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?

Stone Age to Iron Age Cantabria, northern Spain, and it’s links to Britain

Spain has its fair share of beautiful heritage, and our director Kim Biddulph and her family found quite a few links between Britain’s and northern Spain’s Stone Age to Iron Age period on a recent visit to the area.

"12 Vista general del techo de polícromos" by Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“12 Vista general del techo de polícromos” by Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A highlight of the trip was a visit to Altamira cave, or, at least, it’s replica. The ceiling painted with bison and horses is recreated in a purpose built museum next to the actual cave. Many of the bison were painted on natural lumps in the ceiling that made them look 3D. We didn’t have time to visit the other painted caves of the region, but will go back to visit again. The cave art of this area and southern France is spectacular, but Britain has some cave art of its own. Around eighty carvings have been found in caves at Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire and more at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, and it’s likely more examples will be found.

One single piece of animal bone incised with an image of a horse was also found at Creswell Crags, one of only a couple of pieces of portable art found in Britain. In Santander Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology of Cantabria (MUPAC), we were blown away by the number and sheer beauty of the images carved on bone, antler and tusk.

We think there must have been communication between Britain and Cantabria in the Stone Age. The reason we’re suggesting a link is that in a museum in Bilbao we saw microliths (small flint flakes) that had come from a Neolithic dolmen, Hirumugarrieta 2, dated to around 2800-3000 BC (thanks to Joseba Rios-Garaizar of Arkeobasque for the link). Microliths (tiny precision made flakes that were used to make composite projectiles or other tools) were a type of flint technology used in the British Mesolithic from around 9000 BC up to 4000 BC (thanks to Spencer Carter for the date check), after which they went out of use, but they were certainly still being made and used in the Cantabrian/Basque Neolithic. Travel between the two could have been by foot in the earlier period but the seas were inexorably rising and then a tsunami in c.6100 BC caused by a landslide in the North Sea finally cut Britain off from the continent (see video below), so the two areas developed their own separate ways. Microlithic technology was invented independently in many different areas, though, (for example in south Asia around 35,000 years ago) so the link between Britain and Cantabria may be illusory.

 

Late Iron Age Cantabrian circular tomb stone

Late Iron Age Cantabrian circular tomb stone

Hillforts also become a thing in the Iron Age, just as in Britain, but one of the distinctive features of Cantabria, and neighbouring Basque country, in the late Iron Age are circular tombstones with distinctive motifs. Burials in general are quite rare in Britain in the Iron Age though there are some local traditions, such as the chariot burials in East Yorkshire.

Looking at the prehistory of another country is really useful to bring out the contrasts and similarities between the two and work out how typical Britain’s prehistoric traditions were. But it also reminds us that there wasn’t really a Britain at all until the seas rose and submerged the land bridge that once tied us to the continent.

Book review: The First Drawing by Mordicai Gerstein

This is a wonderful picturebook that invites children to imagine they lived thousands of years ago and invented drawing. You see animals in rocks and clouds, watch animals all day and even come face to face with a woolly mammoth. You see animals running and dancing in the firelight on the walls of the cave where you sleep with your extended family. But no-one else can see what you can see until you pick up a charred stick from the fire and start making marks on the wall where you can see the animals: the first drawing. Then everyone can see what you see and everyone draws on the cave.

Being written in second person is really engaging and different, and the detail in the pictures really backs up that feeling of the reader being the main character in the story and being misunderstood by others. The book could easily be read without any words, with the pictures themselves telling the story. If you focus on the pictures you can see the expressions of the wider family as they disbelieve, fear and finally see the animals on the walls. If children look really carefully they can see that one member of the extended family does see, a baby, the most innocent and least socialised person in the group.

If you examine the end papers either before or after reading the book, you can find some clues as to why certain aspects of the book are in there. There is the dedication which reads:

For Susan, with love. Your beautiful drawings open our eyes to our own imaginations. –MG

Who is Susan? Who is referred to in ‘our eyes’? Perhaps Susan is the author’s daughter and she opens her parents eyes to their own imagination, like the hero of the story eventually opens his/her parents and relations eyes to their imaginations. Under the dedication is the hero looking at an elephant in the zoo, which might link to the hero coming face to face with a woolly mammoth. Perhaps that is a memory of the author’s visit to a zoo. Children will have other ideas too.

A focus on the text will provide opportunities for philosophical discussion. The phrases “Why can’t they see what I see?”, “being a mammoth might not be so different from being you.” and “It is magic.” the ‘it’ being drawing, are a few starting points that would lead to very rich dicussions.

The Author’s Note at the back gives more detail about the prehistorical background, explaining that the book was inspired by the cave paintings found in Chauvet cave in southern France. The author tells us that he had always thought children had invented drawing and when the footprint of a child, perhaps aged about 8, was found in the cave, alongside that of a wolf, he felt vindicated. It would be great to compare the drawings in the book to the drawings in Chauvet Cave, which you can find on the Bradshaw Foundation’s website.

Children could even investigate the premise of the book, which is that art was invented in Europe around 30,000 years ago. This eurocentric viewpoint can be challenged as it may be that anatomically modern humans (AMH) created art long before that but not on cave walls where it has been preserved. AMHs first arrived in Australia, it is thought, about 60,000 years ago and they may have already been drawing. A recent find of a scored shell has been dated to before AMH evolved, about 500,000 years ago. It is likely that an earlier human species, Homo erectus, had scored the abstract patterns on the shell found on Java in Indonesia.

It is also not likely that humans lived in the caves that they decorated, and it would be good to read this book alongside Satoshi Kitamura’s Stone Age Boy book that shows a more authentic way of life of these Ice Age people, living in tents by rock shelters.