The earliest European art dates from around 40,000 years ago and coincides with the arrival from Africa of humans with a brain similar to our own. In particular they had a well-developed pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain connected with creativity. These communities went on to colonise large areas of the continent and the objects and images they created were the Europeans’ first attempts to describe the world and human experience through aesthetic expression.

But they did not endure. Changes in climate led to the decline of these hunter-gatherer communities. Pushed into pockets of land in France, Spain and central Europe, they did not die out but were isolated by ice and tundra and wind. Britain was uninhabitable. Cold, but also bone-dry. The drop in temperature meant there was no precipitation from the sea. Around 20,000 years ago the climate warmed a little and these people could spread out once more across the land. Archaeologists have an arresting term for this period and the resurgence in art it produced. They call it a renaissance.

From the beginning they painted and sculpted. Modern experiments in recreating some of the sculptures with contemporary tools indicate that it would have taken perhaps 400 hours to produce some of the most intricate pieces. That is 400 hours taken away from the vital labour of producing food or securing shelter. It has been said that it was only with the development of agriculture in the Neolithic period, around 12,000 years ago, that food could be produced in such abundance that a community could support a class of professional artists.

But the tribes of the pre-agricultural period also invested large amounts of precious time and energy into art. This is more than a compulsion to be creative. It represents a vital part of the community’s life. What did they produce? A profusion of animals: deer, bison and birds. Tools: axes, knives and spears, but of such carefully wrought beauty that they must have had aesthetic rather just practical value; and, most striking of all, the human form. There are men, including a boundlessly mysterious male figure with a tiger’s head. But mainly there are women: women in early or late stages of pregnancy, women giving birth. There are the bodies of women in old age.

There are no images of groups of people, no attempt to evoke landscape or surroundings, and there is no human narrative. There are no children, just the tools essential for survival, the animals all around and the gravid female body.

The female sculptures are heavily stylised. There is an emphasis on exaggerated breasts and hips. It is a style that remained consistent, not only over thousands of square miles of territory but over thousands of years, as an astonishingly resilient and meaningful image. The exact meaning, of course, has been lost. A fertility cult? But unchecked fertility could be dangerous for hunter-gatherers.

Resources must be invested in infants that might not survive, and this in a climate where the loss of food could spell disaster for the whole community. It was also dangerous for the mother, whose death or incapacitation in childbirth would rob her extended family of her labour. We have no way of discerning whether these figures were part of a spiritual or mythological narrative. Perhaps the emotional weight of them constituted what meaning they had.

We know nothing of how they thought. Nothing of how they understood the world or the stories they told about themselves. But sometimes a recognisable action can be seen across the aeons. Some of the female sculptures were buried as grave goods and were deliberately smashed prior to being interred. Could this indicate the death of a child or mother? Was it an expression of grief? The significance of regard for the dead cannot be overstated. It means they were aware of their existence in time, of their responsibilities to the generations that had come before and those yet to come. The Neanderthals, who may have been displaced by the arrival of modern humans, did not inter their dead and left no art as far as we know.

In many of the figures the face is not indicated or has only been suggested with a couple of marks for the eyes. The absence of facial expression means that an infinitely malleable source of information – the quickest and most powerful way of transmitting emotional contact and force – is lost. Yet without the face they become grave and mysterious and universal. Sometimes the head is inclined as if the woman is looking down at her swollen belly. So, the severe and hieratic nature of the figures is softened with an emotional gesture.

However, there are few solid generalisations that can be made. There is a full-face portrait of a woman carved from mammoth ivory. Found in what is now the Czech Republic and carved in the round, it shows a young woman with a distinctive conical headdress or hairstyle. She has aristocratic features and the trace of a smile in an elongated and even face. Skeletal remains from the area do not suggest that this was characteristic of the people at the time. One of her eyes appears deformed or injured.

This is a complex series of symbols. The face is stylised but not to the extent that it loses all individuality. This could be a portrait of a person. She is suspended half way between the material and mythological worlds. She was discovered among burial sites where the remains show evidence of disability. There has been speculation that the physically afflicted in antique societies were accorded special treatment at death, with the bodies consigned to graves instead of exposed to the weather.

The objects here come from the birth of artistic endeavour, but they are in no way naïve or puerile. It cannot be argued that sculptures from 30,000 years ago are less sophisticated than those of the present day or those of cinquecento Florence. Art at its beginning was no less intellectually complex than it was at any other time. It makes no progress because it has nowhere primitive to progress from.

On the wall of the exhibition as you walk in is a quote from the art critic John Berger: “Art, it would seem, is born like a foal that can walk straightaway.” But even this puts the case too timidly with its implication of the tottering and unsteady legs and the long lesson in learning to walk. Rather, humankind’s first stab at aesthetic creation needed no schooling or history at all.

Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind is at the British Museum, London, until 26 May 2013.

See a short film of Alice Roberts visiting the exhibition, courtesy of our friends at Nature