The early, early show

When did humans first make tools? And when, asks Tom Lubbock, did they first see them as beautiful as well as useful? A new display at the British Museum spotlights the cloudy origins of our creativity
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The Independent Online

An interest in cavemen is a form of secular piety. In a world without gods, we look to the earliest humans as our great representatives. In a world without creation myths, the original members of our species are key figures. The stone age is a heroic age, full of great inaugural deeds. We're cheered by our beginnings, and we cheer back. We applaud our remote ancestors every step of the way along the road to becoming recognisably like ourselves. Their remains are not only evidence of achievements. They're trophies of the tremendous success story.

An interest in cavemen is a form of secular piety. In a world without gods, we look to the earliest humans as our great representatives. In a world without creation myths, the original members of our species are key figures. The stone age is a heroic age, full of great inaugural deeds. We're cheered by our beginnings, and we cheer back. We applaud our remote ancestors every step of the way along the road to becoming recognisably like ourselves. Their remains are not only evidence of achievements. They're trophies of the tremendous success story.

The oldest things in the British Museum are some roundish bits of rock, about the size of cricket balls, found in Tanzania in 1931. They wouldn't catch your eye if you came across them on a beach. They aren't obviously shaped. They don't have human hand written all over them. But they are hand-sized, and if you take a closer look you can see that they've been sharpened. This was done around 1.8 million years ago. A new thing in the world: an artefact. Hurrah!

These three pieces of quartzite and lava are among the exhibits in Prehistory: Objects of Power, a new permanent display at the museum. It's an early, early show, featuring tools, vessels, weapons, ornaments, images, totems and objects of obscure design. The story starts in Africa, but the catchment area is mainly Europe. The time span covered is boggling, from 1.8 million years ago right up to about 1200BC – from chipped rocks to cast bronze and beaten gold. But 1200BC is getting a bit late for really heroic earliness. The human race is by then a fully established enterprise. The pioneer spirit has passed.

But the beautiful flint Acheulian hand-axe, shaped like a teardrop – this is more like it. It's also a milestone in archaeology, in the modern understanding of just how old things could be. It was found in 1797 by the antiquarian John Frere at Hoxne, Suffolk. He remarked that the object must date from "a very remote period indeed; even beyond that of the present world" (wryly referring to the then standard Bible-based calculation that the world was created in 4004BC). The object is now reckoned to be 400,000 years old.

I called the hand-axe beautiful. Was it supposed to be? That's the kind of question this exhibition is specifically trying to raise. Its emphasis is not on utilitarian technology as such, but on the step beyond utility. The flint has a symmetry and an even finish to its glinting-faceted surface which suggest that its cutting power was not the only consideration. The look of it was important, too. And its still very fine point doesn't seem to have been blunted by any use at all.

So we're asked to have an eye here for the gratuitous, the impractical. Surely that axe there is actually too large to wield. Surely this carving is a pattern. We're to wonder what these things are – art-works, luxuries, prestige goods, ritual objects? We're to see, even at this very remote period, another great leap forward for mankind – the beginnings of the aesthetic or the symbolic.

But it must be admitted that for us the power of these Objects of Power is partly the power of the unknown. They glimmer with suggestiveness. They lurk on the edge of the comprehensible. We can well imagine the skill, the know-how, the transmission of knowledge, that must go into the making of leaf-like, flake-thin spear-tips. We can see their makers had minds. But what went on in them we can't really imagine. Did they make a distinction between the useful and the more-than-useful? Did they make it in anything like the way we would?

By the Upper Paleolithic period (35000-10000BC), the aesthetic, the symbolic – or whatever you call it – were well under way. Beads were worn, caves painted, wood whittled into reindeer and mammoths, female figures carved, pebbles marked with red ochre dots and stripes that might well be signs. The art of this time speaks with baffling (deceptive?) familiarity. Look at the little image of a fallen bison scratched onto a stone. It doesn't look like a stiff, rule-bound, abstracted "primitive style". This sketch is fluent, spontaneous; an instance of a highly practised drawing culture, one able to improvise and assimilate new information, a language not a code. So it seems. And then, perhaps, you feel: but no, it can't be. It was so long ago. We can't possibly understand these people. Our sense of affinity must be an illusion, an anachronism – to do, surely, with the influence of modern art.

When Frere examined that teardrop hand-axe in 1797 he was doubtless moved by various feelings, but not by a feeling for its beauty. His eyes had not been educated by 20th-century design to admire the simple, contained form and the mottled surface. But us: we can look around this show and see Modernism everywhere. You could happily take any of these stone knives, scrapers, axe-heads, enlarge them, and set them on a plinth in the middle of a plaza.

Not a coincidence, of course. This is where modern art got many of its ideas from. The Judean carving of two lovers locked together in a single piece of stone might easily be a model for Brancusi's The Kiss. The smooth, polished mace-head with an empty hole where the shaft went looks just like a miniature Hepworth (such shaft-holes are certainly behind Moore and Hepworth's use of voids). Someone who knows the work of the sculptor Peter Randall Page may be surprised to see how directly it draws inspiration from some small carved stone balls, about 3000BC, found in Scotland, function unknown.

The point was stated explicitly more than 50 years ago by an exhibition at the ICA entitled 40,000 years of Modern Art, in which very ancient and very modern artworks were juxtaposed for resemblance. At the time, that idea was treated sceptically. We could imitate their look, we could be deliberately "primitivist", but what genuine common ground could there be between us and our hunting fathers?

But the curator of this show, Jill Cook, is rather more willing to see a distant mirror. The likenesses are not so deceptive, she thinks. Looking at the abundance, sophistication and variety of its creations, she describes the Upper Paleolithic as an era of artistic freedom without parallel until, indeed, our own 20th century. It's the kind of claim at which one can only gawp, not really having a clue what it would mean, what would be evidence for or against. But it is clear that after that period, art straightened up considerably and, in some places, vanished. As for standards of draftsmanship, it is not obvious that European art has ever improved on what was done in the caves.

We always want something out of the cavemen. We want to learn about who we humans really are, how we started, why we're so special, where it all went wrong, origins, falls, the usual stuff. But the cavemen and their remains can't answer. First things are always elusive, retrospective. The earliest tools, the earliest ornaments, are evidence that tools and ornaments had already begun to be made. The British Museum only takes artefacts. It draws a clear line between the human and the natural worlds. But evolution doesn't. Try to go back to source and you go back to slime. There is much to learn about human beginnings and they will always be a mystery: like a bottomless well, irresistibly absorbing.

'Prehistory: Objects of Power', British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1 (020-7323 8000) free

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