Anthropology: Art History and Its Deep Roots in Human Culture

Art is good proof that human life is not only about action and reaction. Art means we have something to say, to add to the world, to share with people from our time as much as with people from different ages. In addition to creating artwork, we enjoy seeing what others have to say.
We can’t be sure if the people who made the engravings and wrote the stories on the walls of the caves and temples imagined us from totally different times, trying to understand what they wanted to say. This, by itself, is astonishing.

What is art? Is it something like fire? Did humankind discover it and all the possibilities that come with it? Or is it an invention? If the first man was only trying to survive, why would he need art?

The origins of the word art

Etymology of art

Let’s start with the etymology of the word art. We find it in different languages, like French: art (we pronounce it AR without the t) and English art, and in Italian and Spanish languages we have arte. The word art in those four languages shares the same origin, which is derived from the Latin arts, and it means skill or craft, but a piece of art does not need only the skills. There are other elements necessary for its creation, and I chose the word creation because the artist-creator is different from the maker, the craftsman. Every artist is a craftsman, but not every craftsman can be an artist. You can learn how to make something according to an existing model. You won’t need creativity or imagination.

Art and Arteries

I can’t close my eyes to the fact that the words art and arteries share the same letters. Maybe one originated from the other, perhaps because the urge to create something comes from the heart of the person as the oxygen-rich blood is delivered by arteries to nurture different organs of the body. If we imagine the world as a human body, then art will be the vehicle responsible for carrying life-rich ideas and visions from the core ( the heart) to the entire world (the body). We can go far and say that organs are different cultures and people are different cells. They are getting the same message but they’re shaping it depending on their way of understanding and expressing themselves.

We have another word that comes with the word art, which is esthetics. A philosophical branch that deals with the concept of beauty. Although when we think of esthetics we directly think of art. But not all art is beautiful to our eyes. We can’t be all concordant about one artwork being beautiful.

How to judge art?

Our judgment of art is influenced by our culture, even if the piece of art is a child of its age, it is influenced by the major events and circumstances, by the artist’s moods, beliefs, and reason. But the layman, someone who isn’t specialized in art, does not have to know all those things to taste the beauty of an artwork.

Some specialized people have the job of guiding the attention of the laymen to artworks that deserve to be appreciated in their opinion, but those people are still inside the frame of their cultural and personal taste. We can’t standardize art, it is a personal experience like religion. Perhaps that is why there is a strong relationship between art and religion.

According to some references, the word art appeared during the renaissance, but artworks are as old as The man himself. In all the illustrations we find on the walls of caves and temples, and the old statues or sculptures. We see how art was so related to magical or ritualistic practices.

Ancient art

Venus of Willendorf

In ancient art, we can take, for example, Venus of Willendorf, the oldest sculpture that dates between 25000 and 30000, found in 1908 at Willendorf, Austria, made of limestone tinted with red ochre pigment. This famous piece of art represents a naked woman with no facial features or hands and arms, just magnified breasts, perhaps because they symbolize nourishment and fertility. According to some references, it has been suggested that she is a female deity or a fertility figure.

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The Venus of Willendorf is 11.1-centimeter-tall (4.4 in). Source Wikipedia.

Engraving from Addaura Cave

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Rock engraving from Addaura Cave (c. 11,000 BCE.) Source:

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Addaura cave, frieze. Source:

Addaura cave is located on Monte Pellegrino- Palermo, Sicily. The engravings show a group of people making a circle and dancing around two people. It appears as a fertility ritual. We also notice that not all the people there have similar faces. Perhaps they are wearing masks, or they are showing us the presence of gods during this ritual because they have a face similar to the Egyptian gods that appeared later on the walls of Egyptian temples.

I think the story doesn’t end there, but we see a bunch of other people with their animals that are not participating in the ritual. We can say that it was a regular workday. Maybe this is part two of the story, which tells us about a successful fertility ritual.
In human history, the religious mind has always influenced art. Would it be to describe rituals or to express the imagination of the artist of gods, heavens, and hell, and I’m not talking only about visual art but also the stories and myths of gods and demigods, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, the story about an immortality seeker and his struggles with gods and goddesses.

Development of art

The development of art from ancient days to now was more related to the evolution of tools available for man. Written stories become movies and series, we can capture the moment with just one click on our phones and we don’t even need to be professionals, we can manipulate photos and make new worlds from the existing. Hand drawing has become digital with a great diversity in the colors we can use.

There is a big explosion in visual information in our time. Most of it is used in advertising. This generation’s tendency surpasses the idea of art for art. Now we have art for profit.

The thing that fascinates me is we’re not that different from ancient people. Nowadays, everybody is telling their stories and hanging them on the walls of their Facebook. I think we’re storytellers by nature.

Different sources of art

whereas the first artists were the shamans, who had this strange ability to access the higher and the underworlds and coming back with mental images, ideas, and stories of what they saw there, the application of drugs or other methods that allow us to enter in an alternate state of consciousness is very popular, humans from the dawn of time knew that there is a whole other world or worlds hidden under the veil of our day to day awareness, the first contact with these worlds was during our dreams, nevertheless, you can’t isolate the human mind from its environment, and the world is our greatest teacher. That is why we have three types of artwork:

Those resulting from imagination, those resulting from pure imitation of the world, and those resulting from both imagination and imitation, but even art that comes from pure imagination is influenced by the world.

A hidden stimulation

Then we have another thing, a hidden stimulation, something that pushes us to create, to express what we have inside, be it love or sadness or even confusion, a memory of a beautiful day we spent with someone we love can create that urge inside us. Perhaps, in a moment of clearness, we are enchanted by the universe, its beauty, and we can’t help but imitate what we see to decorate our surroundings just like the universe does. Colors have a vibrational aspect and they talk to our soul just like sounds. The universe is talking to us with all those sounds and visual diversity of colors in nature, and in art, we try to respond.
Or from all those mysteries and questions we have about our existence and the existence of this universe, art helps us understand ourselves and others better.

The reason for the existence of art

We can’t find just one reason for the existence of art, just like the existence of this universe. We can say that artworks were made for decorative means. The artist is imitating the universe when he/she decorates himself/herself with all these colors, a diversity of flowers, and different creatures.
We can say there is an end to this creation. Art can also have one. It helps us understand ourselves and people around us or we can say that there is absolutely no reason for creation but the act of creating itself. For an artist, the time he/she spends creating something is the most enjoyable part.
Since the beginning, people have been arguing about the purpose of this universe. A piece of art is more or less like the universe. It is created first, then others try to find out why.

What influences art?

An artist can be inspired by a lot of things. We already know a lot of paintings inspired by old myths, or even sacred books like the bible. We will see contemporary examples of pieces of art that were born from different inspirational sources.

The labyrinth

The myth of Ariadne and the labyrinth is a story about Ariadne, who helped her lover Theseus to escape the labyrinth after she gave him 3 elements: a thread, a chart, and a sword. Inspired by this myth, Asaf Avidam made a very beautiful song in 2015 with the same name: The labyrinth, but the character in the song didn’t trust his Ariadne, he took only the sword and left the chart and thread, so he got lost inside the labyrinth of his past.

Lili Marleen

Lili Marleen is a song from wartime that soldiers used to sing. It is a German love song inspired by Hans Leip’s poem, who wrote it before his departure to the Russian front. When you listen to it you know that the character was almost sure that he wouldn’t manage to come back to his beloved Lili Marlene, he is only trying to profit the most from the time he had before he left, although the circumstances where this piece of art was born were hard and sad. It carries a memory of love more than anything else.

Cultural significance of art in anthropology

Now we can say that art plays a key role in our life as a species. Not only does it historicize our past in a frame of dates and events, but a piece of art is like a time capsule that stimulates emotions and creates a mood of what happened.

It is a physical expression of the artist’s consciousness of himself and the universe. Art represents the prevailing view of members of a society or a tribe and reflects the innermost state of being of people and the core beliefs of a society. It is a bridge between all the timelines, past, present, and future.

Art leads to creating more art by expanding our imagination and changing our ordinary perspective on the world. Also, art and imagination allow us to connect with others and increase our empathy. We tend to empathize more with people who look like us, but art shows us how we are all alike. When we see a character from a play or a movie having our very emotions and struggles. It could be a circumstance we have survived before. Or when we read a poem and it is saying the very things inside us that we didn’t manage to express. This increases our empathy and helps us create a more peaceful world.

So Art helps us to survive our day-to-day routine, survive the chaos of this life, sometimes survive our failures or hard times. I think art and believing in magic, gods, or other realms, perhaps were important for the survival of our ancestors. Otherwise, where would we leave our imagination and dreams?

Express yourself

Express Yourself. Source: This image belongs to the author of this article.

To be in harmony with the macrocosm, you need to be in harmony with your infinite self. Allow yourself to be creative, to be different. You are a unique individual. Do not be afraid of playing your own music or painting with your own colors. People argue about the purpose of this universe. Well, I think there is none, it is just an infinite beauty expressing itself fully. That is why when you’re expressing yourself you’re in harmony with everything.

One thought on “Anthropology: Art History and Its Deep Roots in Human Culture

  1. Great article! Thank you for sharing this informative post, and looking forward to the latest one.
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