a persistent problem. In addition, the settlers feel that the paintings were made by Indians, a population considered inferior and completely wiped out when the white colonizers invaded the region at the end of the seventeenth century. They consider the paintings as work performed by the defeated and therefore not to be valuable.
Establishing a national park and a foundation to drive research into the Pedra Furada sites was one thing, but cultural sites do not exist in a vacuum. What we choose to do to preserve and protect human heritage ultimately has effects on humans right now—in this case, the people living in what became Serra da Capivara National Park. While the issue of the lack of compensation for them appears to be largely down to poor administration, their other major objection to the preservation of the site, at least according to Pessis and Guidon, is evidence of the extent to which centuries-old attitudes still affect us today. Survival International, a group that advocates for the rights of tribal and indigenous people worldwide, estimates there are 900,000 so-called “Brazilian Indians” living in Brazil today, comprising 305 tribes. Prior to the arrival of European colonizers in the 16th and 17th centuries,it’s estimated there were 11 million natives and around 2,000 tribes. It’s not totally accurate to say that indigenous Brazilians were “completely wiped out” by Europeans, but those who remain are significantly threatened, socially, politically, and environmentally. Brazilian society has deeply ingrained racial prejudices against indigenous peoples as well as the descendants of enslaved Africans. A United Nations report states that black and brown Brazilians earn, on average, half of what white Brazilians make. Anti-racist laws have apparently had little effect on the actual levels of prejudice in the country, a fact exemplified by far-right president Jair Bolsonaro’s recent denigration of indigenous Brazilians on a Facebook Live broadcast. He said, quote, “Indians are undoubtedly changing… They are increasingly becoming human beings just like us.” End quote. This is just one of many racist comments Bolsonaro has made since he became a congressman in the 1990s, but his offenses against non-white Brazilians are not limited to words. Just a couple weeks ago at time of recording, Bolsonaro introduced a bill to allow commercial mining and hydroelectric dams on Indigenous reservations. This, just months after over 40,000 fires ravaged over 2 million acres of the Amazon rainforest, where most Brazilian indigenous lands are, and where approximately a third of Brazil’s indigenous people live. The Piauí locals’ view of indigenous Brazilians as “defeated,” “inferior,” and “wiped out,” combined with racist rhetoric from the leader of the Brazilian government is not just bad for the current state of indigenous rights and safety in Brazil–it’s also bad for the preservation of the Pedra Furada rock paintings. If people perceive the rock paintings to be the work of indigenous Brazilians, a group whose existence they hold in contempt and in some cases outright deny, they are unlikely to support the preservation of the rock paintings. Conservation of archaeological sites and works of art situated outdoors is already a difficult proposition, as a number of environmental factors, both natural and human-produced, pose a threat to the integrity of such works. But when there is a culture of disdain for such works, the situation is even more precarious and preservation initiatives even more important. Pessis and Guidon elaborate on the situation in the following excerpt:
The disrespect of heritage laws results from the population not giving value to its national heritage. It could be argued that this situation of neglect is nothing more than the modern manifestation of a historically generated concept of national heritage. Heritage values are not imposed only by law and enforcement. Only through knowledge of their own history do communities recognize their own values. It is in cultural diversity that the concept of regional immaterial identity can be developed, independent from national cultural identity. Therefore, to achieve its goals, heritage education will be successful when the values it promotes consider the importance of the diversity of communities. In the north east the weight of immaterial tradition is very strong as well as the weight of economic assets which are historically determined. It is easier to respect the economic asset represented by a neighbour’s property than to respect the cultural prehistoric heritage of a national park…. In this context heritage education requires different strategies for each situation and priority. If the image of the Indian is not seen as part of the Brazilian cultural heritage, although this heritage is strikingly indigenous in the major part of the country, then there is a need for a change…. For north and north-east Brazil, where the figure of the Brazilian Indian is marginal, excluded and seen as devoid of cultural value, the heritage education strategy could work under two aspects: on the one hand, by an approach valuing the indigenous population through didactic materials of formal and informal education; on the other hand, by attaching importance to the research on immaterial culture which identifies the indigenous culture within the broader Brazilian culture to which it belongs.
Pessis and Guidon go on to emphasize that tourism to Serra da Capivara National Park has been a factor in minimizing illegal activity that endangers the ecosystems of the park and archaeological sites like the rock paintings. Educating the public, whether through direct contact with the sites in the form of tourism, or indirect contact through broad and diverse heritage education, is crucial for the continued existence of sites like Pedra Furada. Indeed, it’s crucial for the continued existence of humans as a species. The more we know, the more we study and learn and debate and consider the world around us, the better we understand how to improve and preserve both the natural and the created environment. At Pedra Furada, the natural and the created are physically and conceptually interlinked, and I believe it will take archaeological, environmental, and artistic expertise in order to fully unlock the significance and potential of the finds there. As Livio Dobrez said, “greater involvement from art specialists would be beneficial, both for rock art studies and…for art history.” Essentially, when we know better, we do better, and when we know more, we can do more. Serra da Capivara’s rock art is just a piece of our human puzzle, but as the earliest evidence of human activity in the Americas we’ve found so far, it’s one we need to take very special care of.
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Thanks so much for listening to Art History for All. You can find a transcript of this episode, as well as links to images and citations, at arthistoryforall.com. Go ahead and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at arthistory4all, with the number 4. This podcast was produced and narrated by Allyson Healey, and the theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other music are in the episode description and at the end of the transcript.Thank you so much for listening, and remember to look closely–you never know what you might see.
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Additional Music Credits:
“Harp III Meditation,” by Bruce Healey, used with permission of the composer, © 2020 Bruce Healey
 Livio Dobrez email@example.com, “Theoretical Approaches to Rock Art Studies,” Rock Art Research 33, no. 2 (November 2016): 5.
 Baruzzi, 242.
 Baruzzi, 243.
 “Clovis Culture,” in Wikipedia, February 21, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Clovis_culture&oldid=941941302.
 Anne-Marie Pessis and Niède Guidon, “Serra Da Capivara National Park, Brazil: Cultural Heritage and Society,” World Archaeology 39, no. 3 (September 2007): 409. https://doi.org/10.1080/00438240701504676.
 Marco Antônio Corrêa Varella, Altay Alves Lino Lino de Souza, and José Henrique Benedetti Piccoli Ferreira, “Evolutionary Aesthetics and Sexual Selection in the Evolution of Rock Art Aesthetics,” Rock Art Research 28, no. 2 (November 2011): 155.
 Corrêa Varrella et al., 156.
 Baruzzi, 247.
 UNESCO World Heritage Centre, “Serra Da Capivara National Park,” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, accessed January 20, 2020, https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/606/.
 Baruzzi, 250.
 Ibid., 251.
 Simon Romero, “Discoveries Challenge Beliefs on Humans’ Arrival in the Americas,” The New York Times, March 27, 2014, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/28/world/americas/discoveries-challenge-beliefs-on-humans-arrival-in-the-americas.html.
 Pessis and Guidon, 411.
 Survival International, “Brazilian Indians,” accessed March 8, 2020, https://survivalinternational.org/tribes/brazilian.
 United Nations, “Racial Discrimination and Miscegenation: The Experience in Brazil | United Nations,” accessed March 8, 2020, /en/chronicle/article/racial-discrimination-and-miscegenation-experience-brazil.
 Tom Phillips, “Jair Bolsonaro’s Racist Comment Sparks Outrage from Indigenous Groups,” The Guardian, January 24, 2020, sec. World news, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/24/jair-bolsonaro-racist-comment-sparks-outrage-indigenous-groups.
 Reuters, “Brazil’s Bolsonaro Unveils Bill to Allow Commercial Mining on Indigenous Land,” The Guardian, February 6, 2020, sec. World news, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/06/brazil-bolsonaro-commercial-mining-indigenous-land-bill.
 Wikipedia Contributors, “2019 Amazon Rainforest Wildfires,” in Wikipedia, March 1, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=2019_Amazon_rainforest_wildfires&oldid=943292297.
 Pessis and Guidon, 413-414.