To unlock this content, pledge $1 or more on Patreon

83 thoughts on “Why did prehistoric people make cave art?”

  1. Thanks for this. One of my major frustrations in moving away from my interest in the palaeolithic was the focus on too much theorising over parietal and mobiliary art. I found the theorists far too much of a reflection of the political eras they were studying in and ultimately tragic that they could rarely see it. I would love to see Altamira some day, and Lascaux too (though I understand that the public can’t visit this any more and that the French government have created a superb replica).

    1. I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem restricted to art research. Many palaeanthropologists studying a range of topics tend to become rather wrapped up in their own theory, overstating the confidence with which it should be held. Evolutionary psychology in particular is susceptible to this. Don’t get me wrong, most of these are good ideas worth investigating, they just aren’t as well supported as some researchers would have you believe. That’s why I try to remain a bit wary of these ideas, without being outright dismissive.

      And yes, you are correct. Only the replica Lascaux can be visited these days (although it is of almost perfect quality). I hear they’re building a second one to cope with demand. You can still go in the original Chauvet, since they found it recently and were able to put in safe guards before thousands of people ruined the place.

  2. I must say it was yesterday that I commented to myself I have not received an email from you since that awful interview of the two fundamentalists. It took me some time to recover from their ineptness. However, I believe that each work of art-or each cluster of art- should be viewed as an individual expression. The evidence should be interpreted individually. But I would go with ritualistic interpretations, but leave room for graffiti and others.

    1. I’m glad someone missed me, although you’ll be displeased to hear that there are plans for me to have another chat with those fundamentalists. Hopefully without the connection problems, so I can try and form a cogent point this time!

      Although ritual is a good explanation that can probably account for an awful lot of the art, I think most people underestimate just how much fun it is. I’ve had a chance to go cave painting in my universities new palaeolithic lab and it is brilliant. After spending 3 hours playing with pigment and laughing with friends “art for art’s sake” seems a lot more plausible than other researchers seem to suggest.

      1. When I first started my studies in archaeology if an archaeologist found a large building it was label a temple without too much investigation. Now there are so many applications to a site it cannot be that much misinterpreted. There have been chemical studies of many prehistoric paintings and this has improved interpretation immensely. After all discoveries in archaeology come about when new technologies are applied to the archaeological record.
        As for your interview I really think that both of you were unprepared only because in an interview it would be best to have the questions know and the answers prepared before you start. This would bring to the interview some sense of clearance and flow.
        FYI: I will be taking a course in Human Evolution from Coursea this September. Looking forward to it.

      2. Whilst technology has undoubtedly been a huge boon to archaeology I think some of the most significant changes are changes in attitude. Of increasing skepticism towards many of the ideas which were simply asserted in the past. For example (you’ll have to forgive me, I can’t remember the names) for years people had been claiming a particular artefact was a lunar calender. Then someone came along and just said “hang on a minute, can we be sure about that?” and it turns out we couldn’t.

        I did try and organise a more focused discussion beforehand, but they refused to be specific about what they wanted to talk about. And lo, we wound up spending half of it talking about what makes someone good. Which is a topic I’m obviously very knowledgeable about.

      3. The answer is – because they had ample time on their hands so why shouldn’t they paint on stone.
        Why is there so much writen about this, going off at tangents and concluding nothing.

        1. The big reason for looking into this is that some of these explanations imply that these people had symbolism; which in turn is a strong indicator of language. Language is unique to humans, so figuring out how and why that developed is fascinating.

        2. I think the picture drawings were the predecessor of writing. The paintings were their way of telling a story for others who came after. I don’t suppose they were thinking the paintings would be there for so many thousands of years though.

        3. There may well be some similarities between writing and cave art, but there are also a great many differences. There’s no real syntax in cave art, for example. So it doesn’t seem to be directly ancestral; even though it may have been the breeding ground for some other ideas.

      4. I have no idea who you people are but the question of why did prehistoric “man” create is simply answered by the question, Why did historical man create the apple computer, the pill the bomb the stock market the welfare state ext ect ect….You may say, money but then that still answers the question. Your problem is that you believe man is somehow advanced neurologically beyond those who painted cave walls. You live in the simulacra. Also, if you believe fundamentalism is a primitive beliefs of fools why talk to them. You are so willing to believe that all of everything comes from an exploding particle infinitely small but the idea of turning water to wine is the beliefs of idiots. When you explain without question how the big bang is possible I will turn my back on Christ. PS I do believe in math and physics and I am not a good Christian.

        1. The big mystery surrounding cave art is because it’s the first time humans started doing something like this. The question isn’t so much “why did the make cave art?” but “why did they start?” Did something change in their brains, their culture or their technology? Or was it the natural progression of existing phenomena? Whilst we don’t know the answer there is a lot of evidence to suggest that it wasn’t a neurological change. The people who made the first cave art are the same as us, mentally. Which just makes it all the more fascinating.

          And I don’t think fundamentalists are idiots. There’s a reason I call my Monday posts on the subject “mistaken Mondays” rather than “here is an idiot on Monday”. That said, I’ve encountered so many examples of misrepresenting data from the large creationist ministries – such as Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research – I’m convinced those people are either incompetent or deliberately deceitful.

        2. Adam, I am intrigued by your statement that the evidence suggests cave art didn’t come about through neurological changes. It sounds like there is some substantive research on this subject. Can you recommend some reading material on this subject? Thanks for your time in helping a fellow traveler trying to understand something that seems important in the human evolutionary process.

        3. Various artistic things gradually emerge over a long period of time. This is the opposite of the sudden appearance you would expect if there was a mutation.

          This same pattern is seen in many developments previously thought to also be mutations. Some fancy tools were thought to appear suddenly, but evidence of a more gradual origin was later found.

    2. However, I believe that each work of art-or each cluster of art- should be viewed as an individual expression.

      Call me a cynic, but any researcher pushing such a banal concept wouldn’t get much funding! πŸ˜€

      1. I feel like there’s some funding potential, providing you don’t just promise obvious, almost tautological statements (one of the failings of early processual archaeology)

        1. Jargon-filled processional archaeology is a plague upon archaeology. What are these people talking about? They only confuse the issue. Can’t they talk in understandable language? Are they being elitist? They have taken over the profession and left it in shambles. Research should first start with reviewing (and listing) all available theories and than testing them. The banal one might be the strongest. There is so much information we can pull from the evidence.

          I am having trouble replying to you through the reply icon below so I am sending my reply through my reply email. {The reply box is not visuable for me to continue my message.)

          Date: Tue, 23 Jul 2013 21:23:50 +0000 To: [email protected]

        2. In theory I support processual archaeology, the idea of trying to test various ideas. In practice it can be a truly horrific beast, but unfortunately it’s not the only one. Have you ever heard of some of the post-processual talk of lifeways? I’ve been studying the subject for 3 years now and still have no idea what on earth a lifeway is, except that people of the past had them and this is a big deal.

          The comment box problem is rather weird, I’ve experienced it on other blogs too, so suspect the problem is at WordPress’s end

        3. There is one good book that I recommend for processional archaeology, AN INTRODUCTION TO MODERN ARCHAEOLOGY by Ned Woodall. It shows you step by step how to do processional archaeology. It is jargon-free and simple to understand. If all processional archaeological books were like this processional archaeology might have an impact on avocational archaeologists like my self. Read the first paragraph of Lewis Binford’s ARCHEOLOGY AS ANTHROPOLOGY and tell me what he is saying? Lifeway may be a term for culture. Why they can’t say culture is puzzling. It all started with McKern’s Midwest taxonomic classification. I tried to juxtapose the European names to McKern’s but to no avail. I am still trying. The only thing somebody came up with is Mesolithic for the Paleoindian stage.

          Date: Thu, 25 Jul 2013 20:53:03 +0000 To: [email protected]

      2. But it may be true. There are two kinds of art that I can think of: cave art and rock art. Why would somebody go deep into a cave draw pictures. It would seem ritualistic. Rock art might have a different meaning.

      3. Personally, I think that post-processualism often goes too far. Reading works by the likes of Ian Hodder always made me want to claw my eyes out. But saying that, reading the bickering between him and Lewis Binford sometimes made for an entertaining read.

        1. If you really want to go brain-dead try reading David Clarke’s ANALYTICAL ARCHAEOLOGY. Plog, Schiffler, even some of Renfrew and Clive Gamble need to be banish from anybody’s library. I can’t even go to sleep with these people.

          Date: Fri, 26 Jul 2013 09:13:50 +0000 To: [email protected]

      4. The worst part is where landscape archaeology and lifeways collide. You wind up with people wandering around sites going “this makes me feel in awe, thus it would’ve impacted ancient lifeways.” It seems to me to be the biggest pile of drivel I ever did hear

        1. My Master’s is in Landscape Archaeology so I feel your pain brother πŸ™

          One Dartmoor expert – can’t remember his name – used to take a window frame up to the moor when he took students on a field trip. This he would take to places like Merevale and Grimspound and… no joke… hold the window frame up so his students could look through it and “experience” the village and its surrounding landscape.

        2. It sounds like you went to Leicester University? I get more accomplished by studying on my own. Your freer to develop your own ideas.

          Date: Mon, 29 Jul 2013 13:02:20 +0000 To: [email protected]

        3. Email from across the Pond from the Colonies: I took at look at Dartmoor and it seems like a great place to do not only archaeology but geology. A far cry from Sherlock Holmes.

        4. It looks like Exmoor was studied more than Dartmoor. There is even a book on it’s archaeology.

        5. Your freer to develop your own ideas at any good university. When you get to Master’s level most lecturers expect you to challenge their ideas.

        6. I should research more sites. Dartmoor? Sherlock Holmes? Hound of the Baskervilles? I work out of the library and my 2 hours are up. Contact you tomorrow.

          Date: Mon, 29 Jul 2013 15:52:41 +0000 To: [email protected]

      5. Thing is, I’d wager most people with an interest in archaeology have done something similar. Just stood in a field and tried to throw your mind back and imagine the past. But I doubt most people would try and make that a field of research.

        1. NEXT TO ATLANTIS AND MU BELIEVERS THESE PEOPLE WOULD FIT RIGHT IN. And who said pseudo-archaeology can’t be scientific. There is a theory that the Beatles ruined Rock & Roll, Shaina Twain ruined Country music (she did), and I believe New Archaeology ruined archaeology.

          Date: Mon, 29 Jul 2013 15:04:28 +0000 To: [email protected]

  3. Great post, Adam. I like the way you simply explain the different viewpoints without saying one is right. However, wouldn’t the simple answer be that, just like we do today, they had multiple reasons, so we cannot simply attribute all cave art to the same idea. It isn’t just in your field that most academics take this naΓ―ve attitude that people in the past were all identical. But every new theory is a reflection of what motivates the theorists, not the cave people. Besides, “art for art sake” today is not about doodles, but about art for its beauty.

    1. That’s a good answer, and ultimately the one I arrived at the end of the post. At the end of the day I suspect most researchers would concede that there are likely multiple explanations for the art; but most don’t really act like it. I guess they want their theory to be important and not relegated to one of many. In much the same way that the discoverer of important fossil hominins will proclaim that their species is the actual ancestor of humanity

    1. It’s difficult to say. However, given the environmental variability of Europe at the time anything which helped build cohesion between multiple groups (allowing one to move into another’s territory if their’s froze over) would’ve been a huge boon and would likely justify an extraordinary amount of effort.

      That said, for building cohesion between groups the more mobile items, like the venus figurines, were more important; unless people were regularly visiting each other’s caves

  4. I think that if you wanted to obtain better insight into the motivations for the European rock art, it would be rewarding to take careful note of studies done on the San/Bushman art of Southern Africa. On the arrival of whites here early 1600’s, these people still lived as hunter gatherers. They lived like this until virtually yesterday. And were rather well studied and documented. They originally inhabited the whole of Southern Africa, seemingly for hundreds of thousands of years, and left rock art as proof, all over this landscape. Only about a 1000 years ago did the black tribes start moving into the area and pushed them into the western arid areas. Then came the whites who pushed them north.
    So it happened that their art and culture was well documented. Far as i know, there are archeologists specializing in this field today. Evan most beautiful story books, by authors who lived amongst them from time to time, the likes of P. J. Schoeman, was written about them. There are quite serious claims (today) that they could sense animals, which were completely out of visual range, up to 12 kms away, when
    hunting.
    What does seem apparent is that in their religion and culture, animals and the animal world, were totally integrated. To one group the Praying Mantis.
    a local insect, was their God or represented their god on earth. Every time an animal was killed, they prayed for its “soul”. Of course they lived in total symbiosis with nature. They illustrated total respect for it
    in their culture/s. Of course they never harmed the environment at all,
    seemingly because of their culture. As apposed to the blacks and whites who moved in recently.
    For modern humans, to place themselves in the mindset of the Australopithecus artistic, must be almost impossible. Unless we can go via the minds of these peoples who lived in almost similar manner, until yesterday? And are being robed of their last natural vestiges as i am typing here.

    1. Hunter-gatherers are certainly a key source of information on the past and have been studied to investigate it. The Shamanism hypothesis discussed above, for example, was partly inspired by the discovery that some modern hunter-gatherers create cave art whilst in an altered state of conciousness.

      However, much of what you say is just a romanticised view of them. They’re a piece of evidence yes, but won’t resolve the issue single-handedly.

  5. We are born needing to be creative. It is just a matter of allowing it to be free and flourish. All children, starting in infancy, love music, color…and all children draw…until someone tells them they cannot. It is proven, the more creative children are allowed to be, the harder their brain works, developing strong cognitive skills. Anyway…it probably helped them develop speech, fairly difficult to critisize one another’s work with just loud grunts.
    Cleo

  6. I’ve only just come across this website, and find it refreshingly sensible.

    Well… I was finding it so until I read some of the comments on this particular thread.

    So I want to say in their defence that Binford, Clarke, Schiffer and Hodder have all tried in various ways to point out to archaeologists (and anyone who will listen) that what comes to your mind when you see something in the ground and that you take to be an old object (=artifact) may not be the same as what came into the mind of its manufacturer, user, or the person who discarded it when it was in their possession.

    I strongly support the idea that drawings would have been made in prehistoric times for a variety of motives.

  7. These cave paintings were the first picture books which holy men used as visual aides for telling stories/history and for passing on hunting knowledge to the clan/tribe. Caves were not fully inhabited year-round and were used more as a storehouse, fortress, temple and winter retreat. Religious temples the world-over still have murals on the walls/ceilings as well as stories to go with the paintings. Ice age winters spent in caves, provided free time for crafting, story telling, tech and art. Summers were wisely spent stocking up for winter which required civic planning and organization. Cave dwellers were creating the fundamentals for civilization while the rest of humanity was living hand to mouth.

    1. You are correct in that these caves were only inhabited for part of the year. However, beyond that I think you might be reading a bit too much into it.

  8. Two local guys/ girls sitting by a fire in a cave, 45,000 years ago making crafting beads and carving rock art. ‘Hey that charcoal makes great lines on my stone. I’ve done some pictures of birds outside. Every time it rains though, the pictures wash off’…..’ Then why don’t you paint in here?’ ….’ Good one. I never thought of that. But what if the children start defacing them or our cave gets taken over?’……’well let’s go into the back of the cave. We can work in peace and just have private viewings.’……’ Do you think my kids will be good painters like me?’…..’.I’m not sure…it’s a nature or nurture thing. My dad was great at hunting. I cant throw a spear straight.’….’you think our paintings might be looked at by future generations?’……’I hope so.just remember to sign it with your palm print. You can charge them more beads to see them then.’

  9. After the painting has been finished…..’ Whoooo, that’s great. Good idea to use some of the mud on the floor for the horses body.’…… ‘Thanks. Just going back to that nature or nurture thing. I don’t get it.’……’well, I personally think that we are all born painters, like you, and hunters, stone workers, etc. It’s inside us. But some are better than others. That’s the Nature bit. The Nuture bit comes at practicing that skill. As you know, I’m rubbish with a spear, to the frustration of my father.’……’But if all those things are inside us already, why hasn’t anyone else done any painting before. We’ve not found any old cave paintings at all.’…..’yes that has perplexed my thoughts.Maybe the people before didn’t think about it. Maybe the thought didn’t have the time to rise to the surface. Maybe they did, but just painted outside like you did. Oh and one last thing, don’t you think you have gone over the top with your signature. Just one hand would do.’

    1. There were no natural sources of high-ness in Europe at the time. Some speculate that repetitive motion or noise could have driven them into a trance like state. Notably, many cave art sites have very particular acoustics.

  10. Adam, are you sure there were no “sources of highness” in Europe back then? I guess if you mean they lived in tundra-like conditions, so that means there are no “sources” in the tundra? I don’t know, is that true? What was the environment like around those caves in France in those days, like actual frozen tundra or just your standard Northern European forest served extra cold? Y’know, as a kid I always wanted to be a Cave-man! But, as a kid who grew up in the 70s, I find that if there were indeed no sources of natural highness, then maybe I would want to re-think that!

    1. I perhaps phrased that a little badly. There are always sources of highness. Humans can even induce it in themselves without any help through extremely repetitive action, such as ritualistic dancing or singing. The issue is that the study in question got people high using certain chemical compounds. Nothing like those compounds was naturally occurring in Europe at this time.

      So for this approach to still have merit, one must assume that the altered state the brain enters into is the same; regardless of the source of that alteration. Which is a dubious idea to say the least.

  11. I have another theory why they drew in their caves: ownership…or a mark that tell others that this cave is taken. An early home safety device.

    Imagine cavemen foraging for food have to leave their caves. No one to guard their dwelling.
    So they drew images of themselves and animals they own like beasts and mastodons to reinforce their supremacy.

    Another caveman must feel hesitant to take over a cave seeing the drawings on the walls, knowing how many men and animals he has to contend with when the original,owners return.

    1. A newer idea is that cave art is sort of a “flag” to mark territory. Some support for this comes from the fact it is most common during environmentally tough times; when populations would have been forced into close proximity in the few remaining habitable areas. There, marking territory might have been extra important, hence the rise of cave art.

      I should really do a follow-up to this discussing more explanations.

  12. I actually thought this article was nicely written, and he gave many reasons that make sense. He had a relatively nice conclusion that was different than most of what I’ve read. It was sensible and humble, as well. His citations were trustworthy and correct. Besides, your comment lacks grammar and constructive criticism. Maybe that means you should be the one going back to school? You can’t learn anything from a good article if you’re the one trying not to understand. User error.

  13. People you are so full of yourselves!! We are not worthy!! How could any of these theories possibly still be in circulation!!.. These cave paintings were multidimensional symbols of our past!! These are sattelite images!!.. These are Constellations!! These are land masses as seen from space!! These are city states and factions!! These are clues on how to traverse the Universe!! These paintings are encryptions so that no enemy of man could of possibly have that they were anything else but DOODLES!! Yes I said sattelite images!! Look at cave paintings from all over the world!! Depict black wholes and other star systems!! You think those faces are alien? No they are black holes and inbetween them is a passage into another star system. Those hands represent all the races of the earth.. Male and female!! For more information watch The History of the Foreververse on youtube!! Those are hidden messages so well you are not worthy to know this information!! Bunch of Simpletons!! We are so focused on materiality we cannot fathom what these people were trying to communicate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.