“In 15,000 years, we have invented nothing!” So exclaimed Pablo Picasso upon seeing the Lascaux Caves which had been rediscovered by Marcel Ravidat on September 12, 1940. Three months after the Nazis marched into Paris, the teenage mechanic noticed a deep hole near an uprooted tree as he wandered through the woods outside the French village of Montignac. Using a grease gun as a flashlight, Ravidat must not have believed his eyes. Life-size images of stags, bulls and horses, all untouched by time. Within days, a local specialist confirmed they had been painted by Paleolithic people. Rendered somewhere between 15,000-17,000 B.C., the Lascaux murals were the product of moist clay for ocher, pulverized berries for red and charred wood for black.
While of less renown, the whisper of, “Look Papa, oxen!” dates back to 1875 when Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, a local resident and amateur archaeologist, first visited the Cave of Altamira with his daughter Maria. It had only been a few years before, in 1868, that a local hunter had stumbled upon the caves and first set modern eyes on the ancient walls. Located outside the historic town of Santillana Del Mar in Cantabria, the caves had kept their secrets, and preserved the startlingly vivid drawings which have been dated from 35,000 to 11,000 B.C. The wondrous art of these caves hugging the northern edge of the Iberian Peninsula and inhabited during the Upper Paleolithic when Chatelperronian culture thrived in the Cantabria region, broadly dated between 50,000 and 12,000 B.C., is a testament to the creative genius of the earliest humans. Taking nothing away from Altamira, scientists have since uncovered evidence of even older human artistry of the period a world away in Africa.
In what would one day be Swaziland, Ngwenya also had its own art. It was 1967 when samples of charcoal nodules from ancient adits, near-horizontal passages, driven from the Earth’s surface into the side of a mountain for the purpose of removing water from a mine, were sent to both Yale and Groningen laboratories for radiocarbon dating. Why, archaeologists asked, bother with mining, when haematite could be obtained by opencast mining by hand at the surface? The answer: Vanity. To this day, specularite, an iron ore that ran deeper, is still considered to have great powers. Only Swazi chiefs and the highest chief diviners were permitted to wear it. And they did so in full form, smearing their hair and entire bodies with black, glistening ore.