The Lions Panel at the Pont d'Arc cave, part of the Chauvet Cave system in southern France (Wikimedia Commons)

John-Paul Stonard is an art historian, author and curator. His book, "Creation. Art Since the Beginning", about the story of art from the palaeolithic to the contemporary era, was published by Bloomsbury in October 2021.

The first works of art began to appear around 50,000 years ago in different locations around the world - and, curiously, at about the same time. These early artists were not contacting one another across the seas. What explains this seeming coincidence?

I begin Creation: Art Since the Beginning with the remarkable recent discovery that the earliest human images of which we know appeared at roughly the same time at opposite sides of the planet – in western Europe and Indonesia. They are chance survivals. We will never know what has not survived from that long early period of human creativity. And yet the coincidence of images appearing east and west does suggest that there was some time trigger in human evolution such that, at a certain point on our long journey out of Africa, it became possible and useful to make large, detailed images of animals. Prehistory is the most dynamic area in the study of human image-making, and curiously the youngest, since atomic dating techniques are only around 60 years old. I suspect that the story will become ever more complex and fascinating.

One thing missing from the first 20,000 years of human image-making is images of humans, or even mountains, rivers and trees. Only animals were drawn. Why so?

As so little has survived from prehistory, we can say very little with certainty, although it is striking that almost all of the images that have survived show other animals. This fact, I think, takes us to the heart of human image-making: we paint, draw and sculpt things close to us, things we depend on, things we need to understand, things we love – and also things we are afraid of, and struggle with. Animals were probably all of these things to early humans. One thing we know is that wherever early humans went they wiped out whole species, surely a way of assuring ascendency on the survival ladder. When I look at these early animal images I see a quest for knowledge, a sense of admiration and love, but also a feeling of mourning, a first confrontation with the inevitability and finality of death.

What might have struck the first visitors to the Chauvet Cave in France or the Leang Tedongnge Cave in Indonesia is the sophistication of the images. One might expect human artistic evolution to more or less mimic a child’s artistic maturation: start simple, and over time, evolve a sense of form and finesse. Did the earliest humans have within them an innate flair, or rather is it the case that the earliest sketches and stick figures are probably lost to us?

The earliest images must have evolved over thousands of years. I suspect that they began not with stick figures, but rather with random marks scratched, or natural marks observed, on rocks. Early humans saw how these lines suggested animals, and added to them, gradually creating forms. The earliest images may well have been carved, rather than drawn – we had been chipping away to create stone tools for hundreds of thousands of years, so that our skill at carving was probably much greater than drawing. This is the important difference with children's drawings, which have their own sophistication: children have yet to develop technique and skill in other parts of life which they can bring into the making of images. The earliest human images were part of the adult life of hunting and survival. Their sophistication shows their importance for life, as well as suggesting the role of instinct in their creation – something innate to being human that led to their appearance. Perhaps prehistoric children drew like children nowadays. Creation ends with a description of a child's drawing (actually one by our five-year-old daughter) – children's drawings form the most continuous tradition of art making, although that doesn't mean that they form the beginning of art itself.

You write: “Evolving a capacity to think in terms of images was inseparable from the long story of migration and the encounter with nature….that had begun long before, in Africa.” Can you explain this a bit more?

Well, I think images are always evidence of some kind of encounter. The challenges of migration, of making sense of new environments, of providing some kind of grounding in a strange and often hostile world can be seen throughout the history of human image-making. We can talk with more certainty about later moments of human migration – the spread of Bantu-speaking people and their tradition of masquerade within Africa, for example, or Protestant migration in the late 16th century to the Netherlands and to Britain, or the migration of African Americans from the south to the north, documented by the American artist Jacob Lawrence in his series “The Migration of the Negro”. The stories are endless, and they can all be read back, it seems to me, to the earliest moment of human life, our long journey over the planet from our homeland in Africa.

Long ago, the compulsion to create art wasn’t a natural human instinct. Now it most certainly is. Has your research into early humans given you a sense of why this instinct has become so powerful within us today?

I don't use the word “art” in the early chapters of Creation, and in fact use it very sparingly throughout the book – no more than 20 times, I think. The compulsion to make images has always been with us. The question nowadays is why those images have become so philosophical, intellectual, imaginary, symbolic – however you want to put it. They certainly have a kinship with the earliest human images, but the comparison has become a cliché (cave paintings and Picasso, etc.). More interesting is the simple fact of the discovery, barely a hundred years ago, of the antiquity of human life, and of the deep time into which human images fall. This discovery was part of the creation of the contemporary world in ways that are still difficult to fathom, but it does show us how deep-rooted image-making is, and how it distinguishes us as an animal.

From cave painting we turned to other forms of art and representation—standing stones, and then dolmen. What changes in human social evolution spurred this?

When we settle down in houses we get into interior decoration, choosing wallpaper, carpets, ornaments. Perhaps we lose some of the creative habits of our teenage years. We stop drawing and painting so much. We put the guitar or clarinet back in its case. We embark on a new stage of life which seems more about building a solid world around us, rather than indulging in the fleeting life of images and music. Perhaps this is what happened to the earliest settlers, who saw that survival and the creation of wealth came from a fixed agricultural life, rather than the roving life of a hunter. The earliest standing stone structures are remarkable constructions yet bear images that seem crude compared to the drawings made by hunters for tens of thousands of years. This divide between the vivid nomadic imagery, and the more decorative, utilitarian forms of settled life continues throughout human history. The division between the art instinct and the architecture instinct stand at the beginning of the story told in Creation.

Fast-forward several millennia, and depictions of the two world wars of the 20th century showed that a willingness to look inwards and interrogate the human body, and the pains inflicted on it, had arrived. Do we see through art the almost lineal development of a capacity for ever deeper self-inquiry?

Images of the body in pain made during the 20th century were by no means new – you can see such images in Buddhist sculpture, in medieval illumination, in Hellenistic sculpture. But I think the philosophical drive in art since the 20th century has perhaps meant that the conclusions we draw from these works are broader and deeper. I think of Mona Hatoum's video installation, Corps étranger, showing an endoscopic probe of the artist's body – an astounding self-portrait. The drive to knowledge has always been behind the creation of images, and knowledge, as the Greeks were the first to make clear in their lifelike sculpture, is always rooted in the human body.

Art historians are rarely asked to look into the future in the way scientists might be. But does your examination of the past 50,000 years of image-making throw up any patterns that could be used to predict how art might evolve over the coming millennia?

Not really. There are no patterns. Gombrich began his famous Story of Art by rightly saying that there is no such thing as art, but a deeper truth is that there is no story, and so no way of knowing what comes next – who would want to? In the introduction to Creation I describe a drawing made by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (of “Great Wave” fame), based on a dream he had of a landscape joined together by hundreds of bridges. I use it as a metaphor for the history I tell in my book. The point is to keep moving and keep discovering connections. I can't say what's coming, but I can say what I think will survive, and that is art made with a feeling of belief, and art that interrogates what it means to be human and to encounter the world around us, and the world within. As James Joyce put it in Ulysses, which I quote in Creation: “The supreme question about the work of art is out of how deep a life it springs.”