People have been studying cave art since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. In Europe it took fifty years for the cave paintings found there to be accepted as the ancient work they are. Over three hundred sites have been discovered in Europe, dating between forty thousand and ten thousand years old. That is the period in human paleontology known as the Upper Paleolithic. Many more examples have been found around the world in Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas.
In many cases their discovery has led to their loss, either through direct human activity – theft, vandalism or an excess of admiration – or by allowing air and moisture to attack them. For these reasons most of the sites are sealed against uncontrolled access and some of them have elaborate air conditioning systems. It would be a shame to allow these treasures, preserved for thousands of years, to be destroyed in a few decades of carelessness.
The most common subjects are portrayals of human hands, engravings and paintings of animals, depictions, usually less realistic, of human figures and various signs and geometric figures. Much debate and guesswork has gone into the analysis of this art, even to questioning whether it can be called art. Is it decoration, perhaps the expression of an ancient artist’s vision, or is it something with deeper meaning and symbolism? Unless researchers can find more clues we may never know why so much time, effort and talent was invested in this work.
The techniques used were quite simple at first. They would daub soft clay onto the cave wall, either drawing with the clay or scratching images into it. This was followed by scratching or picking at the rock itself with stone tools, the most commonly found form. As the technique evolved, the different types of rock on the surface were incorporated in the image to show texture and color. Later engravings were done in relief, with different heights of rock adding depth. The hands were done either by putting pigment on the hand and pressing it on the rock, or by holding the hand on the rock and making an outline of it.
The paint was made from minerals, at first just pigments like ochre that would have been acquired as is, but later created by processing and mixing minerals. The famous cave at Lascaux contained mortars and pestles for grinding and mixing colors from the more than one hundred fifty mineral samples found there. It would have been applied by simply using a lump of pigment as a crayon, or with brush-like tools, or by blowing it from a hollow bird bone to spray it on.
Cave art has proven to be much more than primitive drawings made by cavemen. Next time we’ll look at some of the attempts to explain it.