Why did prehistoric people make cave art?
Humans have been painting caves for tens of thousands of years. It all started back in the European Upper Palaeolithic, around 35,000 years ago (and continued throughout that period). But what motivated them to start drawing in the first place?
A lot of effort has been spent trying to figure that out. Sadly we haven’t found a definitive answer, but there are many good hypotheses. Here are the top three.
1. They just felt like it
One of the earliest explanations for cave art is “arts for art’s sake”. This was first proposed back when these images were originally discovered in the 19th century. As the name implies, the idea is that our ancestors just did it because they were bored. Because they found the pictures pretty. Because they wanted to. There was no real goal behind it, it was the prehistoric equivalent of a doodle (Bahn, 2008).
Since the 19th century this idea has fallen out of favour, given the incredible amount of effort people invested in the art. They created scaffolding to reach high areas, ventured into deep, dark and dangerous areas (which involved the invention of the oil lamp) and much more. Clearly, many argued, they were investing too much in this artwork just for it to be a doodle (White, 2003).
2. People got high and started drawing
So what do archaeologists do when they don’t know quite what something is? Claim it’s part of a ritual! Which they did, suggesting that ceremonies were conducted in these caves and that the artwork was the result.
There is quite a bit of evidence in support of this hypothesis. For example, many caves – such as the famous site of Chauvet – were never inhabited by people, being used only for art. Perhaps these were sacred locales (Zorich, 2011). Further, many of these sites all have a particular orientation, much like many later buildings of ritual significance (Hayden and Villenueve, 2011).
The idea that cave art was ritualistic in nature culminated in the “shamanism hypothesis” which posited that cave art was the result of a tribe’s mystics documenting their spiritual journey. And by “spiritual journey”, I mean getting high and thinking they’ve travelling to another realm. Researchers noted that many of the weird things people see whilst on halluganagenic drugs (so-called entoptic phenomena) bear a surprising resemblance to the images recorded in cave art (Lewis-Williams et al., 1988).
For a while it seemed like this might be the answer, until others noted that of all the entoptic phenomena documented whilst on hallucinogens, only a tiny proportion matched cave art. If it were truly a result of taking drugs, why didn’t the rest? Besides, the drugs that were used in these tests were modern synthetics that weren’t available to our ancestors (Lewis-Williams et al., 1988).
Others have proposed other ways in which cave art might be ritualistic. For example, Bednarik (2008) pointed out that many of the footprints found in caves were made by children, and the size of some of the hand stencils also match the size of a kids hand. Based on this he suggests the art was part of some kind of “coming of age” ritual.
3. A prehistoric encyclopedia
Of course, not everyone has found the ritual idea convincing. Some have suggested that there was a more practical reason for the artwork. Mithen (1988) realised that the changing climate meant that many species could disappear from a region for a long time.
He suggested that cave art was an attempt to keep a record of species seen before, preserving the knowledge of them for when they returned. This, he believed, explained why many images showed twisted feet (to record what tracks they made) and why they focused on the rarer animals, like mammoths.
Studies of the art have shown that the animal drawings are very accurate; with the markings on the art aligning with reality. In fact, some of the drawings depicted spotted horses; which people always thought were a modern development. That is, until genetic analysis revealed there was spotted horses back in the Palaeolithic. Clearly these images reflect real animals.
This debate continues to this day, with new books and papers being published that advance one idea or the other. Personally, I suspect that we’ll never hit on the answer because there is no answer. There are thousands of examples of cave art, stretching across tens of thousands of years. There probably was no single reason for making art that spanned this huge stretch of time and space; just like how all artists today draw for different reasons. All of these hypotheses are probably true to a certain extent. Maybe one cave was a doodle, another was ritualistic, but they weren’t all doodles because there was no universal reason for their manufacture.
Regardless of the ultimate explanation (if any), they remain a beautiful and fascinating link to our long-gone heritage.
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Bahn, P. 1998. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Bednarik, R. 2008. Children as Pleistocene artists. Rock Art Research, 25(2):173-182
Hayden, B., & Villeneuve, S. (2011). Astronomy in the Upper Palaeolithic?.Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 21(03), 331-355.
Lewis-Williams, J., Dowson, T., Bahn, P., Bandi, H., Bednarik, R., Clegg, J., Consens, M., Davis, W., Delluc, B., Delluc, G., Faulstich, P., Halverson, J., Layton, R., Martindale, C., Mirimanov, V., Turner II, C., Vastokas, J., Winkelman, M. and Wylie, A. 1988. The Signs of All Times: Entoptic Phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic Art [and Comments and Reply]. Current Anthropology, 29(2):201-245.
Mithen, S. 1988. Looking and learning: Upper Palaeolithic art and information gathering. World Archaeology, 19(3):297-327
White, R. H., (2003). Prehistoric Art: the Symbolic Journey of Humankind. New York: Harry N. Abrams
Zorich, Z. 2011. A Chauvet Primer. Archaeology, 65(2).
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