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By Karen Nikos-Rose on February 9, 2018

The ability to draw, like many things, is often thought to be genetic.

And if the best you can do is pencil a stick figure, you might be able to blame your ancestors.

A UC Davis study released in early February says that Neanderthals—whose DNA is still found in most humans—never learned to draw. But early humans, or homo sapiens, sketched elaborate hunting scenes on cave walls.  The conclusion was that their eye-hand coordination was better because of the way they hunted.

Here’s an excerpt from the story about the UC Davis study explaining Neanderthals’ lack of artistic abilities. The story is written by my colleague, Kathleen Holder:

Neanderthals had large brains and made complex tools but never demonstrated the ability to draw recognizable images, unlike early modern humans who created vivid renderings of animals and other figures on rocks and cave walls. That artistic gap may be due to differences in the way they hunted…”

Neanderthals used thrusting spears to bring down tamer prey in Eurasia, while Homo sapiens, or modern humans, spent hundreds of thousands of years spear-hunting wary and dangerous game on the open grasslands of Africa.

Spear-hunting and art are related

So, should children be taught advanced spear hunting to improve their drawing skills? Maybe not a spear, specifically, but there is something to this. The author of the study, Richard Coss, a psychology professor emeritus, maintains that spear-throwing, over thousands of years, changed our brains and gave us better hand-eye coordination. So perhaps we all have some latent potential to become better at drawing.

He adds that the visual imagery employed in drawing regulates arm movements in a manner similar to how hunters visualize the arc their spear must make to hit their animal targets. By the way, Coss also taught drawing in his early academic career.

This observation of early humans suggests that other hand-eye coordination skills also might make us artists – playing baseball, or tennis, or even babies stacking blocks. Many professional athletes are artists: Tennis great Serena Williams is a painter. So is NBA player Jeremy Evans.

Javelin thrower
Javelin thrower. Getty Images

Olympiads are artists

And there is at least one “spear thrower” in this group. Roald Bradstock, a two-time Olympic javelin thrower from Britain who competed in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, is a painter. He is currently overseeing an artist Olympiad competition at this winter’s Olympic Games.

Here’s what this Olympiad says about throwing and art.

“There’s an art to throwing,” Bradstock told the New York Times in an interview published Feb. 5.

 “I’ve been asked if I consider myself an artist or an athlete, and I’d consider myself 50-50. I cannot separate the two, and I don’t want to.”

Maybe art is in his genes.

Or perhaps, like sports, artistic skills get better with good coaching and lots of practice.