40,000-Year-Old Ice Age Art To Go on Display in London

If you think our ancestors' artwork was all cave paintings and stone tools, think again. A new exhibit of forty-millennia-old artwork at the British Museum is downright inspiring.

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Zaraysk Museum of Art and History / Dr. Sergey Lev
Zaraysk Museum of Art and History / Dr. Sergey Lev

Hop in a time machine, whoosh back 40,000 years and what might you find along the way, art-wise? Some stone tools? The usual ochre- and charcoal-pigment paintings of animals like bison or aurochs splayed on subterranean cave walls?

How about a strikingly modern-looking carving of a female nude, a tusk from a mammoth intricately carved to resemble a pair of reindeer or a 23,000-year-old abstract ivory sculpture that influenced Picasso himself in the 1930s?

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The British Museum in London is doing its level best to hype a new exhibition dubbed “Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind” by trotting out objects and details like these, reminding us that conventional notions about our Ice Age ancestors’ aesthetic abilities tend to underestimate their level of sophistication.

“All art is the product of the remarkable structure and organisation of the modern brain,” says exhibit curator Jill Cook in the exhibit’s description:

“By looking at the oldest European sculptures and drawings we are looking at the deep history of how our brains began to store, transform and communicate ideas as visual images. The exhibition will show that we can recognize and appreciate these images. Even if their messages and intentions are lost to us the skill and artistry will still astonish the viewer.”

Reviews of the display have been glowing so far: Of the items displayed, the Guardian writes “…not even Leonardo … has ever surpassed these ice-age animal portraits. The first cave paintings, discovered in the late 19th century, were dismissed as forgeries: they seemed too good to be the work of ‘savages’. Nowadays, dating techniques have silenced such doubts.”

The London-based exhibit, which charges £10($16) for admission, runs from Feb. 7 to May 26, 2013.

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