Cave art: A creationist hoax

In 1879 Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola was conducting an archaeological excavation of the entrance to Altamira Cave, Spain. He’d just returned from a French conference on prehistory and was determined to make some discoveries of his own. Whilst he uncovered some Magdalenian tools (which we now know date to ~15,000 years ago) it was his daughter who made the most significant discovery. Playing in the next chamber, she called to her father claiming she’d found bulls. Sure enough, on the ceiling of the cave were over 30 massive paintings of bulls each drawn on an outcrop of rock to make them appear 3-dimensional.

The “polychrome chamber”, with some people in it for scale

Knowing that the cave was inhabited during prehistoric times Sautola quickly realised that this artwork was also prehistoric. Yet when he presented these findings to the scientific community they were almost universally rejected. Most dismissed them as simply recent images drawn in a prehistoric cave, but others went further and accused Sautola of forgery  Some even suggested he was perpetrating a deliberate creationist hoax to refute evolution! It was over 20 years before Sautola’s conclusions were vindicated, but by then he had sadly died.

Other pre-scientific ideas include the interpretation of elephant skulls as that of a Cyclops, with the central trunk-hole being mistaken for an eyesocket

This was not the first time people had made ridiculous claims concerning cave art. In the 14th century the Vatican issued a papal decree condemning the art as Satanic. This may have been because locals were engaging in non-Christian rituals in the caves or because they were believed to be the work of the devil himself, the decree is not clear on the specifics.

The key difference is that the people examining Sautola’s claim were supposed to be scientists, not church members afraid of anything that wasn’t overtly Christian. In 1860 Lartet and Christy had published an account of the first large scale scientific excavations in Europe, conclusively showing that an ancient stone age preceded recorded history. Many others followed and a comprehensive record of the past 50,000 years of human existence was established. This was a golden age in which countless discoveries were made and scientific techniques refined.

So why did they so foolishly reject Altamira as ancient? Some suggest it was simply nationalistic pride since most prehistorians were French whilst Altamira was a Spanish site. It’s certainly telling that the first sites to finally “prove” cave art was ancient were found in France. However, I think the problem was far more pervasive: they didn’t know how little they knew.

Archaeologists had uncovered the past 50,000 years of human existence in Europe but they had no way of knowing they only had 50,000 years of history. They believed they’d discovered it all and so were forced to fit the entirety of human evolution into a tiny fragment of the past. This resulted in many misinterpretations, the most famous being the neanderthals who were faultily assumed to be dim, hunchbacked ape-like ancestors because the incomplete record demanded they be.

The misinterpretation of neanderthals had some…interesting implications

Even the humans they found were classified as the “primitive” Cro-Magnon man despite the fact they’re fully modern in every respect. When evidence began to emerge that these “early” ancestors were in fact much more human-like it was typically rejected out of hand. This is where the rejection of ancient cave art stemmed from. They believed that people from the period were primitive and the idea they could make art challenged this idea to the core and so they rejected it out of hand.

Of course, we now know that most this artwork was created by fully modern humans during the Upper Palaeolithic, between 40,000 and 12,000 years ago. Thus the fact it is developed is no real issue because its manufacturers were too! Despite this there were are still traces of this old way of thinking in modern science. For example, despite the fact that there’s nothing which can really separate “Cro-Magnon man” from modern humans people continue to refer to them in research, news stories and books.

Whilst it can be tempting to sweep these embarrassing episodes under the rug I think they should be embraced, for they remind us of the need for due diligence, skepticism and awareness of our cultural and historical biases.  Crucially, they remind us that we should be aware of how little we know and the possibility that our ideas concerning the gaps in our knowledge can be wrong.

Meanwhile real creationists continue to hold up Altamira and other cave art sites as evidence “Cro-Magnon” man was really advanced and not a transitional ape-man!

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

12 thoughts on “Cave art: A creationist hoax

  1. I can’t think where I heard this now (I should keep better research diaries) but just the other day I saw some Creationist literature which said that there were cave paintings of dinosaurs, “proving” (their word) that humans and dinosaurs co-existed.

    • It’s a fairly common idea, I’m sure you could find it on almost any creationist website if you spend a few seconds getting acquainted with their search bar.

      I don’t find the claims particularly convincing because it assumes the artists had no imagination, often relies upon pre-programming the interpretation of inconclusive images (i.e. you suggest an image contains a dinosaur and people are more likely to interpret an ambiguous image as a dinosaur) and finally, often relies upon a good deal of cherry picking.

      For example, IIRC, there was an alleged image of a Stegosaurus, complete with plates on the back. What the creationists didn’t tell you is that all other images at the site came with a border of foliage, and the Stegosaurus’s plates actually more closely resemble leaves from such borders.

  2. Very wisely put Adam. Your last paragraph. But you should practice what you preach.

    Lately your articles seem overtly concerned with the Creationists. You are wasting valuable time on people who argue (understandably) from a emotional bias (like all liberals or conservatives) and you will get nowhere with them.

    But then ( by your own words) you should consider that they might (partially) have a hold on an insight that you don’t seem to consider at all. It might even just be that their explanation is as-cued. To quote you “how little we know” and “the gaps in our knowledge”.

    Watch out for your own emotional bias. Guarantee you we are today making the same mistakes as those people in the 1800’s . It is the nature of things.

    • Surely to identify whether there is any merit in their position, one must engage with them and – crucially – hold them to the same standards you hold others too. After all, they do have some points. Answers in Genesis’s rebuttal to one of my posts, whilst mostly flawed, did point out some mistakes I had made regarding the number of lumbar vertabrae in Au. afarensis.

      • So you made mistake. Many mistakes will still be made. As you said “how little we know”. Who knows what will be unearthed tomorrow.

        But what about all the other thousands of bits of info available today. Even in other fields of study, besides archeology, which confirms the age of the earth and the process of evolution. Basically all at ones finger tips, if you can type and read. If you still think the earth is 6000 years old and evolution is a fantasy today, you surely are more backwards than those a thousand years ago who thought the earth was flat. I don’t say one should not but the facts straight, but that vertebrae is not even defining today. Forty years ago it was an issue to argue evolution, but really not anymore today.

        My advice to the Creationists would be to rather accept the obvious overwhelming facts and focus on how to understand it and integrate it with religious and biblical insights and beliefs. The Scriptures itself says that one day we will understand better. Obviously the sooner we do,the better. Splitting hairs is not going to get us there.

        To understand better we need information and to logically assimilate it. You seem to have access to a lot of it concerning anthropology – as you term it.
        That , however, is only one facet of the info we need. So you are rather not to waste your time. Rather report and consolidate on all the amazing work being done today ?

        • And I do spend most of my time doing that, but knowledge is nothing without the ability to process and examine it. I find creationism to be a great grindstone on which to sharpen the mental processes.

        • There can ,of course, be no argument with the legitimacy of your point of view. It is your right to do so.

          But, it would be fantastic, if someone capable,with time knowledge and energy, could keep tabs, and feed the rest of us, with what is happening all over the world today in terms of archeological research. Specifically on the multitude of
          dig sites. If someone like yourself could be a funnel to all the up to date info. The Creationist don’t seem to be able to accept and assimilate the available scientific data anyway.

          And the relevant data, as it is today, is also not only of archeological origin. Thinking of a piece i read somewhere ( cannot find it after my system collapsed once) on a lizard in Japan. At the top of a specific mountain (where it is cold) this lizard reproduces as a mammal and at the bottom, where it is warmer, as reptile – laying eggs. Seemed physiologically exactly the same animal, at the top and bottom of this mountain, excepting for its reproductive
          organs. And then there is the moth in England that was white, before the industrial revolution, and became brown to be able to survive in the tardy environment that developed around it. It could not hide from the birds anymore, as a white moth, in the new environment. And that’s what i – who knows very little- know about. What argument have they really got?

          Read, in the week, the medical profession is now coming to the understand that, to understand certain diseases, they have to take our evolutionary past into consideration as to devise more effective treatment.

          The internet affords the opportunity to structure info. It would, for example, be magic (your word) to have a site where people could just paste relevant information on a specific subject ?

  3. Pingback: Cantabrian Prehistory & Albert I of Monaco | Zooarcher

  4. When Altamira was ‘discovered’ no French cave art sites had been found yet. So the idea that the authenticity of Altamira was rejected because of some nationalist pride is just factually incorrect.

  5. Pingback: First non-European Palaeolithic cave art discovered. It’s kinda boring (which just makes it fascinating) | EvoAnth

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