In this era, we are connected to each other in ways early humans could never have imagined. Vast amounts of information are shared easily and endlessly across the internet.
In the Neolithic and Paleolithic eras, humans were lucky if they had a tribe big enough to do all the hunting and gathering. The idea that there were other people out in the great beyond, past the small, tribal circle of influence, was impossible to imagine, let alone corroborate.
So Neolithic and Paleolithic people just went about their own damn time, making fires, doing chores, the usual. All the while living incredibly disconnected from even neighboring tribes, separated as they were by seas, mountains, and unfamiliar terrains.
I say all this because at this time, nearly 40,000 years ago, these remote tribes, living in areas now known as France, Australia, Belize, Turkey, Papua New Guinea– they all had the exact same idea at around the same time.
They all decorated cave walls with images of the human hand.
In vastly different closets of the world, these ancestors of ours were connected long before the human brain had even developed enough to understand bronze smelting. The last known woolly mammoths are generally assumed to have vanished from Europe around 12,000 years ago, so yeah– we’re talking mammoth times.
And human beings were synced up, making connections across the planet.
How was this method of image-making shared across thousands of miles in a time before social media? And what does a hand print on a cave wall tell us about human urge?
One of the theories archaeologists have for why hands were so predominant in the imagery of paleolithic and neolithic cave paintings is that the hand represents a distinct moment in human psychological development: our turn toward self-awareness.
At a crucial point in our evolution as a species, we were able to have the imagination to consider ourselves. Who are we? What do we desire? How should we live?
This developmental shift precipitated a snowballing of human ingenuity– in order to improve our lives through technologies and tools, we first had to be able to consider ourselves subjectively and introduce creative approaches to make improvements.
So, in a sense, these hand prints mark the first time humans began to question to the nature of their humanity, or at least the first time this question found expression in a viably enduring medium. From one corner of the earth to another, humans had, at very much the same time, come to the realization that there is something more. But what is it?
The hand image is a proclamation of an autonomous identity, an icon of the self. Each hand is distinct, a synecdoche representing the human who held it to the wall and made their mark. Awareness of ourselves is what distinguishes us from animals. We are able to cognitively consider our own existence, and from that knowledge create tools and technologies to enhance our own existence.
Art, it could be said, was the first of these tools.
The second, I might theorize, is the idea of god.
And I might go even further to say that art led to our need to conceive of a god, that the two are inextricably entwined. A double helix made up of our impulse to creatively express what feels inexpressible and our attempt to understand where that need comes from.
When I say “god,” I don’t mean a tradition or religion that defines the parameters of a god figure. I mean godliness, the concept behind the religious icon. The thing beneath the omnipotent being, which is the psychological program within human consciousness where the need for god to exist is located.
Why do we need god? Well, we don’t, necessarily. Some people get along very fine without. But life is difficult, and we as humans are acutely aware of its difficulties. So, naturally, we are predisposed to 1) question why life is difficult and 2) hope that it can be less difficult.
God is an idea that solves both of these predicaments. If you believe in a higher power, you can believe that your life has purpose, was created for divine reason. If a personal belief system is founded on a believe in a higher power, it can relieve the burden of life’s difficulties and provide hope for moments of turmoil.
The purpose of god is in many ways the purpose of art. Though the objects are radically, even sometimes diametrically, different, the urge behind them is remarkably similar.
Consider the hand prints on the cave walls. To me, these images are proof that there is some unknowable connective force that exists between humans (perhaps, god). In the paleolithic and neolithic eras, there was no way to know that the tribe 3,000 miles away was doing the exact same hand stenciling on their cave walls at around the exact same time. Yet somehow humans were tethered in a kind of synchronicity. The hand prints satisfied an urge to mark and define the life each hand corresponded to– I was here, I existed.
The inexplicable simultaneity is god. The impulse to know your life by creating a physical or emotional object onto which you can project your needs– that is art.
Humans are able to feel together, without knowing each other or seeing each other, without anything other than their humanness between them. This deep abiding empathic nerve is what drew us to the concept of god, with the hope that we could create a universal logic that brought each human together into one tribe. Of course, that notion has failed. There is no single god, just as there is no single art that moves us all the same.
In A History of God, Karen Armstrong makes important insights into the nature of god by looking at the ways the concept of god came into existence, how it has changed over the years, and what the consequences of those changes have been. One particular passage struck me as an incredibly important reclamation of the deep essence of godliness:
When we use the word ‘holy’ today, we usually refer to a state of moral excellence. The Hebrew kaddosh, however, has nothing to do with morality as such but means ‘otherness,’ a radical separation…. There is nothing rational about [god]… the emotions it engenders cannot adequately be expressed in words or concepts. Indeed, this sense of the Wholly Other cannot even be said to ‘exist’ because it has no place in our normal scheme of reality.
God is the “other,” the unknowable, the experience beyond reality, where we are both intimately connected and radically separate, the thing for which there are no words, though we try and try to express it, though we make our marks on the cave wall.