What is Stone Age cave art all about?

We’ve been round many schools and seen your children’s fine artwork inspired by the Palaeolithic painted caves of southern France and northern Spain, and there are always interesting ideas about what the cave art was all about. Was it telling stories? Was it recording hunting scenes? Was it a way to bring good luck to an upcoming hunt? Let’s explore some of the features of the painted caves to see what they can reveal.

Marks in El Castillo cave in Cantabria, northern Spain. http://cuevas.culturadecantabria.com/el-castillo-2/ 

Some of the oldest cave paintings are at El Castillo cave in Cantabria in northern Spain and Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche region of southern France, dating to about 40,000 years ago. In El Castillo there are paintings of a mammoth, goats, deer, horses, aurochs (wild European cattle not extinct) as well as many hand-prints and some abstract symbols that may refer to the cycle of the moon. At Chauvet there are bears, an owl, woolly rhino and cave lions painted in the cave, as well as a panel of handprints at the entrance. Handprints in these painted caves have recently been analysed. Men and women have a marked difference between their hand shape: men generally have longer index fingers than ring fingers, women’s are usually about the same length. By analysing the handprints it was found that over half of them were made by women, and there are also a few children’s handprints known, and ‘flutings’ made by children’s fingers in wet clay walls. It was the entire population who were involved in making art in these caves.

By Unknown – Screenshot from the film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41964466

The type of animals depicted on the walls changes over time. Some of the paintings in Chauvet Cave date to about 39,000 years ago, while Lascaux cave in the Dordogne region of southern France dates to around 17,000 years ago. More time passed between Chauvet and Lascaux, than from Lascaux to now! And the climate had also changed. Some animals were not so common and others more common. Woolly rhinos and cave lions don’t appear at Lascaux, but aurochs, megaloceros (giant deer), bison, and horses do. What is interesting is that the main source of hunted food for the people who painted Lascaux (and, incidentally, lived elsewhere – the caves that were painted were generally not lived in) was reindeer, and they are not depicted in the cave at all. Similarly, many predators were painted at Chauvet, like cave lions, hyenas and bears, species that wouldn’t have been hunted for food. So the cave paintings were probably not painted to bring luck to the hunt, or record past hunts.

The Venus of Willendorf from Austria. By MatthiasKabel – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1526553

In fact, if they were hunting scenes, you would expect to find hunters depicted but humans are very rarely painted at all. If you have found images of hunters supposedly from Lascaux or other European painted caves, you’re probably looking at images of hunters from southern African rock paintings which are later in date in the main. When humans are depicted in European Palaeolithic cave art, they are shown in one of two ways, both of which are paralleled in the portable art from these times – little figurines carved out of mammoth ivory, antler, bone or stone. One way is the so-called ‘Venus’ figure. A stalagtite in Chauvet Cave has a vulva and legs painted on it, and from many other European sites, especially in Austria and the Czech Republic, there are little carved figurines showing naked women in various stages of pregnancy or post-pregnancy. Old theories assumed men had made them as erotic images but it seems more likely that women were making them for themselves to mark this important life event.

 

 

Man/bird hybrid being killed by a dying bison in Lascaux Cave. By Peter80, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2416632

Another way humans get depicted is generally a human/animal hybrid. This is usually a man, such as the Man-Bison from Chauvet Cave (interestingly, painted next to the Venus), the Lion-Man from Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in the Baden-Württemberg region of southern Germany, and the man-bird from the deepest past of Lascaux cave. Sometimes shape-shifting can be attributed to female figures, such as the Femme au Renne from the Laugerie-Basse cave in the Dordogne region of France, which shows a pregnant woman/deer under the legs of a reindeer. There seems to have been a taboo on depicting people in cave art, unless they were shape-shifting into some other animal or a woman. What does this tell us? It’s difficult to say but it would prod us towards thinking that the paintings potentially have a spiritual dimension.

Auroch roundel found in the Mas d’Azil cave, southern France
Musée d’Archéologie nationale et Domaine national de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Paris

There’s one last feature of Palaeolithic art that is quite special. There are discs showing images on both sides, perforated in the middle of the disc. The images are similar but usually different in a small way, such as a deer with legs down on one side and bent up on the other, or an auroch calf on one side and an auroch cow on the other. These are very early thaumatropes, better known as a popular Victorian optical illusion. You thread a string through the middle and spin them to see a moving image. Amazingly, moving images were made on cave walls too. There are paintings in Chauvet and other caves with multiple animals seemingly superimposed on each other, but in fact these are different positions of the same animal, with tails wagging, or heads raising, and as the flickering light from the fat lamps that people used fell on them, they would appear to move. Here is a video showing some of these incredible paintings in action.

What does all this add up to, then? The fact that children were involved in painting the caves and clearly present in many caves suggests that the paintings may have been used as teaching aids, but that everyone also observed the world outside the cave very closely too. One theory is that the caves may have been seen as the birthplace of life, and so these are paintings of animals coming out of the cave. The way they move supports this theory.

The fact that many of the human figures seem to shape-shift into animals also suggests that shamanic rituals may have taken place either in the caves or elsewhere with people dressed in animal skins and pretending to be animals, moving like them, making noises like them in ceremonies, or for telling stories. But animals were not the only thing depicted in Palaeolithic art, bearing children was clearly important, while making other abstract marks and putting your handprint on a cave was also done. Can you think of reasons why?

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