Why did prehistoric people make cave art?

Humans have been painting caves for tens of thousands of years (and many tribes continue to do so). Some of the most famous art are from the European Upper Palaeolithic, being manufactured between 40 and 12,000 years ago. These images include the famous Lascaux paintings, along with hundreds more found across the continent.

This prehistoric cave art is incredibly fascinating, being simultaneously distinctly human and incredibly alien. After all, everyone makes art. Be it a doodle or a masterpiece, making images is what humans do; yet the vast amount of time that separates us from the artists means that we have no idea why they made those images. On top of that they’re just plain pretty, so it should come as no surprise that they’ve attracted a tonne of attention and research; a lot of it spent on shedding light on just why we were drawing on walls tens of thousands of years ago.

The cave of Altamira, populated by very sophisticated cavemen (and women)

The cave of Altamira, populated by very sophisticated cavemen (and women)

Despite the amount of effort spent looking into the matter, no final answer has yet to be reached (although just about everyone seems to think they have the right answer). One of the earliest explanations for cave art is the “arts for art’s sake” idea, conjured up back when these images were first discovered in the 19th century. As the name implies, the idea is that our ancestors just did it because they were bored. Because they found the pictures pretty. Because they wanted to. There was no real goal behind it, it was the prehistoric equivalent of a doodle (Bahn, 2008).

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 doodle (White, 2003).

So what do archaeologists do when they don’t know quite what something is? Claim it’s part of a ritual! So they did, suggesting that ceremonies were conducted in these caves and that the artwork is religious in nature; perhaps akin to stained-glass. In fairness, there is quite a bit of evidence in support of this hypothesis. For example, many caves – such as the famous site of Chauvet – were never inhabited by people, being used only for art. Perhaps these were sacred locales (Zorich, 2011). Further, many sites that were chosen to host cave art all have a particular orientation, much like many later buildings of ritual significance (Hayden and Villenueve, 2011).

Some lions from Chauvet cavet

Some lions from Chauvet cavet

The idea that cave art was ritualistic in nature culminated in the “shamanism hypothesis” which posited that cave art was the result of a tribe’s mystics documenting their spiritual journey. And by “spiritual journey”, I mean getting high and thinking they’ve travelling to another realm.  Researchers noted that many of the weird things people see whilst on halluganagenic drugs (so-called entoptic phenomena) bear a surprising resemblance to the images recorded in cave art (Lewis-Williams et al., 1988).

Images witnessed whilst on drugs (left) and those seen in cave art (right)" src= width="246" height="281" /> Images witnessed whilst on drugs (left) and those seen in cave art (right)

Images witnessed whilst on drugs (left) and those seen in cave art (right)

For a while it seemed like this might be the answer, until others noted that of all the entoptic phenomena documented whilst on hallucinogens, only a tiny proportion matched cave art. If it were truly a result of taking drugs, why didn’t the rest? Besides, the drugs that were used in these tests were modern synthetics that weren’t available to our ancestors (Lewis-Williams et al., 1988).

Others have proposed other ways in which cave art might be ritualistic. For example, Bednarik (2008) pointed out that many of the footprints found in caves were made by children, and the size of some of the hand stencils also match the size of a kids hand. Based on this he suggests it was part of some kind of “coming of age” ritual.

Of course, not everyone has found the ritual idea convincing. Some have suggested that there was a more practical reason for the artwork. Most notably, Mithen (1988) realised that the changing climate and new, more efficient hunting techniques being developed by humans meant that many species could disappear from a region for a long time. He suggested that cave art was an attempt to keep a record of species seen before, preserving the knowledge of them for when they returned. This, he believed, explained why many images showed twisted feet (to record what tracks they made) and why they focused on the rarer animals, like mammoths

A horse from Lascaux with unnaturally rotated feet so you can see what kind of tracks it would leave behind

A horse from Lascaux with unnaturally rotated feet so you can see what kind of tracks it would leave behind

This debate continues to this day, with new books and papers being published that advance one idea or the other. Personally, I suspect that we’ll never hit on the answer because there is no answer. There are thousands of examples of cave art, stretching across tens of thousands of years. There probably was no single reason for making art that spanned this huge stretch of time and space; just like how all artists today draw for different reasons. All of these hypotheses are probably true to a certain extent. Maybe one cave was a doodle, another was ritualistic, but they weren’t all doodles because there was no universal reason for their manufacture.

Regardless of the ultimate explanation (if any), they remain a beautiful and fascinating link to our long-gone heritage.

References

Bahn, P. 1998. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Bednarik, R. 2008. Children as Pleistocene artists. Rock Art Research, 25(2):173-182

Hayden, B., & Villeneuve, S. (2011). Astronomy in the Upper Palaeolithic?.Cambridge Archaeological Journal21(03), 331-355.

Lewis-Williams, J., Dowson, T., Bahn, P., Bandi, H., Bednarik, R., Clegg, J., Consens, M., Davis, W., Delluc, B., Delluc, G., Faulstich, P., Halverson, J., Layton, R., Martindale, C., Mirimanov, V., Turner II, C.,  Vastokas, J., Winkelman, M. and Wylie, A. 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

White, R. H., (2003). Prehistoric Art: the Symbolic Journey of Humankind. New York: Harry N. Abrams

Zorich, Z. 2011. A Chauvet Primer. Archaeology, 65(2).

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51 thoughts on “Why did prehistoric people make cave art?

  1. Thanks for this. One of my major frustrations in moving away from my interest in the palaeolithic was the focus on too much theorising over parietal and mobiliary art. I found the theorists far too much of a reflection of the political eras they were studying in and ultimately tragic that they could rarely see it. I would love to see Altamira some day, and Lascaux too (though I understand that the public can’t visit this any more and that the French government have created a superb replica).

    • I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem restricted to art research. Many palaeanthropologists studying a range of topics tend to become rather wrapped up in their own theory, overstating the confidence with which it should be held. Evolutionary psychology in particular is susceptible to this. Don’t get me wrong, most of these are good ideas worth investigating, they just aren’t as well supported as some researchers would have you believe. That’s why I try to remain a bit wary of these ideas, without being outright dismissive.

      And yes, you are correct. Only the replica Lascaux can be visited these days (although it is of almost perfect quality). I hear they’re building a second one to cope with demand. You can still go in the original Chauvet, since they found it recently and were able to put in safe guards before thousands of people ruined the place.

  2. I must say it was yesterday that I commented to myself I have not received an email from you since that awful interview of the two fundamentalists. It took me some time to recover from their ineptness. However, I believe that each work of art-or each cluster of art- should be viewed as an individual expression. The evidence should be interpreted individually. But I would go with ritualistic interpretations, but leave room for graffiti and others.

    • I’m glad someone missed me, although you’ll be displeased to hear that there are plans for me to have another chat with those fundamentalists. Hopefully without the connection problems, so I can try and form a cogent point this time!

      Although ritual is a good explanation that can probably account for an awful lot of the art, I think most people underestimate just how much fun it is. I’ve had a chance to go cave painting in my universities new palaeolithic lab and it is brilliant. After spending 3 hours playing with pigment and laughing with friends “art for art’s sake” seems a lot more plausible than other researchers seem to suggest.

      • When I first started my studies in archaeology if an archaeologist found a large building it was label a temple without too much investigation. Now there are so many applications to a site it cannot be that much misinterpreted. There have been chemical studies of many prehistoric paintings and this has improved interpretation immensely. After all discoveries in archaeology come about when new technologies are applied to the archaeological record.
        As for your interview I really think that both of you were unprepared only because in an interview it would be best to have the questions know and the answers prepared before you start. This would bring to the interview some sense of clearance and flow.
        FYI: I will be taking a course in Human Evolution from Coursea this September. Looking forward to it.

      • Whilst technology has undoubtedly been a huge boon to archaeology I think some of the most significant changes are changes in attitude. Of increasing skepticism towards many of the ideas which were simply asserted in the past. For example (you’ll have to forgive me, I can’t remember the names) for years people had been claiming a particular artefact was a lunar calender. Then someone came along and just said “hang on a minute, can we be sure about that?” and it turns out we couldn’t.

        I did try and organise a more focused discussion beforehand, but they refused to be specific about what they wanted to talk about. And lo, we wound up spending half of it talking about what makes someone good. Which is a topic I’m obviously very knowledgeable about.

      • The answer is – because they had ample time on their hands so why shouldn’t they paint on stone.
        Why is there so much writen about this, going off at tangents and concluding nothing.

        • The big reason for looking into this is that some of these explanations imply that these people had symbolism; which in turn is a strong indicator of language. Language is unique to humans, so figuring out how and why that developed is fascinating.

    • However, I believe that each work of art-or each cluster of art- should be viewed as an individual expression.

      Call me a cynic, but any researcher pushing such a banal concept wouldn’t get much funding! :D

      • I feel like there’s some funding potential, providing you don’t just promise obvious, almost tautological statements (one of the failings of early processual archaeology)

        • Jargon-filled processional archaeology is a plague upon archaeology. What are these people talking about? They only confuse the issue. Can’t they talk in understandable language? Are they being elitist? They have taken over the profession and left it in shambles. Research should first start with reviewing (and listing) all available theories and than testing them. The banal one might be the strongest. There is so much information we can pull from the evidence.

          I am having trouble replying to you through the reply icon below so I am sending my reply through my reply email. {The reply box is not visuable for me to continue my message.)

          Date: Tue, 23 Jul 2013 21:23:50 +0000 To: ralphgironda52@hotmail.com

          • In theory I support processual archaeology, the idea of trying to test various ideas. In practice it can be a truly horrific beast, but unfortunately it’s not the only one. Have you ever heard of some of the post-processual talk of lifeways? I’ve been studying the subject for 3 years now and still have no idea what on earth a lifeway is, except that people of the past had them and this is a big deal.

            The comment box problem is rather weird, I’ve experienced it on other blogs too, so suspect the problem is at WordPress’s end

            • There is one good book that I recommend for processional archaeology, AN INTRODUCTION TO MODERN ARCHAEOLOGY by Ned Woodall. It shows you step by step how to do processional archaeology. It is jargon-free and simple to understand. If all processional archaeological books were like this processional archaeology might have an impact on avocational archaeologists like my self. Read the first paragraph of Lewis Binford’s ARCHEOLOGY AS ANTHROPOLOGY and tell me what he is saying? Lifeway may be a term for culture. Why they can’t say culture is puzzling. It all started with McKern’s Midwest taxonomic classification. I tried to juxtapose the European names to McKern’s but to no avail. I am still trying. The only thing somebody came up with is Mesolithic for the Paleoindian stage.

              Date: Thu, 25 Jul 2013 20:53:03 +0000 To: ralphgironda52@hotmail.com

      • But it may be true. There are two kinds of art that I can think of: cave art and rock art. Why would somebody go deep into a cave draw pictures. It would seem ritualistic. Rock art might have a different meaning.

      • Personally, I think that post-processualism often goes too far. Reading works by the likes of Ian Hodder always made me want to claw my eyes out. But saying that, reading the bickering between him and Lewis Binford sometimes made for an entertaining read.

        • If you really want to go brain-dead try reading David Clarke’s ANALYTICAL ARCHAEOLOGY. Plog, Schiffler, even some of Renfrew and Clive Gamble need to be banish from anybody’s library. I can’t even go to sleep with these people.

          Date: Fri, 26 Jul 2013 09:13:50 +0000 To: ralphgironda52@hotmail.com

      • The worst part is where landscape archaeology and lifeways collide. You wind up with people wandering around sites going “this makes me feel in awe, thus it would’ve impacted ancient lifeways.” It seems to me to be the biggest pile of drivel I ever did hear

        • My Master’s is in Landscape Archaeology so I feel your pain brother :-(

          One Dartmoor expert – can’t remember his name – used to take a window frame up to the moor when he took students on a field trip. This he would take to places like Merevale and Grimspound and… no joke… hold the window frame up so his students could look through it and “experience” the village and its surrounding landscape.

      • Thing is, I’d wager most people with an interest in archaeology have done something similar. Just stood in a field and tried to throw your mind back and imagine the past. But I doubt most people would try and make that a field of research.

        • NEXT TO ATLANTIS AND MU BELIEVERS THESE PEOPLE WOULD FIT RIGHT IN. And who said pseudo-archaeology can’t be scientific. There is a theory that the Beatles ruined Rock & Roll, Shaina Twain ruined Country music (she did), and I believe New Archaeology ruined archaeology.

          Date: Mon, 29 Jul 2013 15:04:28 +0000 To: ralphgironda52@hotmail.com

  3. Great post, Adam. I like the way you simply explain the different viewpoints without saying one is right. However, wouldn’t the simple answer be that, just like we do today, they had multiple reasons, so we cannot simply attribute all cave art to the same idea. It isn’t just in your field that most academics take this naïve attitude that people in the past were all identical. But every new theory is a reflection of what motivates the theorists, not the cave people. Besides, “art for art sake” today is not about doodles, but about art for its beauty.

    • That’s a good answer, and ultimately the one I arrived at the end of the post. At the end of the day I suspect most researchers would concede that there are likely multiple explanations for the art; but most don’t really act like it. I guess they want their theory to be important and not relegated to one of many. In much the same way that the discoverer of important fossil hominins will proclaim that their species is the actual ancestor of humanity

    • It’s difficult to say. However, given the environmental variability of Europe at the time anything which helped build cohesion between multiple groups (allowing one to move into another’s territory if their’s froze over) would’ve been a huge boon and would likely justify an extraordinary amount of effort.

      That said, for building cohesion between groups the more mobile items, like the venus figurines, were more important; unless people were regularly visiting each other’s caves

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  6. I think that if you wanted to obtain better insight into the motivations for the European rock art, it would be rewarding to take careful note of studies done on the San/Bushman art of Southern Africa. On the arrival of whites here early 1600’s, these people still lived as hunter gatherers. They lived like this until virtually yesterday. And were rather well studied and documented. They originally inhabited the whole of Southern Africa, seemingly for hundreds of thousands of years, and left rock art as proof, all over this landscape. Only about a 1000 years ago did the black tribes start moving into the area and pushed them into the western arid areas. Then came the whites who pushed them north.
    So it happened that their art and culture was well documented. Far as i know, there are archeologists specializing in this field today. Evan most beautiful story books, by authors who lived amongst them from time to time, the likes of P. J. Schoeman, was written about them. There are quite serious claims (today) that they could sense animals, which were completely out of visual range, up to 12 kms away, when
    hunting.
    What does seem apparent is that in their religion and culture, animals and the animal world, were totally integrated. To one group the Praying Mantis.
    a local insect, was their God or represented their god on earth. Every time an animal was killed, they prayed for its “soul”. Of course they lived in total symbiosis with nature. They illustrated total respect for it
    in their culture/s. Of course they never harmed the environment at all,
    seemingly because of their culture. As apposed to the blacks and whites who moved in recently.
    For modern humans, to place themselves in the mindset of the Australopithecus artistic, must be almost impossible. Unless we can go via the minds of these peoples who lived in almost similar manner, until yesterday? And are being robed of their last natural vestiges as i am typing here.

    • Hunter-gatherers are certainly a key source of information on the past and have been studied to investigate it. The Shamanism hypothesis discussed above, for example, was partly inspired by the discovery that some modern hunter-gatherers create cave art whilst in an altered state of conciousness.

      However, much of what you say is just a romanticised view of them. They’re a piece of evidence yes, but won’t resolve the issue single-handedly.

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  12. As an artist Painter i will be always proud to make art, one of the first impulse by humans in the planet Earth…. Painting Art.
    hermeshart.tumblr.com

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