The Legacy of Cave Paintings

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The Legacy of Cave Paintings


What did early humans do with their time? Evidence discovered since the mid-nineteenth century in Western Europe suggests that they did a lot of drawing on the walls of caves. France and Spain have been the centers of an extraordinary number of cave painting discoveries. What is notable and significant about these cave paintings are the archaic depictions of animal life in pre-historic times, which our pre-human ancestors apparently encountered. While the first discoveries were made in the nineteenth century, the most spectacular discoveries were made in the last half of the twentieth century. The discovery of these cave paintings suggests to modern researchers a sophistication and artistic sensibility of prehistoric humanity, which was once unthinkable among anthropologists. This pre-historic art suggests that our ancestors were not only aware of their environment, but were probably very articulate.


Marcellino de Sautuola, at Altamira, Spain, discovered the first significant cave paintings in 1875. The findings were so extraordinary and contrary to popular thought about early and pre-humans that most experts refused to believe they were Paleolithic. Later, around 1900, similar discoveries at Les Eyzies, France, were finally accepted and recognized as one of the most surprising and exciting archaeological discoveries of all time. A gradual succession of similar finds has continued throughout the twentieth century. Arguably the most famous of these was discovered in 1940 at Lascaux, France.

The Lascaux cave was discovered by four teenage boys in September 1940, and was first studied by the French archaeologist Henri-Edouard-Prosper Breuil. Some of the most compelling and informative cave paintings have been documented at this site. The layout and dimensions are notable in and of themselves. Consisting of a main cavern measuring approximately 66 feet (20 m) wide and 16 feet (4.9 m) high, there are many very steep galleries. All of the walls are amazingly decorated with engraved, drawn, and painted figures. Archaeologists have found some 600 painted and drawn animals and symbols, along with nearly 1,500 engravings.

The paintings appear to have been done on a light background in various shades of yellow, red, brown, and black. Among the most remarkable pictures are four huge (over 16 feet [4.9 m] long) aurochs (a now extinct species of wild ox). The paintings also depict a mysterious twohorned animal (misleadingly nicknamed the "unicorn"), which some researchers suspect was intended to depict a mythical creature. Several other species are scattered about the walls, including red deer, great herds of horses and bison, the heads and necks of several stags, which appear to be swimming across a river, a series of six big cats (possibly lions or panthers), and a rare narrative-like illustration. Dots, geometric motifs of unknown significance, accompany many of these animal figures.

The cave paintings are thought to date from about 20,000-15,000 b.c. Their vivid pigments have most likely been preserved by a natural process caused by rainwater seeping through the limestone rocks to produce a preservative-acting saturated bicarbonate. The colors appear to have been originally rubbed across the rock walls and ceilings with hard, sharpened lumps of dirt (probably yellow, red, and brown ochre). Outlines were drawn with black sticks of wood charcoal. The discovery of mixing dishes suggests that liquid pigment mixed with fat was also used and smeared on the walls by hand.

When the cave was discovered in 1940, the paintings were very well preserved. The stable levels of moisture and temperature within the cave provide an ideal environment for the preservation of pigments over thousands of years. After the cave was opened to the public in 1948, as many as 100,000 visitors a year came to view the famous paintings. The presence of so many people soon disturbed the delicate environment of the cave, and the paintings began to deteriorate. The colors faded and a green fungus grew over the pigments. The cave was closed to the public in 1963. A replica of the cave, known as Lascaux II, was constructed using the same pigments and methods believed to have been used by the original artists. Lascaux II opened in 1983 and now receives about 300,000 visitors a year.

In addition to the caves in Spain and France, there are signs that people were painting and creating art objects in other parts of the world at least 18,000 years ago. Some caves have been discovered in Australia and South Africa, and there seems to be a similar pattern to the designs and motifs used. There are many questions which researchers have been trying to answer with regards to this ancient art. One fundamental question is "why did human beings suddenly start to paint on cave walls?" Unfortunately, there is little intelligent speculation about this.


Since the discovery of these first caves in Spain and then subsequently in France, there has been a virtual flood of discoveries. It would appear that vast regions of these countries are rife with incredible caves, which were elaborately and enigmatically decorated by our distant ancestors. Lascaux was not to be a solitary phenomenon.

Others discoveries include the Chauvet cave and over 150 archaeological sites, including in the Eyzies-de-Tayac caves located in the Vézère Valley. These sites were collectively designated an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. As late as 1994, the Vallon-Pont-d'Arc cave in the Ardèche region of France was discovered to incorporate several very large galleries depicting a diverse menagerie, including rhinoceroses, felines, bears, owls, and mammoths.

As discoveries are made almost annually, one of the greatest contributions these prehistoric cave paintings have made to science has been the clear renderings of the wildlife that inhabited the plains of Europe. As a few of the more notable examples, the paintings of the horses found on the cave walls do not resemble any horse still remaining in the West. In fact, they more resemble a species of horse that is considered endangered and that is now only found in the high plains of Mongolia and Western China, the Przewalski's (per-zhe-vall-skeez) horse.

Impressively, the large, hairy, elephant-like animals known as the mammoth that lived during the last Ice Age, some 20,000-30,000 years ago and are now extinct, are rendered on the cave walls. This lends clear evidence that prehistoric man was very familiar with the mammoth.

Scientists have also discovered paintings of hyenas, rhinoceroses, lions, and panthers, which are now all extinct in the wild throughout Europe and only live in European zoos. One of the most startling discoveries was an entire hallway in the Lascaux Caves filled with paintings of bison. This clearly indicted that bison were once extremely common in Europe—this great species is now also extinct on the continent.

Archaeologists have theorized that the cave served over a long period of time as a center for the performance of hunting and magical rites—a theory supported by the depiction of a number of arrows and traps on or near the animals. In fact, several theories have developed over the years in an attempt to explain what these paintings might have meant to Paleolithic peoples. There are researchers that have suggested that the ancient artists created the art simply for art's sake. This supposes that they had the same attitudes about art as we do today. Did the artists decorate the caves simply to entertain themselves or an audience? Possibly, but the evidence researchers have discovered about living hunter-gatherer societies suggests that there were much more profound motives.

Other scientists have embraced theories of "sympathetic hunting magic." These theories suggest that, since most of the images are of animals, then the art was probably connected with the fertility of animals and successful hunting. The art is most certainly connected with the animal world, but the relationship between the animals and humans seems far more complex than merely one of hunting magic.

The latest theories attempting to hypothesize on the meaning of these paintings are based on a comparative study. Referred to as "symbolism theories," scientists are examining the symbolism of modern hunter-gatherers and their art and relating that to the art left by Paleolithic humans. When researchers began studying San art (the San were an African group who until the 1970s comprised one of the last hunter-gatherer societies in the world), it was generally interpreted as representing simple, schematic images of everyday San life. Recently, however, researchers have begun to understand that the images were not realistic, but instead were shamanistic art, which has a different kind of reality, the reality of another world.

In light of this evidence, however, it is still unlikely that we will ever know the true meaning of the images in the caves. Whatever the motivation of our ancestors, researchers will continue to investigate these marvelous relics.


Further Reading


Chauvet, Jean-Marie, Christian Hillaire, and Eliette Brunel Deschamps. Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave:The Oldest Known Paintings in the World. Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1996.

Clottes, Jean. The Cave beneath the Sea: Paleolithic Images at Cosquer. Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1996.

Clottes, Jean, David Lewis-Williams, and Sophie Hawkes (Translator). The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves. Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1998.

Conkey, Margaret W. Beyond Art: Pleistocene Image andSymbol. California Academy of Sciences, 1996.

Hinshaw, Dorothy. Mystery of the Lascaux Cave. Benchmark Books, 1998.

Lauber, Patricia. Painter of the Caves. National Geographic Society, 1998.

Perez-Seoane, Matilde M., Antonio B. Martinez, and Pedro A. Saura Ramos. The Cave of Altamira. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999.

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The Legacy of Cave Paintings

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