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Ever look at all the beautiful pictures of Palaeolithic painted caves and think “where is all the bad cave art”. Surely there was someone back then who was bad at drawing as me.

I drew a Neanderthal, it isn’t good

The obvious answer is that there is bad cave art. It just doesn’t get shared as much because it’s, you know, bad. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Here are three examples of some rubbish cave art and how they can inform our understanding of the past.

#1: Chauvet’s derpy lions

Perhaps the biggest reason people don’t know about bad cave art is because it just isn’t that popular. Take the painted cave of Chauvet, France, which was made ~36,000 years ago. This makes it one of the oldest places we’ve found where Homo sapiens drew on cave walls. Back when it was discovered, it was still debated whether modern humans from this period were decent artists. Chauvet proved they were.

Accordingly, many beautiful images can be found in the cave; and are widely shared around pop culture. Like the famous panel of lions, which features several overlain images to give the appearance of a pack of lions in motion. Lovely stuff.

The image Wikipedia uses for the lion panel

However, that popular picture of the panel doesn’t show the whole thing. It’s cropped in, missing out many lions around the periphery. Many of these additional lions are particularly derpy, leading some to speculate that they may have been made by “apprentices.” Perhaps they were attempting to learn by replicating the work of competent artists nearby1.

Top middle has a tiny head I’m all about.

My personal favourite is the one in the top left, which is so weird looking researchers have nicknamed it “the hippo”. It probably isn’t a hippo, given it has the same shoulder hunch and snoot as the other lions. It’s just a bit of bad cave art2.

If that’s its tongue sticking out its mouth, would that make this the worlds oldest emoji?

#2: Bad cave art comes from bad cave artists

Bad art like this is often chalked up to the work of “apprentices”. I like to think it’s because archaeologists don’t want to be too judgy. “See, they were just learning. They probably got better”.

However, it’s probably because these artists didn’t just make bad art, they made art badly. They appear to lack the skills of more experienced people, suggesting they were still learning. This can be very noticeable in engravings3.

For example, compare the practical skill seen in these two carvings of animal heads.

Apprentice Auroch head from La Vache (left) versus “master” reindeer head from Le Morin (right)3. Both 17-12,000 years old

Archaeologists have used these telltale signs of inexperience – like lack of detail, repeated marks, and inaccurate blows – to spot many other examples of art by apprentices. My personal favourite is this pelvis from Las Caldas. It appears to just be a bit of trash someone took and engraved a horse on both sides, almost like they were trying to practice and improve their horse drawings on low-value material4.

The worlds first “sketchbook”, 17-12,000 years old4.

#3: Is the out of proportion mammoth bad cave art?

Spotting such apprenticeships in cave paintings is trickier, given there are fewer ways to spot poor skill. Bad attempts at imitation, like Chauvet’s “hippo” might be one way, but the possibility remains it could be intentional. What if the artists did just see a really derpy lion once?

Even apparent inaccuracies or missing features could be deliberate. For example, next to the hippo at Chauvet is an especially weird looking mammoth. Its legs seem all out of proportion and feet strangely lumpy.

However, many speculate that cave art was often used to record knowledge about an animal. Weird feet like this are surprisingly common, and could well be an effort to document the animals’ tracks. Perhaps to help with teaching a new generation of hunters5.

A horse from Lascaux with unnaturally rotated feet so you can see what kind of tracks it would leave behind

Likewise, many pieces of cave art are incomplete or interrupted by other artworks; all serving to break up the animals’ form. Again, whilst this could be a sign of bad artists giving up on their work, some think it was more deliberate. Perhaps it was an effort to train hunters to recognise the silhouette of prey in the wilrd, which would often be obscured by vegetation6.

Broken up/overlain silhouettes for Jinsha River China. How hard do you have to focus to pick out the animal outlines? Could this be a way to train people to do it better?7

So is there bad cave art?

Ultimately, we’re so far removed from these artists it’ll be hard to ever say why they made art. And so figuring out if they failed in their goals and made bad art is tricky.

Yet there are still countless possible examples out there, all of which can still teach us a lot about ancient people. Like the apprentices trying to copy lion images at Chauvet. The fact they were doing this so close to the work of the “masters” suggests art may have been an inclusive activity anyone could take part in.

Thus, these “mistakes” continue to provide an insight into the daily lives and experiences of these people. Plus, all this bad art – whether we can definitively say it’s bad or not – can be fun to giggle at.

So, I’ll leave you with my favourite: a stickman from the famous site of Lascaux. It’s notable for being one of the few depictions of humans in Palaeolithic cave art. Maybe because they weren’t great at drawing them.

Also funny because of boners8.

References

  1. Balter, M., 1999. New light on the oldest art. Science, 283(5404):920-922
  2. Packer, C. and Clottes, J., 2000. When lions ruled France. Natural History109(9), pp.52-57.
  3. Fritz, C., Tosello, G. and Conkey, M.W., 2016. Reflections on the identities and roles of the artists in European Paleolithic societies. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory23(4), pp.1307-1332.
  4. Rivero, O., 2016. Master and apprentice: evidence for learning in Palaeolithic portable art. Journal of Archaeological Science75, pp.89-100.
  5. Mithen, S. 1988. Looking and learning: Upper Palaeolithic art and information gathering. World Archaeology, 19(3):297-327
  6. Hodgson, D., 2013. The visual brain, perception, and depiction of animals in rock art. Journal of Archaeology2013.
  7. Taçon, P.S., Gang, L., Decong, Y., May, S.K., Hong, L., Aubert, M., Xueping, J., Curnoe, D. and Herries, A.I., 2010. Naturalism, nature and questions of style in Jinsha River rock art, northwest Yunnan, China. Cambridge Archaeological Journal20(1), pp.67-86.
  8. Laming, A. 1959. Lascaux. Paintings and Engravings. Pelican.

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