Cave Art Simplified
Cave art is drawings and paintings on cave walls created by Paleolithic humans.
Summary of Cave Art
There are many different types of cave art, but the phrase cave art (or Paleolithic Art) refers to the earliest known human art. Too far, this movement has been best known for its prehistoric cave paintings that portray animals as well as humans and creatures that appear to be a hybrid of both. Relief carvings and movable sculptures are also part of the cave art history.
Ancestors’ art is exotic and unfamiliar to us, but it serves as a reminder of our shared humanity. It never fails to amaze and awe with its exquisite attention to detail, abstract gestures, and vast potential for imaginative speculation about its meaning and provenance.
We have the only record of prehistoric life thanks to the art created during the Paleolithic epoch. For this reason, it’s both critical and mysterious, with no written documents to accompany or explain it.
We can only imagine that considering the length of time it took for these drawings and artefacts to be created as well as their apparent significance, especially given the nomadic lives prevalent at the period, archaeologists and historians have been trying to decode cave art for centuries.
On all continents except Antarctica, there is Paleolithic art. However, the most studied and well-known examples are from Europe. For archaeologist Bruno David, the cave art of France and Spain “has gained exceptionally significant fame over the past century, grabbing both public imagination and archaeologists’ interest.”
As a result, Paleolithic art was created using the meagre resources that were accessible. Among these natural colours are ochre and charcoal, which are applied to cave walls using plants or the painters’ hands as brushes. Portable artefacts, such as mammoth tusks, were often fashioned out of animal tusks using pieces of flint or granite, and then blown onto walls through reed-like tubes or the lips.
The cave art traditions of different places varies significantly, suggesting that cave art serves distinct purposes or impacts depending on where it is found. Animals are frequently depicted in European art, for example. African and Australian cultures have a disproportionately high number of depictions of humans.
Learn All About Prehistoric Art Course
Learn all about Prehistoric Art. Prehistoric art is not only about cave paintings and primitive art, it also includes a range of detailed and highly inquisitive sculptures. You will be guided through the Paleolithic era, through to the Mesolithic, and Neolithic eras, as well as learn about the dawn of humans. How we used art through our nomadic years, and the tools and materials that we made use of. You will also be taken back to when we established architecture, and how art has changed through that period of time.
Why is it Called Cave Art?
Paintings and engravings found on cave walls and shelters from the Upper Paleolithic era, between 40,000 and 14,000 years ago. Rock art is another option to consider. Altamira in Spain was the first painted cave to be recognised as Paleolithic, which means that it dates back to prehistoric times.
How Do We Date Cave Art?
For archaeologists, determining the exact year that Paleolithic art was created posed an immediate challenge, and even today it can be difficult for scholars to come to a consensus. Using carbon dating since the 1990s has been the most significant aid to the process. Because some artworks contain organic carbon in the form of charcoal or beeswax, “carbon dating is [today] the most commonly used method of absolute dating in cave art research.”
Carbon dating, on the other hand, isn’t always accurate in this situation. This caution is necessary because charcoal drawings found in a cave could have been made with “old pieces of charcoal” that had lain on the ground for a long time, David explains. Verifying the painting’s date would be difficult because the charcoal’s age would be greater than the painting’s.
Everything About Cave Art
Who Were The First People To Make Cave Art?
At least 40,000 years ago, some of the earliest known examples of art were created by Homo sapiens (modern humans). A species closely related to us, Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis), created the oldest known cave art around 63,000 BCE. Some of the earliest artefacts unearthed date back even further, but their origins are still up for debate.
Fossil sponges that date back 62,000 years are a good example of the second dilemma. Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis were two early human species that existed at the same time (the latter sometimes recorded as a subspecies of the former).
Several of these sponges were found to have holes that ran the entire length of their bodies. Depending on who you ask, some archaeologists think these holes were purposefully made and the sponges were strung together, while others think they just happened naturally or developed over time due to age and deterioration.
Sponge holes, if they were made on purpose, would be the earliest evidence of beads and an early species’ attempt to decorate their bodies. The sponges would then be strung together and worn.
The Tan-Tan figurine from Morocco, which dates from 50,000 to 30,000 years ago, and the 20,000-year-old Berekhat Ram figurine from Israel are two other early objects that have been the subject of similar debate.
They are both linked to Homo erectus or Homo heidelbergensis and appear to have a simplified human figure, but it’s possible that they formed naturally. There is a strong argument that species of human prior to Homo sapiens had advanced minds and aesthetic preferences if these creatures were created.
Most people are familiar with Paleolithic art from paintings found on cave walls and ceilings. Even the discovery of these drawings is fraught with mystery and excitement in many cases as well.
To give an example, in 1878, while strolling through the grounds of their vast estate in Spain, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and his young daughter Maria discovered the famous depictions of bison and other animals found within the Cave of Altamir.
Experts in France questioned the paintings’ authenticity and date of origin at the time of their discovery, perhaps because the cave wasn’t located in their own country. Until two decades later, no one in the archaeological community had ever heard of the paintings.
An unfortunate accident led to the discovery of the Lascaux cave. The opening to the cave on the Count of La Rochefoucauld’s property was discovered by seven young French boys while walking their dogs in 1940, during the German occupation of France during World War II (they were trespassing at the time).
As they made their way into the cave, they found themselves in the Hall of Bulls, a magnificently decorated cavern that is now a popular tourist attraction in the city of Seville. One of the world’s most important prehistoric sites had been discovered by accident by the young men..
Because of the widespread discovery of ancient caves like these, countless previously unseen animals and human figures were uncovered by researchers and explorers. By hand, the Paleolithic artists painted the cave walls with charcoal and other natural pigments such as ochre, often using simple brushes made of leaves or blowing pigment through reed tubes.
These cave paintings are the subject of much debate and mystery. Although we will never know the artists’ intentions, the fact that prehistoric humans stayed in one place long enough to create these incredible likenesses lends them undeniable importance, even if we never know what they were thinking.
Even if nothing else, these images serve as an excellent record of the animals that once roamed the earth during the Paleolithic period, some of which are now extinct. A common belief is that the depiction of wild beasts has led some to believe that these paintings were used to document local fauna.
A tally or count may be implied by dots appearing next to some of the animals, which could indicate that the works were used to record the success of previous hunting trips.
Other theories have been put forth as to why some of these paintings were put up high on cave walls or even ceilings, in remote areas toward the backs of caves.
Because they often appear above or alongside wide-open spaces, some speculate that the drawings were placed in places where groups could have gathered for secret or guarded ceremonies, perhaps in an attempt to will a good hunt.
Archaeologist Jean Clottes says that “the relatively vast chambers would have been able to accommodate relatively large groups” in the Niaux cave in France. The ritual function of the drawings is supported by this evidence.
It’s also important to note that cave paintings from different parts of the world have distinct characteristics. In Europe’s caves, there are only a few images of human forms, including the occasional half-human, half-animal creature.
Cave art in Europe, unlike that in Australia and southern Africa, does not depict landscape, horizon, vegetation, almost no depiction of human-animal interaction, almost no hunting scenes. “Paleolithic artists were singularly interested in the nonhuman mammals with which they shared an environment,” writes author Justin E. H. Smith.
The cave art of Australia and Africa, on the other hand, frequently depicts human figures. This is happening for no apparent reason. It’s not uncommon for people to see non-European cave art as having a clear religious function, even suggesting that the images could be records of sacred or religious ceremonies.
Paleolithic art includes more than just cave paintings; it also includes a wide range of sculptures and other forms of portable art (small objects that could be carried from place to place).
Works of art from this time period include sculptures depicting the human body, most notably the numerous “Venus” statues depicting women with protruding pubic regions; animals such as the lion carved from mammoth ivory found in the Vogelherd Cave (Germany) (40,000 years old); and composite creatures such as the “lion-man” of the Hohlenstein Stadel (“lion-man”) (40,000 years old).
Due to the fact that the earliest humans did not live in established settlements, their three-dimensional artwork had to be portable enough to travel with them.
Early humans had only the most basic tools at their disposal, such as flakes of flint used to carve hard materials like ivory. The painstaking care taken to make these pieces supports the belief that they must have been of great importance to prehistoric peoples.
There are numerous hypotheses as to why the Paleolithic peoples created portable art. based on what K. Kris Hirst says, “Archaeologists and art historians made explicit connections between portable art and shamanism in the mid-twentieth-century. Portable art, particularly figural sculpture, was frequently linked to folklore and religious practises by scholars who compared the use of portable art by modern and historical groups.” “A spiritual element may well have been involved with portable art objects,” Hirst notes, but “wider possibilities have since been put forward by archaeologists and art historians.” Personal, ethnic, social, and cultural identity can all be expressed through the use of “portable art,” whether it’s for adults or children.
Religious Expressions Within Cave Art
The creation of painted and sculpted composite creatures is one of the most fascinating aspects of Paleolithic art. Therianthropes, or hybrids of human and animal features, are sometimes referred to as such.
There have been a few examples of these animal-human hybrids in ancient sculpture and cave art, but enough has been found to support the idea that they were important to people in this time period.
There are numerous examples of composite creatures in Paleolithic art, such as the “lion-man” of the Hohlenstein-Stadel (40,000 years old), the “bird man” panel of the Lascaux cave (16,000-14,000 BCE), and the figures found in San (Bushman) rock art in South Africa, such as an antelope-headed male figure holding the tail of an enormous beast.
Many early humans had highly developed mental frames of mind and creative faculties, as evidenced by their depictions of imaginary creatures. An urge that unites artists of all time periods is a desire to not only capture the world around them, but also to create new worlds and share them with others.
The most baffling aspect of these hybrid creatures is their social structure. According to some, these figures may have had some religious significance and may have been depicted in ceremonies or rituals.
The Bradshaw Foundation’s website claims that “Others believe that therianthropes are depictions of humans dressed in animal skins and masks. Since these composite creatures have been found in caves all over [the world] and aren’t restricted to a single geographic location, it’s possible that this is also true metaphorically.
This would represent the ancient belief that boundaries between the human and animal worlds are permeable. People were able to move from one domain to another because of this belief. It’s possible that some animals’ traits and characteristics can be inherited by humans.”
Cave Art Within The Modern & Future World
In the future, more Paleolithic art discoveries may still be made. The breadth of the discoveries can be seen in a cave discovered on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi at the end of 2019 An interesting discovery was made inside the cave, according to Katherine J. Wu “painting with a red tint that depicts what appears to be a vibrant hunt or ritual.
Two wild pigs and four anoas, or dwarf buffaloes, scurry around as their apparent pursuers-mythical, humanoid figures sporting animal features like snouts, beaks, and tails-give chase, armed with rope- and spear-like weapons.” For those who believe it is 44,000 years old, it could be one of the oldest cave paintings ever discovered, but there is already disagreement among scholars about its age.
Ancient artefacts have been excavated for centuries, which has led to a shift in theories about their origins and functions. It’s worth noting, as noted by Justin H. Smith, that “The first French scholars of cave art were mostly abbots and priests, and they saw their work as contributing to the vast project of Catholic apologetics… They were specifically looking for signs that early inhabitants of the continent that would become Europe were aware of the existence of a higher realm beyond their senses, and thus had the mental and spiritual capacity to accept Christianity as true.
A proper science would emerge out of it over time in the twentieth century.” Paleolithic art can be used for a variety of purposes, from teaching and storytelling to religious significance, mapping, and even hunting tallies.
However, cave art has played a significant role in the advancement of theories about human mental evolution in the early stages of human history. Bruno David points out that “An important part of scientific debates about the evolution of cognitive modernism is based on evidence from both buried portable objects like jewellery and designs on rock walls, as well as evidence from caves. ‘Proxies’ for aesthetically loaded forms of representational behaviour, for the ability to simulate and think in abstract ways that also tap into senses of appeal, are a major factor in this.”
Paleolithic art has also allowed for the testing and use of increasingly complex technology. Scientific advancements soon allowed for more accurate reproduction of early sketches and tracings. in David’s opinion, “To accurately document a site and its art, one of the most challenging but rewarding methods is creating a high-precision three-dimensional digital model.
As part of the French government’s effort to provide a better understanding of the cave’s interior for the general public, the Chauvet Cave underwent a three-dimensional recording and a life-sized model construction using this data.”
When Modernism began to take hold in the early twentieth century, many artists became fascinated with the idea of untrained creative purity, which led to a new wave of interest in cave art.
Pablo Picasso is said to have visited the Altamira cave before fleeing Spain in 1934, and emerged saying, “Beyond Altamira, all is decadence.” Since then, artists like Picasso’s fellow Cubist Amédée Ozenfant and the French Tachiste painter Pierre Soulages have spoken of their admiration for ancient painting and sculpture and its influence on their work. Jenny Saville, a British figurative painter, has spoken about the influence of the Venus of Willendorf on her visceral depictions of female flesh.
Many modern and contemporary art movements, such as Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, and Art Brut, share elements of cave art in terms of their formal and thematic qualities. Altamira-inspired shapes and lines can be seen in many of Picasso’s bull paintings, while Jackson Pollock’s hand prints can be seen on at least two of his paintings.
While Jean Dubuffet aimed to create works that were inspired by the earliest forms of art, he also aimed to imitate the most instinctive and untrained forms of creativity.
Giuseppe Penone, one of Italy’s most well-known land artists, uses a primitive style of gesture and scale that is reminiscent of cave art. If you want to mimic the texture and atmosphere of the painted cave wall, you can use tanned leather moulded in the shape of tree bark to cover walls.
The act of spray painting graffiti on a wall can be traced back to the earliest human hand stencils, with some even claiming that graffiti has its origins in ancient cave art.
Key Art in Cave Art
Venus of Willendorf
The Venus of Willendorf is a sculpture of a woman with exaggerated female features, including breasts, hips, and the genital area, and is perhaps the most well-known work of three-dimensional art from the Paleolithic period. Just over four inches tall and lacking any distinctive characteristics, the statue suggests an archetypal persona, maybe aiming to sum up certain ideas of femininity or fertility instead of a specific individual human being.
One of a number of carved female figurines unearthed in caves across Europe, this piece was discovered in Austria in 1908. Because of their modest size, the works were easily transportable, which added fuel to the fire of controversy surrounding their original intent. In the words of archaeologist Bruno David, “provoked many various interpretations, ranging from “mother deities” to kid dolls. As fertility symbols in a harsh Ice Age environment, some commentators believe that they were used by men and women alike, while others believe that they were used to monitor the fetus’s growth during childbirth, or they were used as a standard way of stylized depiction for information exchange between communities.”
When it comes to titling artworks after the fact, “Venus” statues are an interesting example. They have “become a wonderful technique to expose our own Western biases,” says David. By titling these works after the Greek goddess of love, Venus, we indicate that the people depicted have some sort of sexual connotation that isn’t supported by the evidence. Joshua Learn, the author, claims that: “Some academics believe they portray everything from women’s self-portraits to early forms of pagan sexuality. The problem is that many of these interpretations have now been invalidated because of the inherent sexism they entail.” The “Venus” label may have boosted the popularity of these interpretations.
Venus of Laussel
A bas-relief carving known as the Venus of Laussel depicts a woman with large breasts and hips. On the thirteen lines carved into the horn of a bison, her left hand rests on her stomach, while her right hand holds the horn in her other hand. She appears to be turning her head to the right, as if to look at the horn, even though her face is completely obscured.
The most famous of the five carvings discovered in the Laussel Cave in the Dordogne Valley of France in 1911, this work has been the subject of extensive debate over its significance. In the same way that the Venus of Willendorf debate sheds light on the eras in which various theories were advanced, so too do discussions of an object’s provenance and significance do so. Critics have expressed their disapproval of contemporary assumptions that “Venus” works have some sexual connotation.
As a result, the most common interpretation of this work is that this female form represents an archetype of feminine fertility because of its exaggerated breast and pubic areas. According to author K. Kris Hirst, some academics have gone so far as to argue that what she is holding is illegitimate “A crescent moon is depicted on its surface; the 13 stripes that run along its circumference are a nod to the 12-month lunar cycle. As a result of this and the fact that Venus is depicted with her hand resting on a large belly, many believe she is depicted as pregnant. Menstrual cycles in an adult woman’s life are sometimes equated with the number of tally marks on the crescent.”
The Altamira cave contains numerous images of animals, including this bison. By portraying the beast from the side, the artist has been able to capture the animal’s distinctive traits, such as horns, hooves, and tufts of hair, in amazing detail. When it comes to Pablo Picasso’s depiction of bulls and other enormous animals, he is believed to have been inspired by depictions of Altamira’s bison.
Among the animals shown in the Altamira complex, bison are the most common, and this is one of the best examples. The bright orange of the animal’s side is still vibrant thousands of years later in the Altamira cave art, a defining element of the art. The bright red ochre colour used to outline and fill in the bison’s flank is to blame.
The bison doesn’t appear to be a part of any landscape, but rather floats freely among the other animals. This is an interesting observation. There are questions as to why it was put there in the first place. In spite of the fact that we may never know the answers to these questions, alternative explanations include that the animal served as a teaching tool or that it was utilised during religious ceremonies in the cave, during which people would gaze up with amazement at the illuminated ceiling.
Hall of Bulls
The picture known as “The Hall of Bulls” depicts a wide variety of archaic creatures, such as bulls, horses, aurochs, and deer, all in one location. The creatures are depicted in varying degrees of detail and scale, which indicates that the artwork was done by numerous persons, maybe over an extended period of time, in the Lascaux cave.
There are numerous paintings in the Lascaux cave, one of the most remarkable of the Paleolithic period. As the Hall of Bulls exhibits, it lends credence to the theory that ancient caverns were employed as ceremonial centres for religious rites and rituals. In Jean Clottes’ opinion, the Hall of Bulls is a prehistoric monument “allowed for the gathering of quite large numbers of people. Intricately drawn or painted images of substantial size are common. The fact that they can be seen from a distance shows that they took part in group rites, which may have occurred frequently or infrequently. An important societal function may have been served by these precisely constructed representations, which may have served to spread beliefs and worldviews, as well as enlist the help of supernatural forces.”
All of the animals in this artwork appear to be moving, with some even charging at each other. There are a number of possibilities as to how the panel came to be, including a depiction of a specific event or a teaching tool to highlight all the accessible animals in the area.
Red, black, and white colours are stencilled onto the cliff face of the aptly titled Cave of the Hands, a collection of handprints. In the words of Nick Dall, “More than 80% of the 829 handprints are male; only 31 are right-handed. The prints are all negatives or stencils generated by blowing paint through a bone tube into a hand held against the rock wall.” It’s amazing how the colour of a hand appears as the backdrop colour in one portion and as the foreground colour in another, making the artwork incredibly dynamic.
This ancient rock art begs the question: Why did our ancestors choose to leave such a permanent mark on the landscape? Dall proposes two explanations for this. “Some believe that the hands were painted by adolescent boys as part of some sort of ritual to mark their transition into manhood. Because many of the handprints are not large enough to have been formed by fully grown humans, this lends credence to this theory. According to legend, the murals were created as part of a religious ritual that took place before to a hunt.”
These handprints are among the most remarkable of all ancient artworks, whatever the reason for their existence. Other Paleolithic symbols and figures reflect a life of hunting and nomadism that feels far away from us, but our bodies have a lot in common with our early ancestors. For example, the shape of our hands. Because of our present fascination with abstract forms and motions, there is no feature of this image that could not have been made recently. Cueva de las Manos’ ancient walls appear to vanish into the present as we stand there and take it all in.
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