The Earliest Art Yet Found




The oldest cave paintings found to date.

I imagine in dust-blasted hills, the interior

Calmly dank with waiting history:

In the non-burial place of a troglodyte

Who, with a mouthful of redder dust, blew

An ochre mist onto her outspread hand

Which, pressed to the cave wall, left in situ

A lack-of-hand, as the first ever finger print.


Imagine the paint in the mouth before the blow,

The clayey contemplation, the brown-red chew.

I can only compare with my first art class,

Drinking paint-water from the mug-for-the-brush.


What they left was a five-fingered dove, in a blush

Of human-kissed red, a message of mist.

It was a smiley face on a car window,

It was potato-prints before the potato;

And a child today uses finger paints, not dust.


So, the very first art was a lack of a hand,

A pale ghost on a redder reach for us.


For Seb


I’ve already bored many of my friends to death with this thought: but it is terribly haunting how some of the earliest art we have can be found in the Cueva de las Manos, in Argentina, made between 13,000 and 9,000 years ago. It’s the inverse of a child’s finger-painting: a hand is placed over the cave wall, and paint is blown on top, leaving a ghostly pale hand. Simple, but uncanny. It’s almost like these are hands from our past, the long-dead and forgotten reaching out to us. 

I chose this poem to be the response to Gary Holdaway’s rather thrilling The Assassin, which you should take a look at here: – although centred on “Death,” as part of our Theme Exchange I found an alternative meaning in it. Without spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it yet – ever a danger in this game of ours – I found that one of the key characters fixated less upon death, and more upon “Legacy.” 

Mortality is very much a part of the human condition. We can obsess over it, fear it, strive to avoid it: but the wisest decision is to accept it and make something of it. We can’t say what the intentions of the cave artists were, all of those thousands of years ago. But curiously, they have left an eerie legacy, a strange “reaching out,” an immortalisation: an imprint which, though anonymous and mysterious, is still disquietingly human. 


2 thoughts on “The Earliest Art Yet Found

  1. Pingback: The Hands Of Children | Gary Holdaway
  2. Beautiful and thoughtful language and use of line breaks! I especially like “It was a potato-prints before the potato” and “who, with a mouthful of redder dust, blew”. Nice work!

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