10 Oldest Pieces of Art of Their Kind

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Art is one of humankinds’ defining features, and creating art uses a whole host of skills that are unique to our species: recognizing patterns, hand-eye-coordination, opposable thumbs, and planning, to name a few. Art, including paintings, stories, and music, were used by prehistorical people, meaning the time before the invention of writing, and every culture since has developed their own versions of art. In fact, art is a major pillar of what makes a culture unique.

10. First Fully Animated Film (1908)

The roots of animation can be traced all the way back to the 1650s with magic lanterns. In the 1800s, it was advanced even more with optical illusion devices like the thaumatrope, zoetropes, and flip books. Then when film was invented, stop motion was used in some films, and a few films had a few seconds of animation among real footage. The first fully animated film wasn’t created until 1908 by French caricaturist, Emile Cohl, and it is called Fantasmagorie. The film was drawn with black lines on white paper, then the film’s negatives were reversed to make it look like white lines on a black background. In total, Cohl used 700 pictures and it took him a few weeks to complete the cartoon. The film is about 80 seconds long and has no real storyline. It starts with a hand drawing the main character and then the character goes through a bunch of dreamlike adventures that constantly morph into other bizarre scenes.

Besides being the first cartoon, the film is influential because it showed how creative filmmakers can be when making a movie. The only thing that truly limits someone in the film medium is the boundaries of their own creativity and imagination.

9. First Narrative Movie (1903)

The technology that would become motion pictures started to be developed in the 1880s and the first films were essentially documentaries. For example, one of the earliest films was the arrival of a train at a station and there was an 18 second movie of people kissing, just to name two of the most famous early films. Also, due to the limits of technology, early movies were generally under a minute and were usually just one scene with no editing.

The movie that changed all that by being the first fiction film with a story was The Great Train Robbery, which was produced by Thomas Edison and directed by his employee, Edwin S. Porter. The 12 minute long film tells the story of four bandits who rob a passenger train, and then, (spoiler alert) are killed by an ensuing posse.

The Great Train Robbery revolutionized the film industry in a few different ways. It was the first time multiple settings were used and it also introduced an editing technique called crosscutting, which is when a film is edited to show two things happening at the same time in different areas. Of course, it was also the first action and western movie. The film was immensely popular with audiences and helped launched the medium of film that we know and love today.

8. First Comic Book (1827)

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To state the obvious, comic book properties have never been more popular than they are right now. Every few months a superhero movie comes along and shatters some type of box office record. Well, the first comic book wasn’t a superhero at all (that would be Action Comics #1 featuring Superman), it was The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck by Swiss artist Rudolphe Töpffer. Töpffer, who is also credited with making the first comic strip in 1827, wrote the comic in 1837. It is 40 pages long with six to 12 panels per page. There were no speech bubbles; instead, the text was written below the picture.

The comic has an unusual story: it follows the titular character, Obadiah Oldbuck, who is in love with a robust woman who loses too much weight. In a series of misadventures, Oldbuck tries to plump up his potential mate. Critics at the time, and even Töpffer himself, did not believe the work to be innovative. They just thought it was reading material suited for children and people who were of the “lower classes.”

7. First Photograph (1826)

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With the advent of digital cameras, photographs have become a mundane part of life. In 2013, Facebook revealed that 250 billion pictures had been uploaded to their network and 350 million new pictures were posted every day. That doesn’t even include how many pictures are uploaded to other social media sites. And all of these pictures can be traced back to Frenchman Nicéphore Niépce and his invention, the camera obscura.

The problem with the camera obscura was that the picture needed eight hours of exposure and usually the picture faded with time. One that didn’t fade is View from the Window at Le Gras, which was taken by Niépce in 1826. It was taken on the second floor of the house and it shows the courtyard and outbuildings of his estate.

6. Theatrical Play (472 BC)

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It’s believed that plays were developed by the ancient Greeks, and at first, they only featured one character, called the protagonist. The actor, who was always a male, would stand in front of a group of people, called a chorus, and the chorus would ask the protagonist questions to move the story along. The person credited with adding a second character is the famed Greek playwright, Aeschylus. He is also the author of the oldest surviving complete play, The Persians, which was performed in 472 BC. The play, which is a tragedy, has four characters and tells the story of Atossa, who is the mother of Xerxes, as she awaits her son’s return from trying to invade Greece. Of course, if you’ve seen 300 or know anything about Greek and Persian history, you know exactly how well that goes for Persia. The theme of the play is that even the mightiest nations can be ruined through aggression.

So next time you’re dragged to some horrible play to see your friend who is experimenting with acting, just blame the ancient Greeks (or the Persians for losing the war).

5. Oldest Book (600 BC)

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The oldest multi-page book looks like something Kanye West would have in his library, or he would at least brag that he had. The book is six bound pages that are made of 24-carat gold, held together by rings. The book was found over 70 years ago in a cavern near the Strouma River in southwestern Bulgaria. The book contains illustrations and symbols of things like a horse-rider, soldiers, a lyre, and a mermaid.

The book was dated to 600 BC, and created by the Etruscans, who are considered one of Europe’s most mysterious ancient peoples. It is believed that they migrated from Lydia (modern Turkey) and settled in Northern and central Italy around 3,000 years ago. Sadly, many of their records were destroyed when they were wiped out by the Romans who conquered them in the fourth century BC. There are 30 similar golden plates around the world, but none of them are bound together like the Etruscan’s golden book.

So when people say that e-readers will kill off physical books, just remind them that books have been around for over 2,600 years, and what are the odds that a device that will stop working when you drop it in the toilet will kill them off?

4. Oldest Surviving Poem (2100 BC)

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While poems are now often associated with love and romance, they were first used to tell stories. The oldest surviving poem, also making it the oldest piece of literature, is The Epic of Gilgamesh by the ancient Sumerians. The poem, which is written on 12 stone tablets that are incomplete, is about a former king of Sumer who ruled the city of Uruk in Mesopotamia. While it is believed that Gilgamesh was a real person, the story depicted on the tablets about him is fictional.

In the poem, Gilgamesh is a demigod, a great builder, warrior, and incredibly knowledgeable. In the story, he fights a wild man named Enkidu who lived among animals and was created by a god. After battling each other, Gilgamesh wins, but the two become friends (or a servant depending on the translation) and from there, they quickly find themselves on some wacky adventures such as killing a magical bull and surviving a great flood.

In 2011, the Sulaymaniyah Museum in Slemani, in the Kurdistan bought 60-70 tablets from a smuggler and amongst the tablets, which added 20 more lines to the poem.

3. Oldest Surviving Song (3400 BC)

Where would society be without music? Well, the Super Bowl would focus a lot more on football and bars would be a lot quieter. But really, music is simply a part of everyday life for a lot of people. It has this amazing ability to stir a wide range of emotions in us and it connects with us on a innately human level.

It’s believed that humans invented music as a form of “social glue.” It was a way to bring people together as a community, which was incredibly important in early hunter and gatherer groups. Feeling connected to your fellow tribesmen was important because they needed to work as a team in order to survive.

Before the invention of writing systems, most songs were passed down orally, so much of the earliest music is lost. The oldest fragment of a song was found in the early 1950s in Ugarit, Syria. It was etched onto a clay tablet and was written by the Hurrians. The oldest evidence of the Hurrians is from 3000 BC and by the end of the second millennium they had lost their ethnic identity.

After surviving 5,000 years, we hope the song was meaningful to the Hurrians and it wasn’t the “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” of its day.

2. Oldest Surviving Sculpture (33,000-38,000 BC)

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In 2008, in what is known today as southwest Germany, archeologists found the world’s oldest sculpture and it is 35,000 to 40,000 years old. The statue, named by Venus of Hohle Fels by its finder, is about the size of a pinky finger and carved from the ivory of a mammoth’s tusk.

The figurine is clearly an exaggerated woman’s body; it doesn’t have arms, legs, or a head, just very large breasts, buttocks, and genitals. While it may look pornographic to some, or at least like an early attempt at sculpting Kim Kardashian, it’s unclear what the purpose of the sculpture was. Some argue it is a representation of sex and reproduction, while others believe it is a representation of health and longevity. But, until we invent a time machine and learn to speak their language, we’ll probably never know what the meaning of the sculpture is or what it was used for.

1. Oldest Surviving Paintings (37,000 – 39,000 BC)

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It’s believed that humans first appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago. About 50,000 years ago, people had migrated all the way to what is known today as Australia (or, if you prefer, “that place with real knives). Along the way, people stayed on the Sulawesi Island, which is in Indonesia and we know this because some of the oldest cave drawings are found here. To date the paintings, a uranium decay technique was used to test how old the substance that encrusts the wall paintings was. That substance is a mineral called calcite, which is created by water flowing through the limestone in the cave. This would show an approximate age of the paintings because the calcite would be older than the paintings it covered. The results are that the researchers believe that some of the paintings are probably at least 39,000 years old.

The oldest paintings are hand stencils and they were created by the artist when they placed their hand against the roof or the wall of the cave and they either blew or sprayed the dye over it, leaving an outline of the hand. Hand stencils are one of the most common types of cave art and they are found all over the world.

Another painting found in the cave, dated to 35,400 years ago, features an animal called a pig-deer, also known as a babirusa. It is possible that this is the oldest known figurative drawing in the world.

Robert Grimminck is a Canadian freelance writer. You can friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, follow him on Pinterest or visit his website.


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