DR Ben Roberts, Lecturer in European Prehistory at Durham University, explores the very earliest art in a lecture for The Arts Society Wensleydale, at Tennants Garden Rooms, Leyburn on January 14, from 2-3pm.

In 1864, the discovery of the first Paleolithic sculpture of a woman in the Dordogne fuelled the Victorian debate on human origins. The iconic Venus of Willendorf was excavated in 1908 in Austria. Subsequently, several hundred figurines have been found across Europe. The oldest, carved from a mammoth’s tusk, is 35,000 years old.

The famous Lascaux cave paintings were found in 1940 by a teenager looking for his lost dog. There are over 600 wall and ceiling paintings executed 17,000 years ago. The caves were opened to the public in 1948 but closed in 1963 because of the damage done to the art by 120,000 visitors a day. Several replicas exist.

The oldest know cave art by humans, of hand stencils and geometric designs, are 40,000 years old. In 2018, archaeologists reported cave paintings made by Neanderthals in Spain. Using uranium-thorium dating they identified them as 65,000 years old – 20,000 years before humans reached Europe. Other academics have queried this methodology and therefore the age of these finds.

What these images meant to the artists who made them is unknowable. But they were undoubtedly meaningful to our hunter-gatherer ancestors who were far from being primitive cavemen.

Ben, the former Curator of Early Prehistory at the British Museum, has published and lectured widely on Prehistoric Europe. He researched and co-wrote the first 40 programmes on the landmark BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 objects.

Tickets are £10 (refunded if you join TASW). Members of other Art Societies, with membership card, pay £5. Contact 01845 567489 or wensleydale@theartssociety.org for tickets, which are also available immediately prior to the lecture. Full details of the 2019-2020 programme are at theartssociety.org/wensleydale.