More than 66,000 years ago, Neanderthals pressed their hands against the wall of a cave in what would later become Spain and splashed pigment on them. Their hand stencils have remained visible in the cave, known as the Cave of Maltravieso, to this day. Why did they do it? What were they trying to say? Were they trying to make a lasting mark for future generations to know they were there? We’ll probably never know.

Whatever the artists intended, their work has made an impression on subsequent generations since it was first discovered in 1951. The Cave of Maltravieso hand stencils are considered the first-known example of artistic expression on the planet. It’s noteworthy that these primitive images are still echoed by children in kindergarten classes, whose first artistic expressions are often tracing their own hands.

One of the oldest known examples of figurative art was found in caves in the Maros-Pangkep karst, located in Indonesia. There, various paintings depict animals and human-like figures interacting. One painting apparently shows an anoa, an animal similar to a water buffalo, being speared or roped by a group of human-like figures. These works reportedly date back to the Paleolithic era and are estimated to be nearly 44,000 years old.

Visual art has clearly come a long way from its simple beginnings as pigment hand stencils. As a subset of the humanities, which have grown over time to include the world’s languages, history, religions, philosophies, and performing arts, visual arts expanded over time, were formalized within education, and developed tremendous value to society and humankind.

Here we’ll examine some of the key eras during which the humanities developed and expanded, many of which were eons apart, and how the humanities came into importance in education and business in modern times. When did the formal study of humanities begin? Though an exact date isn’t known, we do know that one of the primary topics of study stems from ancient Greece.

Ancient Greece

Between the time of the Neanderthals and what we call ancient Greece, art found its way onto practical objects such as vases and bowls. Languages developed. Religions were born. Even then, works that would make an enduring impact in the humanities were being created.

The Odyssey and The Iliad, attributed to Homer, are some of the oldest surviving works of Western literature and are estimated to have been written in the eighth century B.C. They’re still widely read by secondary school and college students today. Homeric scholarship, the study of Homer’s works, is one of the oldest subjects in education. Around the time Homer’s epics were written, various forms of arts, crafts, and writing in Greece were flourishing, coinciding with expanded trade with other countries, which exposed people to more diverse cultural influences.

In the fifth century B.C., democracy thrived in Athens, and the city essentially became the world capital for philosophy, drama, literature, art, and architecture. The Parthenon and some of the other famed Greek monuments date from around this time.

The Renaissance

The Renaissance (meaning “rebirth”) was a revival of Classical scholarship and heralded a renewed interest in the study of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, which in large part was a study of humanities. The Renaissance is said to have started in Italy as early as the 14th century B.C. and expanded throughout Europe in the following centuries. During this period, fine art in particular grew in importance, with many influential paintings and sculptures stemming from this time. Philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), astronomer Galileo Galilei, and dramatist William Shakespeare are among the most notable names of this era.

The exploration of lands outside the known world also began in earnest in the Renaissance, bringing new influences into Western culture. New inventions that would prove critical to education and the humanities, such as the printing press, also emerged during this time.

Key to the rise of what later would formally be called the humanities was the development of humanism during the Renaissance. While philosophy and learning had previously been dominated by clerics, humanism (not to be confused with modern secular humanism) was started by secular (nonreligious) scholars and writers.

Humanism put the focus of art and other forms of expression on human nature and the human form. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, it empowered men to “break free from the mental strictures imposed by religious orthodoxy, to inspire free inquiry and criticism, and to inspire a new confidence in the possibilities of human thought and creations.” Over time, the idea of humanism came to denote the humanities as we understand and use the term today.

The Rise of Humanities Education in the United States

Flash forward to the United States in the 20th century. World War II had a detrimental effect on higher education in the country, with many college-aged individuals leaving or foregoing college for military service. Following the war, the U.S. made a concerted effort to help returning service members resume their studies. Furthermore, Congress completely revamped and expanded the higher education system through the enactment of a series of laws. Following this legislative overhaul, college-level education in humanities soared from the 1950s through the early 1970s, and it’s been enjoying its own type of renaissance in the 21st century as employers express demand for the skills that students of humanities develop.

Our Online Bachelor of Arts in Humanities Program

The University of Texas Permian Basin’s online Bachelor of Arts in Humanities program can help you develop skills that will be valuable to you in any professional field, including:

  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Personal and social responsibility
  • Empirical and quantitative reasoning

Our engaging, affordable online BA in humanities program offers tremendous flexibility. As a student, you’ll follow your own path, choosing two concentrations that align with your personal areas of interest. Options include art, communication, English, history, and music. You’ll also complete your coursework 100% online, at your own pace, at a time and location that works best for you. Courses are eight weeks in duration, enabling you to complete your degree on an accelerated schedule, and you can choose from six start dates a year. All of our courses are taught by the same distinguished faculty members who teach them on the UT Permian Basin campus.

Keep the humanities alive and see how they can positively impact you, both in your personal and professional endeavors. An online Bachelor of Arts in Humanities program is the first step.