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Arts History

A (short) history of all the arts everywhere through all time.

We’re going to start with a galloping overview history of artistic traditions and movements worldwide.


The arts originated in everyday objects, most of which are lost to natural decay (bacteria), erosion, climatic conditions, insects, and fire, among others. We don’t know which of these artistic activities came first. For all practical purposes, they’re as old as humanity. However, as these pictures show, we have artifacts that go back only a fraction of that time. 30 – 60,000 years ago.

The oldest musical instrument, of course, is the human voice. The line between speaking and singing is very blurry. Speech is more common, of course. But by gradually modifying tonality and rhythm, we can slide from speech to song. Some very experienced, mature pop music singers like Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra sing so well that they’re almost speaking. But it’s safe to say that we’ve been singing as long as we’ve been speaking.

The oldest tools go back 2.5 million years. While using those tools for food, clothing, and shelter would have been most important, it makes sense that those tools would have been used for rhythmic beating, if nothing else, to accompany the human voice. The question, what’s the oldest drumstick? is probably the same as the question, what’s the oldest stick?

What aspects of art can we safely assume are as old as humanity even though the tools and artistic products are lost? Why can we assume this? Because art is a process, not a thing.

As old as humanity

song from vocal chords; whistling

stories from events recalled, often imperfectly, and events imagined

dance from rhythmic clowning and acrobatics

drums from hitting on things, especially hollow things, with hands and sticks

pipes from blowing through reeds and hollowed-out bone, gourds, and husks

strings from plucking stretched animal and vegetable fibers

pigments from plants and earth

sculpture, ornaments from clay and other rocks and minerals

theater from religious rituals

your takeaway: There aren’t any new rhythms, melodies or dance movements.



The xun is a 7,000-year-old Chinese windpipe shaped like an egg. Starting with only one hole, it gained more over time.

Didgeroo and Hang
hear them played

(Odd Music Gallery)


What Did Ancient Babylonian Songs Sound Like? Something Like This

Ancient Babylonian Song


The Lyre Ensemble



Bone Flute

This flute was made from bird bone
35,000 years ago
in what is now Germany.

Chinese Bone Flutes

Chinese Bone Flutes

These flutes were made from bone
9,000 years ago in Henan province, China.
hear it played


The oldest known song

The oldest known song,
words above the red line, notes below,
almost 3,500 years old, on a cuneiform tablet
from the Hurrian culture in what is now Syria.

Hear it sung. | Hear it played.

Wikipedia’s History of theatre

The earliest recorded theatrical event dates back to 2000 BC with the passion plays of Ancient Egypt. This story of the god Osiriswas performed annually at festivals throughout the civilization, marking the known beginning of a long relationship between theatre and religion.


Chauvet cave paintings

anthropology: origins and social relationships of human beings

archeology: the branch of anthropology that studies prehistoric people and their cultures mainly by study of their artifacts (the things they left behind that we have recovered)

To simplify, anthropology studies people and archeology studies things, even though both are trying to understand the same thing, how people lived a very long time ago.

Anthropologists can support the development of self-conscious “art” as we know it back to 200,000 years ago. That’s about when most researchers agree that the species Homo sapiens became distinct, though at the time there were other species in the genus Homo.

The Neolithic Revolution

Others feel as though a time frame of 40,000 – 10,000 years ago is a safer bet for when art spread throughout every human group on earth. At about that time one of the two or three most important developments in human history spread across the earth: the Neolithic Revolution. (Neolithic means “new stone” age, and some researchers say that it did not spread, it developed independently half a dozen times.) Most humans stopped moving around hunting meat and gathering fruit, grain, and vegetables. They moved into stable communities.

Chauvet cave

Chauvet cave

Instead of hunting game, they domesticated pigs, cow, and sheep. Instead of gathering food, they farmed a few grains (emmer, einkorn and barley) and fruits. There is a lot of evidence that the general health of people living in these communities was poorer than that of their hunter-gatherer ancestors because of poor diet, lack of exercise, and the opportunity for disease to spread.

The Neolithic Revolution happened first in what is now the Mideast, Iraq and Turkey, about 12,000 years ago. It had spread to (arose in) Asia around 10,000 years ago, Africa and Europe 7,000 years ago, and the Americas 5,000 years ago.

Soon, there was surplus food, which led to leisure. Which led to art. The first such civilization to flower was Sumer by 7,000 years ago in what is now Iraq. Rock carving (petroglyphs) appeared throughout the world during the Lower Paleolithic (the part of the Stone Age that came first). Chronologically in order of the oldest evidence, these arts followed: engravings, sculpture (in stone, ivory, bone and wood), cave painting, relief sculpture, ceramic pottery and architecture. By the end of the Upper Paleolithic (the most recent part of the Stone Age), we have the first evidence of bronze and gold sculpture.

The only other development in human history to rival the Neolithic Revolution in importance is the Enlightenment, when reason began to supplant faith in authority as a basis for decision making and problem solving.

  • “two or three most important” so that you can add your own.
  • “began to supplant” because reason does not rule in every culture yet, especially those that are not WEIRD.