Cave art is one of the most interesting discoveries in paleontology. The fossilized bones of our ancient ancestors let us see what they were like millions of years ago, and how they changed over time. Stone tools show us when they started systematically creating and using technology, and how they improved it. Needles for sewing and beads for decoration mark the time when we were becoming the modern human beings we would recognize as being like us. But with the cave art we can see evidence of people who consciously created a lasting record of . . . something. Here was something that our ancestors deliberately did to communicate with each other, and with following generations.
So, what were they trying to communicate? Unfortunately, we don’t know. We may never know. Any conclusions we reach have to be by inference and deduction. For instance, the caves where much of the art has been found show no signs of habitation, so they weren’t just decorating their homes. The people of that time didn’t live in caves as a rule, although some might have used the mouths of caves or other natural rock formations. Although there are a few examples of art done in open air sites, most have been destroyed by the elements. The best sites are all deep in the earth, often in hard to reach places. This suggests they wanted their work to be preserved, though it doesn’t tell us why.
Cave painting wasn’t a casual endeavor. It required effort and ingenuity, and it was expensive. In addition to mixing their own pigments from minerals ground on site, they devised the methods for applying them by brush and blowpipe. In some cases they had to build elaborate scaffolding to paint the ceilings of the larger galleries. They used animal and vegetable fats to make their paints, and even more precious fat to fuel the lamps and torches they needed to see their work. Diverting such a valuable resource out of their diet indicates how important it was to make the pictures.
Much of their importance can be attributed to their impressive beauty. The people of the time might have simply felt that capturing the vitality of wild animals on cave walls was so impressive that it deserved all their support. Could be. Most other explanations haven’t held up. Illustrating one’s hunting prowess? These are not mere sketches. The artists probably didn’t have much time for hunting. Instructions on how to hunt? That’s better learned by going on a hunt. Magical or religious symbolism? Hard to say, but there’s almost nothing there that we usually associate with rituals. Hardly any human figures, usually prominent in early religious art. No priests or shamans depicted. No ceremonies illustrated. Still, these are all plausible explanations, although none of the interpretations stands out from the others. They might be true, but they don’t explain enough or fit the facts well enough to exclude other interpretations.
It might just be that our ancestors made cave art because they enjoyed it. Because it brought them together in a community. Because it bound them together down the generations. It might be something we never fully understand.