To see the "Ice Age Art," now at Manhattan's American Museum of Natural History, is as humbling - and exalting - as looking at the stars.

These extraordinary objects, despite their great antiquity, have a beauty wholly modern. Wordlessly they mock our confidence in progress, our chauvinistic trust in the specialness of now.

The show contains a little horse from Vogelherd in Germany that was carved of mammoth ivory. No one with eyes could call it primitive or inelegant. Yet it antedates the pyramids of Egypt by 25,000 years. What does that tell us about the agreed-on fable called the history of art?

It tells us, among other things, that man - or man the artist - has hardly changed, much less improved, in 30,000 years.

We send rockets to the moon, it's true; we no longer freeze in winter or hunt with stone-tipped spears.

But the act of art, the willingness to work to paint that which must be seen, remains much the same. No advance in technology, at least none of significance, separates Picasso from his nameless ancestor who worked in Ice Age caves.

Both of them used brushes made of wood sticks tipped with hair, both of them used palettes, and pigments that would last, and artificial light. And both of them could draw.

The functions, say, of "Guernica" and the bison of Lascaux were, no doubt, vastly different. Picasso, in his mural, expressed his anger at the Nazis, his compassion for the Basques, and most of all himself. The painters of the caves were not so individual. Their images were painted, engraved and repainted, not once but many times by many different hands. They were artists in a movement that lasted with slight changes, for more than 20,000 years.

We send rockets to the moon, it's true: we no longer freeze in winter or hunt with stone-tipped spears. But the act of art, the willingness to work to paint that which must be seen remains much the same. No advance in technology, at least none of significance, separates Picasso from his nameless ancestor who worked in Ice Age caves.

Both of them used brushes made of wood sticks tipped with hair: both of them used palettes, and pigments that would last, and artificial light. And both of them could draw.

The functions, say, of "Guernica" and the bison of Lascaux were not doubt vastly different. Picasso in his mural showed his anger at the Nazis, his comprehension for the Basques and expressed himself. The painters of the caves were not so individual. Their images were painted engraved and repainted not once but many times by many different hads. They were artists in a movement that lasted with slight changes, for more than 20,000 years.

We do not know their rituals, languages or myths, but we know they had them; we see that in their art. We do not know the functions, informational or social, sacred or symbolic of the animals they painted. We know more about Picasso's. But the paintings of the caves, and those of our time, were made by human beings of the same species. We see them in their art.

They had music and a number of their bone flutes are included in the show. We also know that they adorned themselves with furs and cloaks and beads. The body of a woman, who died 25,000 years ago at Sungir, near Moscow, wore 25 slim bracelets, some of ivory. Sewn onto her clothing were 3,500 beads.

Modern man. Cro-Magnon man appeared suddenly in Europe about 35,000 years ago. He was from the beginning, as that extraordinary horse attests, capable of making awesome works of art.

Neanderthal man, his predecessor, who flourished between 150,000 and 35,000 years ago, alos had "esthetics." and no doubt language, songs and jokes. The Neanderthals kept amulets, they made fine tools of stone, they put red-coloured pigments and flowers in their graves. That little horse, it's clear is not the first work of its kind. Those who made such scrulptures, and the paintings of the caves, were wholly modern men with skeletons just like ours, but the act of art seems older, some archeologists believe that our ancestors were making marks on stone, on purpose, as early as 300,000 years before the birth of Christ.

Of the animals protrayed by the painters of the Ice Age, many - the wooly rhino, the wooly mammoth the huge Irish elk with its 11-foot-wide antlers - have been long extinct. the animals in Ice Age art are not seen in isolation. There is a bone disc that shows a pregnant cow on one side a young calf on the other. Another piece shows seals, plants and migrating salmon. These objects seem to be specifically seasonal. They are images of time.

The objects on display are sophisticated, accurate and anything but static. Reindeer bend their necks to feed, a painted Lascaux stag lifts his head to bay, bison molt, or in summer turn to lick at insert bites.

This art, though vastly old is to our eyes new. Its antiquity was inconceivable until the time of Darwin (whose "The Decent of Man" appeared in 1871). The great cave of Lascaux in Southwestern France, was found less than 40 years ago.

It was thought, until quite recently that the artists of the Ice Age almost never portrayed humans. Notable exceptions were the so-called Venuses the bulbous faceless figurines with their huge buttocks, breasts and hips that have been found in numbers from Siberia to Spain. There is no way of knowing whether these small statuettes (they were made not only for the eye, they fit the human name) are the ancestors of Charlie's Angels. But they were made in numbers in Spain, Poland, France, Siberia and in other far-flung places 30,000 years ago.

Only in the past few years have the students of the caves discovered Ice Age portraits. They show men and women, young and old some clothed and some naked, sometimes sitting, sometimes dancing, sometimes gazing upward with their hands raised in what might be prayer.

The painters of the Ice Age also left us symbols that have not yet been deciphered. In the caves are whole walls covered with handprints, dots or geometrical designs. What seem to be the antecedents of writing of notation, are as old as art.

Nature, so it often seems, conspires to destroy the contrivances of man. Try, for instance to retrieve the finger paintings you made in grade school. Old art made of wood, or straw has long since rotted into dust. Only stones and bones survive.

Many of the objects in this exhibition are not the originals, but cast made from the artifacts in archeological museums. The cave paintings, of course weren't moved. They are represented by copies and by photographs. Yet still this exhibition is mysterious, profoundly moving.

To stand before a wall painting that uncannily resembles, in its imagery and whimsy, the paintings of Miro, and was also made made in Spain - though millennia ago - is to understand that art is not created only by so-called artists. It seems built into the species. Works of moving beauty that inform the eye and conjure the transcendent are as old as man.