Young, and not-so-young, participants came, saw and created at the Wilson Museum last month, when education coordinator Darren French traced the beginnings of cave art millions of years ago.
But first, he broadly outlined human evolution and the use of tools.
French donned white gloves—and asked those in attendance to do the same—before passing around specimens of early human tools, such as a hammer stone.
The gloves, he said, protect artifacts from deterioration from the oils present on human hands.
The hammer stone French held in his hand is, he said, “similar to that used 2.6 million years ago in East Africa,” and was used by early human ancestors to break pieces off other rocks.
Humans’ use of tools, French said, dates back 300,000 years, with the upright Homo erectus species.
But the earliest human ancestors, thought to have first lived in Ethiopia 4 million years ago, also walked upright, like Homo erectus. These bipeds still climbed trees, French said, but evidence that they moved on two legs comes from skeleton remains that show their skull and spinal anatomy.
Today, in some Western Europe descendants, part-Neanderthal DNA dating back at least 300,000 years is still found, French said.
“That explains a lot,” said one mother in attendance with her young son.
So, given the history of the species evolution, what does it mean to be human?
A spoken and written language and the ability to communicate through art separates humans from other animals, said French.
Flash forward to 35,000 years ago, when humans created a small stone stool.
“Just about this time is why you start to see all kinds of art work on cave walls,“ French continued.
Coal and natural pigments of red and yellow ochre were used in cave paintings. Humans would spit on a cave wall, French said, and mix it with red ochre.
However, in a bow to modernity, Crayola crayons, oil pastels and chalk were used by participants in the Discovery Days program to create replicas of cave paintings—handprints and four-legged animals.
“They used handprints for names,” suggested young participant Eric Davis.
“We don’t really know what [they] mean,” French said.
Paintings of deer were also common cave wall paintings but, again, French said their meaning isn’t known.
“They could have been considered gods or they could have drawn them because they ate them,” he said.
As the drawings were finished, with the use of fingers and paper towels, French wrapped it up.
“We went over seven million years in about 40 minutes,” he said.