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Cave Art Collage

Cave Art - History and Concepts

Started: 40000 BCE
Ended: 10000 BCE
Cave Art Timeline

Beginnings and Development

Earliest Humans to Make Art

It is impossible to state exactly when Homo sapiens (modern humans) began to create works of art, but famous examples date back to at least 40,000 BCE. However, the oldest known cave art was actually created by Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis), a species closely related to us, in around 63,000 BCE. Other excavated objects date from still earlier, but are the subject of debate as to whether they simply resemble crafted objects by chance.

A good example of the latter dilemma is the discovery of fossil sponges dating back to approximately 62,000 years ago, during the era of two early human species, Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis (the latter sometimes recorded as a subspecies of the former). Many of these sponges were discovered with holes running all the way through. Some archaeologists believe these holes were made intentionally and that the sponges were strung together, while others believe they are naturally occurring, or that the holes simply developed over time as a result of age and deterioration. If these holes were intentionally made and the sponges then strung together and presumably worn, than this would be the earliest examples of beads and an attempt by an early species at ornamentation and decoration of their bodies.

Replicas of the <i>Tan-Tan</i> figurine and the <i>Berekhat Ram</i> figurine in the Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain

Two other early objects subject to a similar debate are the Tan-Tan figurine found in Morocco, dating to 50,000-30,000 years ago, and the 20,000-year-old Berekhat Ram figurine excavated in Israel. Both objects can be traced back to the Homo erectus or Homo heidelbergensis groups and suggest the appearance of a simplified human figure, but may have naturally assumed that shape. If they were created, then it supports an argument that species of human older than Homo sapiens had advanced minds and aesthetic inclinations.

Dating Paleolithic Art

Authenticating the year that Paleolithic art was made created immediate challenges for archeologists, and even today it can prove difficult to secure consensus amongst scholars. The greatest aid to the process has been through the use of carbon dating from the 1990s onwards. According to archaeologist Bruno David, "carbon dating is [today] the most commonly used method of absolute dating in cave art research, because some artworks contain organic carbon in such materials as charcoal or beeswax that can be reliably dated. "

However, even carbon dating is not always reliable in this context. As David continues, "caution is needed, as black charcoal drawings [found in a cave], for example, could have been done with old pieces of charcoal that had lain on the ground surface for long periods of time." In the theoretical example given, the age of the charcoal would be greater than that of the painting, making verified dating difficult.

Concepts and Styles

Cave Paintings

Depiction of a horse painted on the wall of the Altamira cave in Spain.

The most widely known form of Paleolithic art is probably the creation of paintings on prehistoric cave walls and ceilings. In many cases, even the discovery of these drawings is steeped in intrigue and excitement. For example, the famous depictions of bison and other animals in the Cave of Altamira in Spain were discovered in 1878 by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and his young daughter Maria while they were walking the grounds of their vast property. At the time of discovery, French experts questioned the authenticity and date of the paintings, perhaps in part out of jealousy that the cave was not in their own country. It was not until two decades later that the paintings were officially recognized by the archaeological community.

The discovery of the Lascaux cave was also the result of a fortuitous accident. In 1940, when France was under German occupation during World War Two, seven young boys were out walking their dogs when they discovered the opening to the cave on the property of the Count of La Rochefoucauld (they were trespassing at the time). Burrowing their way through a partially revealed opening, they entered the cave and, after exploring its depths, found themselves in the beautifully painted cavern today known as the Hall of Bulls. The boys had unwittingly stumbled on one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world.

Once similar ancient caves began to be discovered all over the globe, archaeologists and explorers unearthed a full range of often beautifully rendered animals and figures. Using charcoal and other natural pigments such as ochre, the early artists of the Paleolithic period transferred the drawings onto the cave walls by hand, often with the aid of simple brushes made of leaves or by blowing pigment through tubes of reeds.

Bison depicted on the walls in the Niaux cave in Niaux, France. Dating to about 12,000-10,000 BCE, ibex and horses were frequently drawn in the caves' interior in addition to bison.

Great debate and mystery surrounds the creation of these cave paintings. Prehistoric humans were nomadic, traveling from place to place, and so the fact that they based themselves in single locations long enough to create these extraordinary likenesses imbues them with undeniable importance even if we will never know the artists' intentions. At the very least, the figures provide a good record of the types of animals that existed in certain locations during the Paleolithic age, some of which are extinct today. The representation of wild beasts has also led many to believe that the paintings served as records of the fauna available for hunting in the nearby area. The appearance of dots alongside some of the animals, meanwhile, may imply some sort of tally or count, implying that the works could have been used to record the success of previous hunting trips.

The frequent placement of these drawings high up on cave walls or even on ceilings, generally in remote areas towards the rears of caves, has led to other theories as to why some of these paintings were made. Effort would have been required to reach many artwork sites, and as they often appear above or alongside wide-open spaces, some believe the drawings were placed where groups could have gathered for secret or guarded ceremonies, perhaps in an attempt to will a good hunt. In the Niaux cave in France, for example, according to archaeologist Jean Clottes, "the comparatively vast chambers would have been able to accommodate relatively large groups." This supports the theory of the drawings having a ritual function.

Cave paintings found in the Ennedi Mountains in Chad, South Africa dating back 10,000 years. Both animals and figures are part of this prehistoric painting.

There are also important distinctions to be made between the cave paintings found in different parts of the world. Very few images of the human forms other than the occasional composite creature (half human, half animal) are found in the caves of Europe. As author Justin E. H. Smith notes of European cave art, "Paleolithic artists were singularly interested in the nonhuman mammals with which they shared an environment...Unlike Australian and southern African art from the same broad period, cave art in Europe offers no depiction of landscape, no horizon, no vegetation, almost no depiction of human-animal interaction, almost no hunting scenes."

By contrast, figures appear regularly in the cave art of Australia and Africa. There is no known reason for this. However, many people tend to attach a clearer religious function to non-European cave art, even suggesting that images could be documents of shamanic or religious ceremonies.

Paleolithic Sculptures and Portable Art

This lion sculpture from Vogelherd-cave in Heidenheim, Germany is believed to be 40,000 years old.

In addition to cave paintings, the Paleolithic period boasts a rich variety of sculptures and portable art (small objects that could be carried from place to place). Works from this period includes representations of the human form, most notably a number of "Venus" statues featuring women with enlarged breasts, hips, and pubic areas; animals such as a lion carved from mammoth ivory found in the Vogelherd Cave in Germany (40,000 years old); and composite creatures such as the "lion-man" of the Hohlenstein-Stadel (40,000 years old).

As the earliest humans did not live in settled communities, their three-dimensional artworks had to be small enough to carry with the pack as it traveled from place to place. Early humans also had access to only the crudest and simplest tools, such as pieces of flint, which they used to work on relatively tough materials such as ivory. The painstaking care taken to create these pieces supports the belief that they must have been of great significance to prehistoric people.

The <i>Venus of Hohle Fels</i> is a portable object from the Paleolithic period. Carved from the ivory of a mammoth tusk, it was discovered in Germany and is believed to be almost 40,000 years old.

Many different theories exist as to why portable artworks were made during the Paleolithic era. According to K. Kris Hirst, "during the mid-twentieth century, archaeologists and art historians explicitly connected portable art to shamanism. Scholars compared the use of portable art by modern and historical groups and recognized that portable art, specifically figural sculpture, was often related to folklore and religious practices." Hirst goes on to speculate on other theories, noting that, while "a spiritual element may well have been involved with portable art objects...wider possibilities have since been put forward by archaeologists and art historians." These include the idea of "portable art as personal ornamentation, toys for children, teaching tools, or objects expressing personal, ethnic, social, and cultural identity. "

Composite Creatures and Religious Expression

One of the most fascinating aspects of Paleolithic art is the creation of painted and sculpted composite creatures. Sometimes referred to as therianthropes, these forms combine certain human features with other, animal characteristics. While not a common occurrence in cave art or ancient sculpture, enough of these animal-human hybrids have been discovered to support the idea of their importance to people of this era.

Depiction of human male figure with antelope head and hooves from up to 3,000 years ago, found in the Game Pass Shelter in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa.

Notable examples of composite creatures in Paleolithic art include the "lion-man" of the Hohlenstein-Stadel (40,000 years old), the "bird man" panel in the Lascaux cave (16,000-14,000 BCE), and the figures found in San (Bushman) rock art in South Africa, including a male figure with the head and hooves of an antelope, holding on to the tail of a large beast. The depiction of imaginary creatures suggests a highly developed frame of mind and creative faculties amongst many early humans. These artists were not only interested in capturing what they saw in the world around them, but also in forging new worlds and sharing them with their communities, an urge that connects artists of all eras.

The biggest mystery surrounding these composite creatures is around their community function. Many believe that they had some kind of religious significance, and may have been depicted during ceremonies or rituals. According the Bradshaw Foundation website, "some archaeologists believe that therianthropes represent humans wearing costumes such as masks, antlers and animal skins. This may be true literally, but the fact that the practice appears to be so universal [with composite creatures found in caves all over the world and not limited to one geographic location] suggests that it is also true figuratively; it is a metaphor that represents the ancient belief involving the permeability of boundaries between the human and animal worlds. This belief allowed people to pass from one domain to another. Humans could be endowed with the qualities and characteristics of a particular animal species."

Further Developments

As our world continues to be explored, there is still the possibility of more Paleolithic art discoveries being made. A cave unearthed on the remote Indonesian Island of Sulawesi in late 2019 suggests the range of finds. As Katherine J. Wu explains, within the cave was discovered "a red-tinted painting depicting what appears to be a vivid hunt or ritual. In the scene, two wild pigs and four anoas, or dwarf buffaloes, scurry about as their apparent pursuers-mythical, humanoid figures sporting animal features like snouts, beaks and tails-give chase, armed with rope- and spear-like weapons. " With some historians ready to date the artwork as 44,000 years old, it could be one of the oldest cave paintings ever discovered, although there is already debate over the age of the piece amongst scholars.

With the excavation of ancient artistic sites occurring over centuries, theories as to their provenance and role have changed along with social mores. Justin E. H. Smith notes, for example, that "the first French scholars of cave art were mostly abbots and priests, and they saw their work as contributing to the vast project of Catholic apologetics...Their explicit concern was to find, in the symbolic world of early inhabitants of the continent that would much later become Europe, evidence for an awareness of the existence of a higher realm beyond the senses, and thus of a mental and spiritual capacity that could eventually accommodate the truth of Christianity. Over the twentieth century the discipline would develop into a proper science." Today, there is a wide range of theories as to the function of Paleolithic art, ranging from teaching and storytelling to the ideas of religious significance, mapping and even hunting tallies already noted.

Cave art has, in any case, played an important role in the advancement of theories around mental evolution during early human history. Bruno David notes that "cave art, both as buried portable objects such as personal adornments and as designs on rock walls, plays a key role in scientific debates concerning the degree to which cognitive modernism evolved with, or independently of, biological modernism. One reason for this is that artistic expressions are 'proxies' for aesthetically loaded forms of representational behaviour, for the ability to simulate and think in abstract ways that also tap into senses of appeal. "

The documentation of Paleolithic art has also allowed for increasingly sophisticated technologies to be tested and utilized. Initially, sketches and tracings had to be made on site, but scientific developments soon allowed more accurate reproduction. According to David, "one of the most complex but rewarding ways of documenting a site and its art is by making a high-precision three-dimensional digital model. At the Chauvet Cave, the French government not only commissioned such a three-dimensional recording, but then used it to physically build a life-sized model of much of the cave so that the public can see what the underground space looks like without detrimental effects to the original cave itself. "


With the development of Modernism during the early-twentieth century, many artists became interested in ideas of untutored creative purity, leading to a new wave of fascination with cave art. Pablo Picasso reportedly visited the famous Altamira cave before fleeing Spain in 1934, and emerged saying: "Beyond Altamira, all is decadence. " Since then, artists including Picasso's fellow Cubist Amédée Ozenfant and the French Tachiste painter Pierre Soulages have spoken of their fascination with ancient painting and sculpture, and its influence on their practice. The British figurative painter Jenny Saville, meanwhile, has spoken of the influence of the Venus of Willendorf on her visceral depictions of female flesh.

Formal and thematic traits reminiscent of cave art can be found across a number of modern and contemporary art movements, from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism, and Art Brut. Picasso's depiction of bulls and other animals is frequently reminiscent of the elementary line and shape of Altamira's beasts, while Jackson Pollock explicitly honored ancient cave artists by leaving handprints along the top edge of at least two of his paintings. Jean Dubuffet sought to emulate the most instinctive and unschooled creative gestures through his work in ways that often brought to mind the art of the earliest human societies.

Land artists such as Giuseppe Penone, meanwhile, have brought a scale and primitivism of gesture reminiscent of cave art to much of their work. Penone's Sculptures of Lymph (2007), for example, involved covering walls with tanned leather molded to the shape of tree bark, suggesting the texture and atmospherics of the painted cave wall. The argument can even be made that Graffiti art has its roots in the early cave paintings and the leaving of one's mark on a wall traces back to the hand stencils made by the earliest humans.

Do Not Miss

  • Classicism refers to the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome - a highly dynamic period that is at the root of most art.
  • Art Brut, or in French "raw/rough art," was a label made by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art that was created by self-taught, naïve artists. Also known as Outsider Artists, these creators were often categorized as mentally unbalanced, and their aesthetics were mostly outside the common art world.
  • A vast number of major modern artists in the West were greatly influenced by art they deemed 'primitive' or 'naïve', made by tribal or non-Western cultures. Such art, ranging from African, Oriental, Oceanic, and Native American to naive depictions of the French peasantry, was thought to be less civilized and thus closer to raw aesthetic and spiritual experience.
  • Street Art encompasses any visual art created in public locations, specifically unsanctioned artwork and graffiti.

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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas

"Cave Art Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 17 Mar 2022. Updated and modified regularly
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