Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were more sophisticated than popular culture would have you believe (Yes the ‘me man…. you women’ is somewhat of a stereotype). They trapped animals, developed an arsenal of tools, buried their dead, utilized fire on multiple levels, understood the practicalities of nature, made art and survived in defiance of nature’s many curve balls. They also worshipped their deities who were often related to the supernatural forces that appeared to govern their world.
Female fertility was key (and may be related to a larger belief in an Earth mother goddess). It ensured the survival of the clan and this too was reflected in the art. The Venus figurines, of which the Venus of Willendorf is the most famous, epitomizes this belief. Dating back to a time between 25,000 to 28,000 years (Paleolithic Period – Late Stone Age), this 11-cm tall statuette of a woman was designed as a symbol of fertility and childbearing. However there were others as well.
One piece of art that has not been well publicized is the Lion Man of the Hohlenstein Stadel, Germany that is believed to be the oldest animal-shaped sculpture in the world (dating back 40,000 years) and depicts what is believed to be an anthropomorphic deity. The Art of the Hunt is seen in the cave paintings at Lascaux and are thought to be 17,300 years old. Another examples of hunt art include the Mammoth spear thrower that was found in Tanet-Garonne, France and dates back to a time 18,000 years ago.
It seems as though humanity has an innate desire to create art and that is certainly a wonderful characteristic of our species. While the judgement of art is no doubt subjective the compulsion is universal and in the long run western civilization has been the better for it.