Cave painting

Cave painting

Cave paintings are paintings on cave walls and ceilings, and the term is used especially for those dating to prehistoric times. The earliest known European cave paintings date to 32,000 years ago. The purpose of the cave paintings is not known. The evidence suggests that they were not merely decorations of living areas, since the caves in which they have been found do not have signs of ongoing habitation. Also, they are often in areas of caves that are not easily accessed. Some theories hold that they may have been a way of transmitting information, while other theories ascribe them a religious or ceremonial purpose.


When Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola first encountered the Magdalenian paintings of the Altamira cave, Cantabria, Spain in 1879, the academics of the time considered them hoaxes. Recent reappraisals and increasing numbers of discoveries have illustrated their authenticity and have indicated high levels of artistry of Upper Palaeolithic humans who used only basic tools. Cave paintings can also give valuable clues as to the culture and beliefs of that era.


Well known cave paintings include those of:
* Lascaux, France
* La Marche,in Lussac-les-Chateaux, France
* Chauvet Cave, near Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, France
* Altamira, near Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain
* Cueva de La Pasiega, Cuevas de El Castillo, Cantabria, Spain
* Cosquer Cave, with an entrance below sea level near Marseille, France
* Font de Gaume, in the Dordogne Valley in France

Other sites include Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, England, (Cave etchings and bas-reliefs discovered in 2003), and Magura [] , Belogradchik, Bulgaria.

Rock painting was also performed on cliff faces, but fewer of those have survived because of erosion. One well-known example is the rock paintings of "Astuvansalmi" in the Saimaa area of Finland.


Nearly 350 caves have now been discovered in France and Spain that contain art from prehistoric times. The age of the paintings in many sites has been a contentious issue, since methods like radiocarbon dating can be easily misled by contaminated samples of older or newer materialFact|date=February 2007, and caves and rocky overhangs (parietal art) are typically littered with debris from many time periods. Recent advances make it possible to date the paintings by sampling the pigment itself. []

The choice of subject matter can also indicate date such as the reindeer at the Spanish cave of Cueva de las Monedas which imply the art is from the last Ice Age. The oldest cave is that of Chauvet, and its paintings are possibly 32,000 years old according to radiocarbon dating [] . Some researchers believe the drawings are too advanced for this era and question this age [ Paul Pettitt. Art and the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition in Europe: Comments on the archaeological arguments for an early Upper Paleolithic antiquity of the Grotte Chauvet art. Journal of Human Evolution, 2008] .

Other examples may date as late as the Early Bronze Age, but the well known prolific and sophisticated style from Lascaux and Altamira died out about 10,000 years ago, coinciding with the advent of the Mesolithic period.

Themes and patterns

The most common themes in cave paintings are large wild animals, such as bison, horses, aurochs, and deer, and tracings of human hands as well as abstract patterns, called finger flutings. Drawings of humans are rare and are usually schematic rather than the more naturalistic animal subjects. Cave art may have begun in the Aurignacian period (Hohle Fels, Germany), but reached its apogee in the late Magdalenian (Lascaux, France).

The paintings were drawn with red and yellow ochre, hematite, manganese oxide and charcoal. Sometimes the silhouette of the animal was incised in the rock first.

Theories and interpretations

Henri Breuil interpreted the paintings as being hunting magic, meant to increase the number of animals. As there are some clay sculptures that seem to have been the targets of spears, this may partly be true, but does not explain the pictures of predators such as the lion or the bear.

An alternative theory, developed by David Lewis-Williams and broadly based on ethnographic studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, is that the paintings were made by Cro-Magnon shamans. The shaman would retreat into the darkness of the caves, enter into a trance state and then paint images of their visions, perhaps with some notion of drawing power out of the cave walls themselves. This goes some way toward explaining the remoteness of some of the paintings (which often occur in deep or small caves) and the variety of subject matter (from prey animals to predators and human hand-prints).

R. Dale GuthrieR. Dale Guthrie, "The Nature of Paleolithic Art". University Of Chicago Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-226-31126-5. [ Preface] .] has studied not only the most artistic and publicized paintings but also a variety of lower quality art and figurines, and he identifies a wide range of skill and ages among the artists.He also points that the main themes in the paintings and other artifacts (powerful beasts, risky hunting scenes and the over-sexual representation of women in the Venus figurines) are to be expected in the fantasies of adolescent males, who made a big part of the human population at the time.


At Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg, South Africa, now thought to be some 3,000 years old, the paintings by the San people who settled in the area some 8,000 years ago depict animals and humans, and are thought to represent religious beliefs. Human figures are much more common in African than in European rock art. [cite news |first=Leon |last=Jaroff |author=Leon Jaroff
title=Etched in Stone
work=Time |date=1997-06-02 |accessdate=2008-10-07 |quote=Wildlife and humans tend to get equal billing in African rock art. (In the caves of western Europe, by contrast, pictures of animals cover the walls and human figures are rare.) In southern Africa, home to the San, or Bushmen, many of the rock scenes depicting people interpret the rituals and hallucinations of the shamans who still dominate the San culture today. Among the most evocative images are those believed to represent shamans deep in trance: a reclining, antelope-headed man surrounded by imaginary beasts, for example, or an insect-like humanoid covered with wild decorations.

Recently, an archeological team discovered the Laas Gaa'l cave paintings outside Hargeisa in Somaliland. They show the ancient inhabitants of the area worshipping cattle and performing religious ceremonies.

Cave paintings found at the [ "Apollo 11 caves"] in Namibia may be among the earliest cave art. The estimated age of the images date from approximately 23,000 - 25,000 B.C.

Cave paintings are found in the Tassili n'Ajjer mountains in southeast Algeria also in the Akakus, Mesak Settafet and Tadrart in Libya and other Sahara regions including: Ayr mountains, Niger and Tibesti, Chad.Fact|date=October 2008


Significant early cave paintings have also been found in Kakadu National Park in Australia.

The park has a large collection of ochre paintings. Ochre is a not an organic material, so carbon dating of these pictures is impossible. Sometimes the approximate date, or at least, an epoch, can be guessed from the content.Fact|date=October 2008

Southeast Asia

There are rock paintings in caves in India, [cite web
title=Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka
publisher=World Heritage Site
] Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.In Thailand, caves and scarps along the Thai-Burmese border, in the Petchabun Range of Central Thailand, and overlooking the Mekong River in Nakorn Sawan Province, all contain galleries of rock paintings.In Malaysia the oldest paintings are at Gua Tambun in Perak, dated at 2000 years, and those in the Painted Cave at Niah Caves National Park are 1200 years old. See prehistoric Malaysia.In Indonesia the caves at Maros in Sulawesi are famous for their hand prints, also found in caves in the Sangkulirang area of Kalimantan.


See also

* Sympathetic magic
* Rock art
* Parietal art
* Petroglyph
* Prehistoric art


Further reading

* Thomas Heyd and John Clegg, eds. "Aesthetics and Rock Art". Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot, England and Burlington, VT, USA. 2005. ISBN 0-7546-3924-X
* Gregory Curtis, "The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists", Knopf, New York, NY, USA, 2006. 1-4000-4348-4
* Joseph Nechvatal, "Immersive Excess in the Apse of Lascaux", Technonoetic Arts 3, no3. 2005

External links

* [ Bradshaw Foundation] The recording of cave paintings around the world
* [ EuroPreArt] database of European Prehistoric Art
* [ Malaysian Caves]
* [ Cave paintings in Castell de Castells Spain]
* [ American Rock Art Research Association]

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