One might expect that the first examples of art would be simple and crude. However the oldest cave paintings are the evidence that modern humans were astonishingly quick in developing their artistic skills.
Ancient Cave Paintings
Cave paintings are paintings found on cave walls and ceilings, and especially refer to those of prehistoric origin. The earliest such art in Europe dates back to the Aurignacian period, approximately 40,000 years ago, and is found in the El Castillo cave in Cantabria, Spain. The exact purpose of the paleolithic cave paintings is not known. Evidence suggests that they were not merely decorations of living areas, since the caves in which they have been found do not have signs of ongoing habitation. They are also often located in areas of caves that are not easily accessible. Some theories hold that cave paintings may have been a way of communicating with others, while other theories ascribe a religious or ceremonial purpose to them.
Nearly 340 caves have now been discovered in France and Spain that contain art from prehistoric times. Initially, the age of the paintings had been a contentious issue, since methods like radiocarbon dating can produce misleading results if contaminated by samples of older or newer material, and caves and rocky overhangs (where parietal art is found) are typically littered with debris from many time periods. But subsequent technology has made it possible to date the paintings by sampling the pigment itself and the torch marks on the walls. The choice of subject matter can also indicate chronology. For instance, the reindeer depicted in the Spanish cave of Cueva de las Monedas places the drawings in the last Ice Age.
The oldest known cave art comes from the Cave of El Castillo in northern Spain, and may be more than 40,000 years old. This date coincides with the earliest known evidence for Homo sapiens in Europe. Because of their age, some scientists have conjectured that the paintings may have been made by Neanderthals.
The second-oldest known cave art is that of Chauvet Cave in France, the paintings of which date to earlier than 30,000 BCE (Upper Paleolithic) according to radiocarbon dating. Some researchers believe the drawings are too advanced for this era and question this age. However, more than 80 radiocarbon dates had been taken by 2011, with samples taken from torch marks and from the paintings themselves, as well as from animal bones and charcoal found on the cave floor. The radiocarbon dates from these samples show that there were two periods of creation in Chauvet: 35,000 years ago and 30,000 years ago. One of the surprises was that many of the paintings were modified repeatedly over thousands of years, possibly explaining the confusion about finer paintings that seemed to date earlier than cruder ones.
In 2009, spelunkers discovered drawings in Coliboaia Cave in Romania, stylistically comparable to those at Chauvet. An initial dating puts the age of an image in the same range as Chauvet: about 32,000 years old.
In Australia, cave paintings have been found on the Arnhem Land plateau showing megafauna which are thought to have been extinct for over 40,000 years, making this site another candidate for oldest known painting; however, the proposed age is dependent on the estimate of the extinction of the species seemingly depicted. Another Australian site, Nawarla Gabarnmang, has charcoal drawings that have been radiocarbon-dated to 28,000 years, making it the oldest site in Australia and among the oldest in the world for which reliable date evidence has been obtained.
Other examples may date as late as the Early Bronze Age, but the well-known Magdalenian style seen at Lascaux in France (c. 15,000 BCE) and Altamira in Spain died out about 10,000 BCE, coinciding with the advent of the Neolithic period. Some caves probably continued to be painted over a period of several thousands of years.
Theories and interpretations
Henri Breuil interpreted the paintings as being hunting magic, meant to increase the number of animals.
Another theory, developed by David Lewis-Williams and broadly based on ethnographic studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, is that the paintings were made by paleolithic shamans. The shaman would retreat into the darkness of the caves, enter into a trance state and then paint images of their visions, perhaps with some notion of drawing power out of the cave walls themselves.
R. Dale Guthrie, who has studied both highly artistic and publicized paintings and a variety of lower quality art and figurines, identifies a wide range of skill and ages among the artists. He hypothesizes that the main themes in the paintings and other artifacts (powerful beasts, risky hunting scenes and the representation of women in the Venus figurines) are the fantasies of adolescent males, who constituted a large part of the human population at the time. However, in analysing hand prints and stencils in French and Spanish caves, Dean Snow ofPennsylvania State University has proposed that a proportion of them, including those around the spotted horses in Pech Merle, were of female hands.
The Cueva de El Castillo, or the Cave of the Castle, is an archaeological site within the complex of the Caves of Monte Castillo, and is located in Puente Viesgo, in the province of Cantabria, Spain. It contains the oldest known cave art in the world, which may be more than 40,000 years old.
This cave was discovered in 1903 by Hermilio Alcalde del Río, the Spanish archaeologist, who was one of the pioneers in the study of the earliest cave paintings of Cantabria. The entrance to the cave was smaller in the past, but it has been enlarged as a result of archeological excavations. By way of this entrance one can access the different rooms in which Alcalde del Río found an extensive sequence of images. The paintings and other markings span from the Lower Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, and even into the Middle Ages. There are over 150 figures already catalogued, including those that emphasize the engravings of a few deer, completed with shadowing.
Paintings in El Castillo Cave in Puente Viesgo. Source >>
Panel de las Manos, El Castillo Cave, Spain. Source>>
The caves of El Castillo contain more than 150 different images painted in charcoal and red ochre on the walls and ceilings of multiple chambers. Most are simple hand stencils, red disks, and claviforms (club shapes), although there are occasional outlines of animals.
The cave contains paintings of a great many animals, including drawings of dogs, which is not common in this area of Cantabria. Remains of cave art from the Acheulean period to the Bronze Age are found along its 18 metres depth. The most primitive paintings are the 45 hand prints. There are also 50 symbols and 180 depictions of animals, especially goats. There are also fine drawings of horses, deer and bison, as well as mammoths and dogs. The black paintings belong to a middle period. Coloured paintings, such as the red mammoth, are the most recent.
The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in the Ardèche department of southern France is a cave that contains some of the earliest known cave paintings, as well as other evidence of Upper Paleolithic life. It is located near the commune of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc on a limestone cliff above the former bed of the Ardèche River, in the Gorges de l’Ardèche. Discovered on December 18, 1994, it is considered one of the most significant prehistoric art sites.
Horses, Chauvet Cave, France
Bison, Chauvet Cave, France
Lions, Chauvet Cave, France
Rhions, Chauvet Cave, France
Hundreds of animal paintings have been catalogued, depicting at least 13 different species, including some rarely or never found in other ice age paintings. Rather than depicting only the familiar herbivores that predominate in Paleolithic cave art, i.e. horses, cattle, mammoths, etc., the walls of the Chauvet Cave feature many predatory animals, e.g., cave lions, panthers, bears, and cave hyenas.
Typical of most cave art, there are no paintings of complete human figures, although there is one partial “Venus” figure composed of a vulva attached to an incomplete pair of legs. Above the Venus, and in contact with it, is a bison head, which has led some to describe the composite drawing as a Minotaur. There are a few panels of red ochre hand prints and hand stencils made by spitting pigment over hands pressed against the cave surface. Abstract markings—lines and dots—are found throughout the cave. There are also two unidentifiable images that have a vaguely butterfly or avian shape to them. This combination of subjects has led some students of prehistoric art and cultures to believe that there was a ritual, shamanic, or magical aspect to these paintings.
The artists who produced these unique paintings used techniques rarely found in other cave art. Many of the paintings appear to have been made only after the walls were scraped clear of debris and concretions, leaving a smoother and noticeably lighter area upon which the artists worked. Similarly, a three-dimensional quality and the suggestion of movement are achieved by incising or etching around the outlines of certain figures. The art is also exceptional for its time for including “scenes”, e.g., animals interacting with each other; a pair of woolly rhinoceroses, for example, are seen butting horns in an apparent contest for territory or mating rights.
The cave was first explored by a group of three speleologists: Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet for whom it was named. Chauvet (1996) has a detailed account of the discovery. In addition to the paintings and other human evidence, they also discovered fossilized remains, prints, and markings from a variety of animals, some of which are now extinct. Further study by French archaeologist Jean Clottes has revealed much about the site. The dates have been a matter of dispute but a study published in 2012 supports placing the art in the Aurignacian period, approximately 30,000–32,000 BP.
Lascaux (Lascaux Caves) is the setting of a complex of caves in southwestern France famous for its Paleolithic cave paintings. The original caves are located near the village of Montignac, in the department of Dordogne. They contain some of the best-known Upper Paleolithic art. These paintings are estimated to be 17,300 years old. They primarily consist of images of large animals, most of which are known from fossil evidence to have lived in the area at the time. In 1979, Lascaux was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list along with other prehistoric sites in the Vézère valley.
The cave contains nearly 2,000 figures, which can be grouped into three main categories: animals, human figures and abstract signs. The paintings contain no images of the surrounding landscape or the vegetation of the time. Most of the major images have been painted onto the walls using mineral pigments, although some designs have also been incised into the stone. Many images are too faint to discern, and others have deteriorated entirely.
Image of a horse from the Lascaux caves
Fragment of image of a bull from the Lascaux caves
Animals, Lascaux caves
Animals, Lascaux caves
Over 900 can be identified as animals, and 605 of these have been precisely identified. Out of these images, there are 364 paintings of equines as well as 90 paintings of stags. Also represented are cattle and bison, each representing 4 to 5% of the images. A smattering of other images include seven felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human. There are no images of reindeer, even though that was the principal source of food for the artists. Geometric images have also been found on the walls.
The most famous section of the cave is The Great Hall of the Bulls where bulls, equines, and stags are depicted. The four black bulls, or aurochs, are the dominant figures among the 36 animals represented here. One of the bulls is 17 feet (5.2 m) long, the largest animal discovered so far in cave art. Additionally, the bulls appear to be in motion.
The Crossed Bison, Lascaux cave
A painting referred to as “The Crossed Bison”, found in the chamber called the Nave, is often submitted as an example of the skill of the Paleolithic cave painters. The crossed hind legs create the illusion that one bison is closer to us than the other. This visual depth in the scene demonstrates a primitive form of perspective which was particularly advanced for the time.
Altamira (Spanish for ‘high views’) is a cave in Spain famous for its Upper Paleolithic cave paintings featuring drawings and polychrome rock paintings of wild mammals and human hands.
Painting of a bison in the cave of Altamira
Great hall of policromes of Altamira, published by M. Sanz de Sautuola in 1880.
Its special relevance comes from the fact that it was the first cave in which prehistoric cave paintings were discovered. When the discovery was first made public in 1880, it led to a bitter public controversy between experts which continued into the early 20th century, as many of them did not believe prehistoric man had the intellectual capacity to produce any kind of artistic expression. The acknowledgement of the authenticity of the paintings, which finally came in 1902, changed forever the perception of prehistoric human beings.
It is located near the town of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, Spain, 30 km west of the city of Santander. The cave with its paintings has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The cave is approximately 300 meters long and consists of a series of twisting passages and chambers. The main passage varies from two to six meters in height. The cave was formed through collapses following early karstic phenomena in the calcerous rock of Mount Vispieres.
Archaeological excavations in the cave floor found rich deposits of artifacts from the Upper Solutrean (c. 18,500 years ago) and Lower Magdalenean (between c. 16,500 and 14,000 years ago). Both periods belong to the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. In the millennia between these two occupations, the cave was evidently inhabited only by wild animals. Human occupants of the site were well-positioned to take advantage of the rich wildlife that grazed in the valleys of the surrounding mountains as well as the marine life available in nearby coastal areas. Around 13,000 years ago a rockfall sealed the cave’s entrance, preserving its contents until its eventual discovery, which occurred after a nearby tree fell and disturbed the fallen rocks.
Human occupation was limited to the cave mouth, although paintings were created throughout the length of the cave. The artists used charcoal and ochre or haematite to create the images, often diluting these pigments to produce variations in intensity and creating an impression of chiaroscuro. They also exploited the natural contours in the cave walls to give their subjects a three-dimensional effect. The Polychrome Ceiling is the most impressive feature of the cave, depicting a herd of extinct steppe bison (Bison priscus) in different poses, two horses, a large doe, and possibly a wild boar.
Dated to the Magdelenean occupation, these paintings include abstract shapes in addition to animal subjects. Solutrean paintings include images of horses and goats, as well as handprints that were created when artists placed their hands on the cave wall and blew pigment over them to leave a negative image. Numerous other caves in northern Spain contain Paleolithic art, but none is as complex or well-populated as Altamira.