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Cave Art

Prehistoric artworks in caves:
Types, themes, origins, history
Chronology, dating and meaning

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Artist's impression of the Sorcerer rock engraving at Gabillou Cave
The anthropomorphic engraving known as the 'Sorcerer', from Gabillou Cave in the Dordogne, France. Image by José-Manuel Benito/Locutus Borg. (Public Domain).

What is Cave Art?

Cave art (or parietal art) is any man-made image on the walls, floors or ceiling, of an Ice Age cave or rock shelter.

It is part of the fabric of the cave, and cannot be removed. It thus excludes all portable items like venus figurines or ivory carvings.

The term is commonly used in connection with prehistoric art created during the final phase of the Stone Age, between about 40,000 and 10,000 BC - although new discoveries have forced archaeologists to push back this time period to 70,000 BC or earlier.

Painting of a mammoth at Rouffignac Cave, Dordogne
One of many paintings of woolly mammoths at Rouffignac Cave, France. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Who Created Cave Art?

So who created this parietal art? Until recently, most archaeologists would probably have answered 'modern man' - that is, modern Homo sapiens - whose arrival in Europe around 54,000 BC seemed to coincide with the start of most art.

But new dates obtained by Uranium-Thorium (U-Th) dating methods, from paintings in Spanish caves, show that Neanderthals seem to have been creating cave art in Europe up to 10,000 years before the arrival of modern humans.

That said, Neanderthal art is quite crude and - except for the stunning engravings at La Roche-Cotard Cave - consists largely of handprints and abstract signs.

Notable examples include:

None of this parietal art compares with the much more demanding animal paintings, produced by Cro-Magnons and other modern humans around the world.

For example, the dynamic black paintings of lion and rhinos at Chauvet Cave, the powerful bulls at Lascaux, and the multicolour masterpieces at Altamira, all required a far more sophisticated skill-set.

Even so, it's important to realize that all this cave painting is hunter-gatherer art, created by semi nomadic communities of hunters and foragers.

Who Exactly is Modern Man?

Short answer: Homo sapiens first appeared about 300,000 BC, in Africa. This first variant is known as Archaic Homo sapiens.

Later, about 160,000 BC, a new variant of Homo sapiens appeared in Africa, known as Modern Homo sapiens.

It is this variant, which began leaving Africa around 100,000 BC and arrived in Europe about 40,000 BC, that we call modern man.

Where is Cave Art Located?

New and important finds of paleolithic art occur every year, so new sites are constantly emerging, from places as far apart as the remote inaccessible rainforests of Borneo, to the bare canyons of Patagonia, to the river valleys of Western Europe.

Over the past few decades, major finds have been made in Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Siberia, South Africa, and elsewhere, but most of our detailed knowledge of Stone Age culture comes from excavations in European caves, notably in the zone of Franco-Cantabrian art in southern France and northern Spain.

See also hotspots such as the Vézère Valley Caves in the French Dordogne or the Swabian Caves in Germany.

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Did Stone Age People Live in Caves?

Not usually. Caves are quite rare across most of the world, and most are dark, cold, and damp. In the Stone Age they also attracted cave animals like lions and bears, which were especially large and ferocious.

Although some paleolithic caves were occupied by Neanderthals and later by modern man, these were mostly wide-mouthed but shallow rock shelters, no more than thirty metres in depth. But most humans lived in small settlements in the open or at the entrances of these rock shelters.

Nearly all the decorated caves were deep caverns stretching several hundred metres into the rock, and could be as long as 5 kilometres.

The dark interiors of these deep caves remained uninhabited and were usually reserved for ceremonies. Why the caves were decorated is not known. All we know is that cave art was not created for general consumption, which suggests its purpose was linked to the ceremonies.

What are the 5 Types of Cave Art?

Primitive Forms of Expression

Here, we include cupules, hand stencils, handprints and finger tracings (finger flutings) and other undefined markings.

Cave Painting

Prehistoric cave painting is black or coloured. Black paintings are made using charcoal or manganese dioxide. Coloured works are made with ochre pigments - a mixture of clay and iron oxide - which come in a range of colours including yellow, orange, red, and brown. See also: Stone Age Colour Palette.

Engraving

Rock engravings outnumber paintings but are less spectacular, and some have faded.

Their incisions - made with almost any sharp object or tool - can be deep and wide, or shallow and thin, according to the nature of the rock surface.

Abstract signs

According to cave sign expert Genevieve von Petzinger, artists used only 32 abstract signs in French caves, during the Upper Paleolithic.

They include: Aviforms (bird-shaped), Asterisks, Circles, Claviforms (club-shaped), Cordiforms (heart-shaped), Crosshatches (hashtags), Cruciforms (cross-shaped), Dots, Flabelliform (fan-shaped), Half-Circles, Lines, Open-Angles, (horizontal V-sign), Oval Signs, Pectiforms, (comb-shaped sign), Penniforms (feather-shaped), Quadrangles (4-sided symbol), Reniforms (kidney-shaped), Scalariforms (ladder-shaped), Segmented cruciforms, Serpentiforms (snake-like), Spirals, Spanish Tectiforms (rectangular), Tectiforms (roof-shaped), Triangles, Unciforms (hook-shaped), W-signs, Y-signs, and Zigzags.

The most popular signs include: lines, dots, open angles, and ovals.

Caves in France with significant numbers of signs include: Gabillou (Dordogne), Cosquer (Marseilles), Pech Merle (Lot), Rouffignac (Dordogne), and Trois Freres (Ariège).

Caves in Spain with signs - notably 'Spanish tectiforms' - include: El Castillo, Las Chimeneas and La Pasiega (Cantabria), as well as La Pileta (Malaga) and Nerja Cave (Andalucia).

Relief Sculpture

Prehistoric sculpture is the least common type of cave art.

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What are the Main Themes in Cave Art?

Prehistoric cave art is the art of animals!

It's true that animal images are outnumbered 2:1 by abstract symbols (dots, bars, circles, lines, triangles) but, optically speaking, animal pictures are the predominant visual art of the Ice Age, and must hold the key to understanding what our ancestors were trying to achieve.

Although the overall style is naturalistic, most animals are depicted as adults and are drawn in profile, with no regard for scale.

The most common types are horses.

In some caves their numbers are exceeded by bison (Altamira) or reindeer (La Pasiega), more rarely by rhinos and lions (Chauvet) or, by mammoths (Rouffignac).

But as a rule, horses predominate throughout Upper Paleolithic art, despite being a less common food source than either bison or reindeer.

Less popular are dangerous animals, such as lions, rhinos, wolves and bears, except at Chauvet.

Aurignacian artists typically gave much more attention to animals they feared, a tendency which changed at the start of the Gravettian period, when animals hunted for food became the favourite theme.

Fish are rarely depicted: two exceptions being the salmon relief sculpture at Abri du Poisson, and the halibut drawing at La Pileta.

There are also some rare examples of fantasy creatures, such as the two-horned 'unicorn' at Lascaux.

Animals are depicted in their entirety or else indicated by their heads, legs or other parts. The outline of the famous black weasel at Niaux Cave, for example, was depicted in ten exact strokes.

Animals are more often shown as individuals, rather than in herds or groups, although some famous groupings do exist, notably the lions and rhinos at Chauvet.

There are no pictures of any animal mating scenes, although pregnancy is seen: examples include the pregnant mare at La Pileta and the pregnant horse at Lascaux.

Size of individual animals is usually regulated by wall contours and available space, although some pictures - like the great bulls at Lascaux - can exceed 5 metres in length.

Landscape is not a theme in cave art. There are no rivers, no trees or views of the terrain.

Humans fare better but they are not a common theme.

Out of thousands of documented images, less than 100 show human figures.

In addition, many human figures are non-naturalistic (often, stick-like figures).

Drawings of entire human figures are extremely rare (less than 20). Such images include: carved women (at Abri de Laussel, Abri de La Magdeleine des Albis, Le Roc aux Sorciers), or incised outlines of female figures on soft surfaces (Cussac, Pech-Merle), or engraved men (Saint-Cirq, Sous-Grand-Lac).

There are several enigmatic representations of shamanic therianthropes, such as the 'Sorcerer' figures at Gabillou Cave and Les Trois Freres, as well as others in Fumane, Lascaux, Niaux, and Addaura. See: Shamans in Paleolithic Art.

Body segments - including female and male genitalia - are more common, although they are seen more often in the older caves (Abri Castanet, Chauvet, Cosquer, Grotte des Deux Ouvertures, Gargas, and Pech-Merle).

That said, female genitalia continue to appear throughout Upper Paleolithic art (at Bedeilhac, Font-Bargeix, La Pasiega, and Tito Bustillo).

Paleolithic Chronology

The Paleolithic (old Stone Age) is traditionally divided into different periods, based on the style of tools in use. Dates tend to vary and all periods overlap to a degree, so here is an approximate chronology.

From a rock art perspective, the last four periods are by far the most important.

Origins of Cave Art

Although, as noted above, Neanderthals produced a small amount of cave painting and engraving, most cave art is associated with modern man, who first appeared around 160,000 BC.

The only exception is the series of primitive cupules, found at the Auditorium Cave (Bhimbetka, India, 200,000 BC) and the Daraki-Chattan rock shelter (Bhanpura, India, 200,000 BC).

Archaeologists do not know exactly when modern man began to draw or paint, but except for the above, the oldest cave art to be scientifically dated is the set of cross-hatch engravings (71,000 BC), found on a stone fragment at Blombos Cave in South Africa. (We are assuming the fragment came from the wall of the cave.)

The Blombos site also contained 8,000 pieces of ochre - many of which had been ground into pigment crayons. These were the remnants of a sizeable 'ochre workshop', which dates to 100,000 BC.

All this suggests that cave art had begun by 100,000 BC or even earlier. It also proves that modern man acquired his artistic ability before leaving Africa.

How Did Cave Art Develop?

The following timeline summary shows how cave art evolved. In general, progress was uneven, with thousands of years between landmarks. Painting and engraving techniques were invented, developed, sometimes forgotten then rediscovered, over hundreds of generations.

It's worth remembering that much of the art appears in remote corners and alcoves, far from the cave entrance, where oxygen supply and general disorientation must have been constant problems.

Not easy to paint animals in these conditions, especially when the only light came from a dim oil lamp, giving off light equivalent to one fifth of a single candle.

71,000 BC
World's first drawing
Blombos Cave, South Africa.

64,700 BC
Europe's oldest cave art
Hand stencil, Maltravieso Cave

43,500 BC
World's first animal paintings
Leang Tedongnge Cave

41,900 BC
World's first painting of humans
Leang Bulu' Sipong 4 Cave

38,000 BC
Third oldest figurative painting
Lubang Jeriji Saléh Cave

37,000 BC
Europe's first animal paintings
Altxerri Cave, Spain

34,500 BC
First human figure paintings
Fumane Cave, Italy.

34,500 BC
Intense, black drawings
full of drama & movement
Chauvet Cave, France

27,000 BC
Highpoint of Gravettian art
Pech Merle, Lot, France

26,000 BC
Oldest dated art, Australia
Nawarla Gabarnmang, NT

23,000 BC
First relief sculpture
Abri du Poisson, Dordogne

19,000-13,000 BC
New standards in painting
Quality, size, modelling
and sophistication
- Lascaux Cave, Dordogne
- Font de Gaume, Dordogne

17,000-15,000 BC
Best Solutrean sculpture
Roc de Sers, Charente

15,000-10,000 BC
Climax of Magdalenian art
Spain
- Altamira: polychrome painting
- Ekain Cave: horse painting
France
- Cap Blanc: relief sculpture
- Niaux: black drawings
- Trois Frères: engravings
- Tuc d'Audoubert: haut-reliefs
- Les Combarelles: engravings

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Where are Decorated Caves Located?

Cave art has been identified on every continent, bar Antarctica. In Europe alone, more than 400 sites have been found, from Gibraltar to the Urals, and new ones are being found every year.

Of these, some 350 are located in the region of Franco-Cantabrian art, which spreads from the Dordogne/Lot area through the Pyrenees into Cantabria, the Asturias and the Basque region.

Hot-spots (with caves) include:

(1) Dordogne SW France
Home to: Abri Castanet, Abri Cellier, Cap Blanc, Cussac, Font de Gaume, Gabillou, La Ferrassie, Abri de Laussel, Lascaux, Les Combarelles, Abri du Poisson, and Rouffignac.

(2) French Pyrenees
Home to: Gargas, Niaux, Trois Freres, Tuc d'Audoubert.

(3) French Alps
Home to: Chauvet, Chabot, Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures, Ebbou.

(4) North coast of Spain
The Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country are home to a large number of caves and shelters including: Aitzbitarte, Altamira, Altxerri, Atxurra, El Castillo, Ekain, La Garma, La Pasiega, Las Chimeneas, Santimamiñe, and Tito Bustillo, among others.

(5) Swabian Jura
Located in Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, this is another hot-spot, which is home to a cluster of caves including Hohlenstein-Stadel, Hohle Fels, Vogelherd, and Geissenklosterle.

However it is famous for portable carvings, like the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel, rather than cave art.

Decorated caves have also been found in Italy, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Russia and the UK.

Paleolithic cave art is largely absent from the archaeological record in China, whose oldest art is the Quesang handprints on the High Tibetan Plateau, dating to 167,000 BC.

The next oldest art is the ancient pottery, found at Xianren Cave (18,000 BC) in Jiangxi Province, and Yuchanyan Cave (16,000 BC) in Hunan.

Neither handprints nor ceramics constitute cave art.

SE Asia - an important migratory route to Australasia - contains a large number of decorated caves, most of which are yet to be documented.

On the island of Sulawesi alone, there are several hundred prehistoric caves awaiting exploration.

Australia appears to possess fewer decorated caves. This is probably due to geological factors, as well as the rise in sea level, which flooded most of its coastal caves thousands of years ago.

Why are Decorated Caves Found in Some Areas But Not Others?

The presence or absence of decorated caves can be affected by at least five factors.

How is Cave Art Dated?

There are three main dating methods:

Stylistic Comparison

When there is no datable material available, scientists compare the style of the images and/or painting techniques used with others whose dates have already been fixed.

In the Coliboaia Cave in Romania, for instance, French archaeologists estimated the date of the drawings to between 23,000 and 30,000 BC, based on a comparison with similar drawings at Chauvet Cave in France, whose charcoal drawings had already been carbon dated to 30,000 BC.

Scientific tests later confirmed the art was made between 23,000 and 35,000 BC.

The cave painting at Baume-Latrone was also dated using stylistic analysis.

Comparative analysis was pioneered by French archaeologist Henri Breuil, who based it largely on the presence or absence of 'twisted perspective' - where an animal is depicted from the side but with its tusks, horns or antlers depicted from the front.

Breuil's approach was later replaced by a more complex but equally inadequate scheme designed by Andre Leroi-Gourhan.

Today, researchers employ more sophisticated computer mapping techniques, but even these are far from foolproof.

For instance, which stylistic features should be compared? How much congruence is needed between (say) painting A and painting B, to show that both was painted at the same time?

Ironically, most experts were convinced that Chauvet's cave art belonged to the Magdalenian (15,000-10,000 BC), because its style of painting was so advanced. Only repetitive carbon dating - which produced dates up to 34,500 BC - quietened the doubters.

Indirect Dating

Indirect dating can be used when datable materials exist, but are not part of the actual artwork.

For example, if the painting is covered by a thin layer of flowstone (calcite), this overlying material can be dated to fix a minimum age. Or if a fragment of rock art breaks off and is later found undisturbed in a layer of datable material, then the date of the layer should give a rough date for when the rock fell and thus a minimum age for the art itself.

In 2007, engravings at Abri Castanet in the Dordogne were indirectly dated to 35,000 BC, when a 1.5 ton ceiling slab was found buried face down in an Aurignacian layer.

Direct dating

Directing dating is only feasible when the artwork itself contains organic material such as charcoal, which can be scientifically dated.

The most commonly used direct dating method is radiocarbon dating, which has been greatly enhanced by accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS dating).

For instance, it is now possible to obtain radiocarbon dates from a sample of material the size of a pinhead.

Sadly, samples that are 40,000 years old are very difficult to date because they contain insufficient carbon-14. If they are more than 60,000 years old, they can't be dated at all.

New Dating Technologies

New dating methods in archaeology include: electron spin resonance (ESR), thermoluminescence (TL), optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and Uranium/Thorium testing (U/Th).

In 2012, the Uranium/Thorium method used on carbonate crusts overlying a hand stencil in the Cave of Maltravieso in western Spain, provided a date of 64,700 BC, making it the oldest cave art in Europe.

Understanding the Art

The meaning of this type of art continues to be widely debated.

Paleoanthropologists and other prehistorians have offered a wide range of suggestions, involving primitive religions, Shamanism, hallucinatory behaviours, hunting magic, cult behaviour, neuro-aesthetics, and archaeoacoustics to name but a few.

A major obstacle to understanding the reasons and purposes behind cave art, is surely that paleolithic people saw the world very differently from hypermoderns like ourselves. For instance, we define everything as either man-made or natural.

But studies of the traditional Sápmi people in Lapland, show that they do not share this ontological duality: they see animals as equal actors in the scheme of things.

This cultural difference is almost guaranteed to create an unbridgable gap between ourselves and our Stone Age ancestors, making it almost impossible for us to comprehend their art.

For more about the main theories as to why cave art was made, see: Meaning of Cave Art.

References

(1) "Cave Art" Jean Clottes. (2008) Phaidon. ISBN 978-0-7148-5723-7.
(2) "The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists." Curtis, Gregory (2006). Knopf. ISBN 1-4000-4348-4.
(3) "World Heritage Sites: a Complete Guide to 1007 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (6th ed.)" UNESCO Publishing. 2014. ISBN 978-1-77085-640-0
(4) "Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia." M. Aubert et al., Nature volume 514, pages 223–227.
(5) "U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain". Pike, A. W. G. et al. (14 June 2012). Science. 336 (6087): 1409–1413.

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