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Episode 4 - Swimming reindeer

Swimming reindeer (made around 13,000 years ago). Sculpture carved from mammoth tusk, found at Montastruc, central France

What does the past sound like? Of course, when we're as far back in deep time as we are this week, we can have no real idea. We can imagine the unchanging sounds of nature - wind, rain, sea, river - but for us, history is silent. But if we can't hear the past, we can certainly see it. I'd like to introduce you to an object that's 13,000 years old, made by one of our ancestors who wanted to show his own world to himself and, in doing so, relayed that world with astonishing immediacy, to us. It is, I think, a masterpiece of Ice Age art, and it's also evidence of a huge change in the way in which the human brain was working. Steven Mithen, professor at the University of Reading, and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, have both thought about this, in very different ways, and we'll hear more from them later in the programme.

'You can feel that here's somebody making this, who was projecting themselves with huge imaginative generosity into the world around, and saw and felt in their bones that rhythm.' (Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams)

'Something, between say 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, happens in the human brain, that allows this fantastic creativity, imagination, artistic abilities, to emerge.' (Professor Steven Mithen)

In the last two programmes, we looked at stone tools, which raised the question of whether it's making 'things' that makes us human. Could you conceive of being human without using objects to negotiate the world? I don't think I can. But there's another question that follows quite quickly once you start looking at these very ancient things. Our modern human species, 'homo sapiens' ('thinking man' in the Latin), evolved in Africa at least 150,000 years ago. But around 50,000 years ago, something dramatic seems to have happened to the human brain, because across the world, humans start to make patterns that decorate and intrigue, to make jewellery to adorn the body, and representations of the animals that share their world with them. They are making objects that are less about physically changing the world than about exploring the order and the patterns that they see in it. In short, they are making art. Why? Why do all modern humans share the compulsion to make works of art? Why does man the toolmaker everywhere turn into man the artist?

Our two reindeer represent the oldest piece of art in any British art gallery or museum, and it's alarmingly delicate. We keep it in a climate-controlled case and we hardly ever move it, because with any sudden shock it could just crumble to dust. It was made during the end of the last Ice Age, around 13,000 years ago. And it's a sculpture carved from the tusk of a mammoth - it must have been towards the end of the tusk, because it's slim, slightly curved, and it's about eight inches long.

The two reindeer swim closely, one behind one the other, and the sculptor has brilliantly exploited the tapering shape of the tusk. The smaller, female reindeer is in front with the very tip of the tusk forming the tip of her nose; and behind her, in the fuller part of the tusk, comes the larger male. Because of the curve, both animals have their chins up and their antlers are tipped back, exactly as they would when swimming - and along the undersides, their legs are at full stretch, giving a marvellous impression of streamlined movement. It's a superbly observed piece - and it can only have been made by somebody who has spent a long time watching reindeer swimming across rivers.

And it's probably no coincidence that it was found by a river, in a rock shelter at Montastruc in central France. This carving is an amazingly realistic representation of the reindeer who, 13,000 years ago, were roaming in great herds across Europe. The continent at this time was far colder than it is today; the landscape consisted of open, tree-less plain, rather like the landscape of Siberia now and, for human hunter-gatherers in this unforgiving terrain, reindeer were one of the best hopes for survival. Their meat, skin, bones and antlers could supply pretty well all the food and the clothing you needed, as well as the raw materials for tools and weapons. As long as you could hunt reindeer, you were going to be alright. So, it's not surprising that our 'homo sapiens' artist knew the animals very well, and that he chose to represent them.

The larger, male reindeer displays an impressive set of antlers, which run along almost the whole length of his back, and we can sex him quite confidently as the artist has carved his genitals under his belly. The female has smaller antlers and four little bumps on her underside that look just like teats. But we can be much more specific than this even, because we're clearly looking at these animals in the autumn, at the time of rutting and migration to winter pastures. Only in the autumn do both male and female have full sets of antlers and coats in such wonderful condition. On the female's chest, the ribs and the sternum have been beautifully carved. This object was clearly made not just with the knowledge of a hunter but also with the insight of a butcher, someone who not only looked at his animals, but cut them up.

By an astonishing stroke of luck, we know that this detailed naturalism was only one of the styles that Ice Age artists had at their disposal. In the case next to the reindeer, the British Museum shows another sculpture found in that same cave at Montastruc. By happy symmetry, where our reindeer are carved on mammoth tusk, the other sculpture shows a mammoth carved on a reindeer antler. But the mammoth, although instantly recognisable, is drawn in a quite different way - simplified and schematised, somewhere between a caricature and an abstraction, and this is no one-off accident; Ice Age artists display a whole range of artistic styles and techniques: abstract, naturalistic, even surreal - as well as using perspective and sophisticated composition. These are modern humans with modern human minds, just like our own. They still live by hunting and gathering, but they're interpreting the world through art. So what's driving this? Here's Professor Steven Mithen:

'I think what probably happens - around 100,000 years ago - is different bits of the brain get connected together in a new way, and they can combine different ways of thinking.

'So they can combine what they know about nature with what they know about making things, and this gives them a new capacity to produce pieces of art. But also I think those Ice Age conditions were critical as well. That was a very challenging time for people living in harsh, long winters - the need to build up really intense social bonds, the need for ritual, the need for religion, I think is all related to this flowering of fantastically creative art at the time. There must have been astonishing places ... you can imagine the mammoths, and the herds of horses and deer. And the birds, the migrating birds, would have had a massive impact on these hunter-gatherers. So I think part of the art is an overwhelming sense of delight and appreciation and celebration of the natural world.'

And an appreciation not just of the animal world - these people know how to make the most of the rocks and minerals. If you look closely, you can see that this little sculpture is the result, in fact, of four separate stone technologies. First, the tip of the tusk was severed with a chopping tool; then the contours of the animals were whittled with a stone knife and scraper. Then the whole thing was polished using a powdered iron oxide mixed with water, probably buffed up with a chamois leather. And finally the markings on the bodies and the details of the eyes were carefully incised with a stone engraving tool. In execution as well as in conception, this is a very complex work of art. And it seems to me that it has all the qualities of precise observation and interpretation that you'd look for in any great artist.

Why would you go to such trouble to make an object with no practical purpose? Here's Archbishop Rowan Williams:

'What I think you see in the art of this period is human beings trying to enter fully into the flow of life around them, so that they become part of the whole process of animal life that's going on around them, in a way which I think isn't just about managing the animal world, or guaranteeing them success in hunting or whatever. I think it's more than that. It's really a desire to get inside and almost to be at home in the world at a deeper level, and I think that that's actually a very deeply religious impulse, to be at home in the world. We tend to identify religion with not being at home in the world sometimes, as if the real stuff were elsewhere in heaven; and yet actually if you look at religious origins, if you look at a lot of the mainstream themes in the great world religions, it's the other way round - it's how to live here and now and how to be part of that flow of life.'

This carving of the two swimming reindeer had no practical function, only form. Was it just 'art'? An image made just for its beauty? Or does it have a different purpose? By representing something, by making a picture or a sculpture of it, you give it a different kind of life, a kind of magical power, and you assert your relation to it in a world you're able not just to experience, but to imagine. Is it going too far to suggest that art like this is the earliest physical evidence for religion? Rowan Williams again:

'At the beginning, of course, you can't really pull apart religion and art can you? Art is sacred because it is taking you to this space where you're not just doing the subject/object arm's-length approach to nature, it takes you to a new place and that's a religious activity. It's only as time goes on that religion becomes much more involved with issues around power, and art becomes much more involved with issues around self-expression, and these days, the two often look at each other from separate mountain peaks, peering in a puzzled kind of way through the mists.

'I don't think that primitive human beings just had a ready-made word in their heads that sounded like 'God', and they immediately knew what it was. They were discovering how to be human in a world that was much more complicated because of their intelligence, and because of the new environmental challenges they were working with, and slowly the world - how should I say it? - almost reshapes itself. With that, and in your identification with the processes of the world, you begin to understand or intuit what in the 'Old Testament' is called 'wisdom', a kind of principle of cohesion or cohesiveness underlying it all, and you identify that eventually with the mind of God.'

It seems that much of the art made around the world at the time of the Ice Age did have a religious dimension, although we can only guess at any ritual use. This art is part of a tradition still very much alive today, and it's also part of an evolving religious consciousness which still shapes many human societies. Objects like this sculpture of swimming reindeer take us into the minds and imaginations of people like us - into a world unseen but understood. And I think it's that ability to see beyond the functional and the physical - to use our imaginations - that ultimately makes us modern. At the time our swimming reindeer were carved in Europe, the people of north-east Asia were about to settle the Americas. That's for the next programme.

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