Prehistoric cave art grabs the eye. Vivid colours, dramatic murals, and fascinating surrounding all make it incredible to see. Small wonder people around the world made it for tens of thousands of years. But was it this awe alone that drove them to create this art? Or were they motivated by something else?
A lot of effort has been spent trying to figure out why people made cave art, with archaeologists studying the subject for more than 100 years. Despite all this research, we sadly haven’t found a definitive answer (and likely never will). However, there are many good hypotheses.
Here my favourite six.
1. Cave art or cave graffiti?
Cave art was first found in the 19th century, and immediately people began searching for an explanation. The first, and for a long time most popular, was “art for art’s sake”1.
(actually, the first explanation for cave art was “it’s a hoax”, but that’s a story for another time).
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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 doodle2.
Many explanations for cave art focus on the pictures that actually look like something.
However, a good chunk of cave art is a lot more abstract, consisting of repetitive shapes and patterns. In fact, the oldest cave art made by Homo sapiens consists of a few circular splotches. What’s up with that?
Well, it turns out similar patterns are seen in San hunter-gatherer rituals. Their “shamans” will use drugs or dance to enter a hallucinogenic state, where they can communicate with spirits. When artists depict these visions, these patterns start cropping up3.
Could this explain prehistoric cave art? In theory, it should. After all, everyone has a similar so will experience a similar thing when on the same drugs.
To test these visions really were universal, researchers did the only sensible thing and got high themselves. Sure enough, they experienced many of the same patterns seen by both the San and in cave art; suggesting both were the result of similar behaviour3.
So it seemed like everything was settled. At least, until others noted that of all only a tiny proportion of these visions matched cave art. Additionally, the drugs that were used in these tests were modern synthetics that unavailable to cave artists, raising doubts about how “universal” these symbols actually are3.
3. Cave art was a prehistoric encyclopedia
With the ritual hypothesis in trouble, some suggested that there was a more practical reason for the artwork. Perhaps they served as a way to record what animals looked like and how they behaved. In many cases, their feet are also twisted sideways, revealing the tracks they made4.
An “encyclopedia” like this might’ve been very helpful when young hunters were learning how to track. Even older hunters could’ve benefitted from it, as climate change meant many species disappeared for generations. A record like this would keep the knowledge of how to hunt them alive4.
A good chunk of evidence comes from the fact that cave art is often incredibly accurate. In fact, they knew more than us in some cases. One set of 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!
This realism would’ve been enhanced by the 3D nature of this art. It was typically drawn on rough surfaces, giving it that extra dimension. When looking at it under modern lighting, it doesn’t seem that significant. However, under a flickering flame,
In fact, some artists may have even exploited these flickering shadows to create the illusion of animation. Some drawings actually consist of several animals overlain on each other. As the light passes over it, perhaps different parts would become visible, creating the worlds first GIF5.
4. Prehistoric pareidolia
An encyclopedia might explain some of the cave art, but what about all the weird symbols? The stuff people thought was made on drugs? These have an equally long (pre)history, with some of these patterns even predating modern humans!
What could possibly explain an artistic tradition that lasts so long?
One popular idea is that these represent an advanced form of
Ultimately, our brain evolved a dedicated “visual word form area” (VWFA) to spot these shapes. As a result of this, we find them very appealing as they resonate with the VWFA. Hence why early humans started drawing these shapes6.
However, this is actually hinting at deeper changes in our ancestors’ brains that would go on to make writing possible. This part of the brain would be later co-opted by writing; helping us quickly process letter shapes. Hence why X, L, and T are now letters, and many letters are just combinations of those shapes6.
Of course, some just cut out the middle man and suggest these symbols might be an early form of writing itself.
5. Cave art is sexy
Darwin’s default explanation for everything was sexual selection. Why do some birds have big dumb tails? Because it’s sexy to the other birds. Why do men have beards? Sexy. Weird bugs? You guessed it, sexual selection8.
The general premise is something called costly signalling. The idea being that these weird features reflect some valuable attribute and are too costly or otherwise difficult to fake.
Typically, these aspects are intertwined. A weird feature is an indicator of mate quality because it is costly to maintain, showing they must be pretty awesome to survive despite it.
You can probably see where this is going. Could cave art be the same thing? It requires substantial time and investment to make. Pigments are often imported from kilometres away. Plus, you need the spare time to trek into the cave to make the art, and the skill and dexterity to do it8.
All of these show you’re skilled, dedicated, capable of long-distance travel, and a good enough hunter-gatherer to have all this free time yet still carry out all the activities needed for survival8.
Everything that would make a prehistoric person sexy.
6. When in doubt, it’s a ritual
With all of these competing ideas, some archaeologists prefer to fall back on our default explanation. If we aren’t quite sure what something is, claim it’s part of a ritual.
Although I joke, there’s actually quite a bit of evidence in support of this hypothesis.
For example, many
Ultimately, all these different explanations probably stem from the fact that there were just lots of reasons people made cave art. If you asked why people made modern art, you’d get a thousand different answers. Why should artists from the stone age be any different?
- Bahn, P. 1998. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
- White, R. H., (2003). Prehistoric Art:
theSymbolic Journey of Humankind. New York: Harry N. Abrams
- Lewis-Williams, et al. 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
- Azéma, M. and Rivère, F., 2012.
Animationin Palaeolithic art: a pre-echo of cinema. Antiquity, 86(332), pp.316-324.
- Hodgson, D., 2019. The origin, significance, and development of the earliest geometric patterns in the archaeological record. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 24, pp.588-592.
- Changizi, M.A., Zhang, Q., Ye, H. and Shimojo, S., 2006. The structures of letters and symbols throughout human history are selected to match those found in objects in natural scenes. The American Naturalist, 167(5), pp.E117-E139.
- Straffon, L.M., 2019. Evolution and the Origins of Visual Art: An Archaeological Perspective. In Handbook of Evolutionary Research in Archaeology (pp. 407-435). Springer, Cham.
- Zorich, Z. 2011. A Chauvet Primer. Archaeology, 65(2).
- Hayden, B., & Villeneuve, S. (2011). Astronomy in the Upper Palaeolithic?.Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 21(03), 331-355
- Bednarik, R. 2008. Children as Pleistocene artists. Rock Art Research, 25(2):173-18