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Purpose & Meaning of Cave Art

Upper Paleolithic Culture
Sympathetic magic, shamanism

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Why Create Cave Art?

Why did paleolithic humans bother to decorate their caves with paintings and engravings? Was it to prettify their day-to-day surroundings? No. Most decorated caves were uninhabited, save for the artists.

Was it to create a public art gallery in order to edify the locals? No. A significant amount of cave art is found in remote chambers, far from the entrance.

Even here, some paintings and petroglyphs are found in small holes and corners, which can accomodate only one person at a time.

In other words, this prehistoric art wasn't made for cave residents or for the general public. Instead, archaeologists believe the decorations were connected to the function of the caves themselves.

What Were Caves Used For?

Prehistoric cave networks are believed to have served as sanctuaries for various ceremonial activities. And the cave art was created to enhance these ceremonies.

A modern example might be the stone statues, doorway friezes, stained glass, wood carvings, gold crosses and gospel manuscripts inlaid with precious metals, which were used over the centuries in many cathedrals, to enrich and reinforce the teachings of the Catholic Church.

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Cave Art Was Important

Cave painting and engraving was a serious business.

(1) First, deep caves - unlike shallow rock shelters - were not pleasant places. They were cold and damp and attracted ferocious predators like bears and lions, both much larger than today's animals.

They were also pitch dark, with no natural light, and full of potholes, underground streams and other natural dangers.

(2) Second, as mentioned, many decorations were created in remote chambers, often small, sometimes lacking adequate oxygen.

Reaching a remote corner of a dark, dank cave, with only a dim lamp throwing perhaps one fifth of the light of a candle, would have been a very disorientating experience for many people.

(3) Third, cave art ate up valuable resources.

Cave artists had to be strong and fit to work in a deep-cave environment - the sort of people the community could least afford to excuse from hunting duty.

They needed paint tools and pigments, a large quantity of charcoal, lots of animal-oil lamps and juniper wood torches, as well as scaffolding - all of which had to be manufactured by other workers.

Thus paleolithic cave art created a huge amount of extra work for the community and could not be attempted without a major collective effort.

Which is why the large painted galleries at Lascaux and Font de Gaume were only completed during the Magdalenian. They needed the sort of major effort which only a populous and successful hunter-gatherer community could mount.

(4) Fourth, Stone Age artists were highly skilled. During a visit to Lascaux, Picasso himself said of them: "They've invented everything... we have invented nothing."

Cave paintings, for instance, were painted in such a way that they followed the contours of the cave, so that animals often looked as though they appeared from, and disappeared into, the wall itself.

In other words, cave art was not a form of interior decorative art made by hunter-gatherers with time on their hands. It was a serious business, that required planning, resources, and a fit, highly skilled workforce.

All of which suggests it had a serious purpose and meaning.

Paleolithic Art: What does it Mean?

Upper Paleolithic art comes in two main forms. About 66 percent is made up of abstract signs. The remainder consists of figurative images (mostly animals, plus a tiny number of human figures).

Abstract Images

According to sign expert Genevieve von Petzinger, paleolithic artists used 32 different abstract signs and symbols during the Upper Paleolithic.

They include simple signs like lines and dots; geometric motifs like circles, triangle and quadrangles; and more complex symbols like penniforms and Spanish tectiforms.

Early Form of Writing

She describes cave signs as being "the first glimmers of graphic communication" among human beings - a sort of precursor to the written word. "It's certainly not writing yet at this point but writing didn't come out of a vacuum," she says.

A fascinating example of these pictographs is a panel at La Pasiega Cave, known as 'The Inscription'. This is often cited as a forerunner of writing systems, like Egyptian hieroglyphics.

According to another theory - proposed by the archaeologist David Lewis-Williams - shamanistic rituals involving prolonged drumming, chanting, fasting, and ingestion of hallucinatory plants, can induce a person to enter an altered state of consciousness, and create certain types of abstract shapes.

The scientific literature documents a wide range of images that are drawn by people under the influence of hallucinations, so why not cave artists?

Other experts believe the geometric spirals on the kerbstones at Knowth Passage Tomb (3,200 BC) were drawn by artists as a result of hallucinatory episodes.

These are interesting theories, although other prehistorians are less convinced.

They insist we know almost nothing about the cultural context of these early abstract signs. So, we cannot possibly guess the intentions of their authors.

The archaeologist Robert G. Bednarik, a world expert on early Stone Age art forms, cites a report by the archaeologist Charles P. Mountford (1890-1976), who witnessed cupules being made by aboriginals in central Australia in the 1940s. (A cupule is a cup-shaped hollow, hammered out of a rock surface.)

When Mountford asked why they were making the cupule signs, he was informed it was a fertility ritual for the pink cockatoo.

The rock being hammered was believed by the cupule-makers to contain the life essence of this bird, and the dust that rose into the air during the process was believed to fertilise local female cockatoos and thus increase their production of eggs, a valuable food source.

Bednarik uses this example to show how futile it is to theorize about the purpose of paleolithic art without sufficient knowledge of hunter-gatherer culture.

After all, a region may contain a dozen clusters of cupules, all made for a completely different reason.

So, for example, knowing the habits and customs of modern day hunter-gatherers in South America may shed absolutely no light on those of French hunter-gatherers in 30,000 BC.

Figurative Images

Paleolithic figurative art is equally mystifying and raises all sorts of questions.

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What are the Main Theories About the Meaning of Cave Art?

Sympathetic Magic

The interpretation of Franco-Cantabrian cave art was initially dominated by one man - the French Catholic priest turned archaeologist Henri (Abbé) Breuil (1877-1961).

He believed that hunter gatherer communities were driven by their symbiotic relationship with animals (in particular, bison, aurochs, horses, mammoths, and reindeer), whom they needed to hunt successfully in order to survive.

Their parietal art, he said, was the result of their anxieties that their prey should flourish and increase, and that they themselves should continue to enjoy success in the hunt.

When accompanied by the appropriate rites, this artistic imagery would ensure their ongoing success.

A possible example of this type of sympathetic magic, is the clay relief sculpture of a headless bear, riddled with spear holes, which was found at Montespan Cave, in the Haute-Garonne.

The point, Breuil said, was that in the eyes of paleolithic people, an image WAS the animal it represented, so that whatever happened on a cave wall would magically happen in real life.

His theory, known as 'sympathetic hunting magic', was eventually overwhelmed by its inability to answer obvious questions, such as:

Gender Theory

In the 1950s and 1960s, archaeologists Andrei Leroi-Gourhan (1911-86) and Annette Laming-Emperaire (1917-77) suggested the paleolithic cave reflected a spiritual world view based on the contrast between male and female.

Thus, horses, ibex, stags, reindeer and hinds were 'masculine' and ox and bison were 'feminine'.

They also suggested that the location of these animals in caves formed a map of prehistoric gender relations.

But as more caves were discovered, the theory was quickly disproved.

Today, the starting point for most theories, is that cave painting and engraving were both created to enhance ceremonies being held in the cave.

Shamanic Rituals

This theory suggests that Shamanism - widely practised among Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers - is a key element in understanding cave art.

Shamans used the caves as sanctuaries where they could communicate with the spirits/gods.

After all, underground caves are very atmospheric environments, devoid of all light, with dripping water the only sound.

Deprived of all normal stimuli, a visitor experiences total silence, total blackness, serious disorientation, and maybe even lack of oxygen and claustrophobia.

These sensations can be an ideal stimulus for communing with supernatural forces, and the parietal art could have been made in order to summon and connect with those forces.

A variation of the Shamanic theory, suggests that shamans would retreat into the darkest corners of the caves, go into a trance, and then paint images of what they 'saw' during their altered state of consciousness.

Shamanistic explanations for cave art sound very plausible - at least for certain painted images.

They are less convincing when applied to more complex panels, or sculptural friezes, which might have taken months to complete.

See: Shamans in Paleolithic Art (from 30,000 BC).

Latest Theories

The latest theories about the meaning of cave art, are more focused.

Fantasies

Researcher R. Dale Guthrie, for instance, considers that the main themes in Paleolithic art (dangerous beasts, therianthropic figures like the Sorcerer at Trois Frères cave, and the obese nude Venus figurines) represent the fantasies of adolescent males, who made up a large chunk of the population at the time.

Archaeoacoustics

Although still in its infancy, archaeoacoustics looks set to shed significant light on certain aspects of paleolithic cave art.

The theory is based on the fact that tests in certain caves show that animal paintings and signs were positioned in locations with the strongest acoustic resonances.

For example, research at Grande Grotte at Arcy-sur-Cure (Yonne), Le Portel and Niaux (Ariège), Labastide Cave (Hautes-Pyrénées), and at Kapova Cave (Urals), indicates that sound/image concordance is around 80-90 percent in most cases, sometimes 100 percent.

Standing in one of these locations, a shaman might imitate the roar of a bison only to have the sound resonate loudly throughout the cave, as if a whole herd was disturbed.

Since sound must have been an important element in deep cave ceremonies, this archaeoacoustic effect could have been highly effective.

Guess the Meaning

Excavations of European painted caves have unearthed important archaeological materials, including tools, hunting implements, burial arrangements, and animal remains, but only a certain amount can be inferred from these findings.

The fact is, no clear evidence survives to explain why paleolithic communities decorated their cave sanctuaries, let alone what certain drawings or panels of drawings mean. All we can do, is guess.

Trouble is, it's almost impossible to put ourselves in the position of paleolithic artists twenty or thirty thousand years ago.

If Australian aboriginals believed that making cupules would fertilize pink cockatoos, less than a hundred years ago - a belief we now struggle to comprehend - imagine how much further we are removed from hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic, who battled to stay alive and whose average life span was less than 30 years.

Indeed, some prehistorians question whether anything meaningful can be said about an art form of such remote antiquity.

According to British archaeologist Paul Bahn, for instance, if the artist's testimony is unavailable, the interpretation of the content of rock art is largely speculation, and to pretend otherwise is an illusion.

Nonetheless, the search for meaning in these dark paleolithic caves is not about the culture and cognitive development of our closest ancestors. What could be more compelling?

For chronological details of Stone Age pictures and petroglyphs, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) "The Cave Painters, Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists." Curtis, Gregory. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. ISBN-13:‎ 978-1400078875
(2) "Art Across Time." 3rd ed. Adams, Laurie Schneider. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007. ISBN-13:‎ 978-0072965254
(3) "Psychology Meets Archaeology: Psychoarchaeoacoustics for Understanding Ancient Minds and Their Relationship to the Sacred." Jose Valenzuela, Margarita Díaz-Andreu, Carles Escera. Front. Psychol., 18 December 2020.
(4) "Aesthetics and Rock Art." Heyd, Thomas; Clegg, John, eds. (2005). Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 0-7546-3924-X.

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