The enigma of cave art

Humans painted animals on cave walls in the same way from 30,000 BC to 8,000 BC.

To paint such realistic and powerful figures in darkness inspires awe.  Exiting the cave at Lascaux, Picasso declared, “We have learned nothing in twelve thousand years.”

What techniques did our ancestors use? And why did they create these stunning images? Was it hunting magic to increase the abundance of prey?  Was it the result of the tribal shaman painting their visions on a wall?

In 2013 Bertrand David and Jean-Jacques Lefrère wrote The Oldest Enigma in Humanity.  In just over 100 pages it proposes a revolutionary theory.

Some puzzles:

  • Why are the figures of such different sizes?
  • Why these animals in particular? (They were not the ones most hunted.)
  • Why are humans almost never depicted?
  • Why were no other objects drawn – flora, landscapes, dwellings?
  • Why are the animals always shown in profile?
  • Why did the artists never have difficulty painting on the uneven surfaces of caves?

The theory that David and Lefrère propose is that the cave artists made portable figurines of animals, lit an oil lamp in a completely dark cave, and painted the animals using the silhouettes cast onto the cave wall.

What is equally compelling is their explanation of why our ancestors made this art.

Since the Neolithic age (when we settled down to practice agriculture) we have buried our dead in places specially set aside for that purpose.  By contrast, Paleolithic humans were always on the move in search of food.  Imagine leaving your grandfather’s body on a snowy mountain pass.  How might you preserve his memory?

The theory is that tribes painted these animals in special caves to honour and remember their dead – every beast on the wall stands for a human being.

It is the most credible theory I’ve come across for why our ancestors created the cave paintings in Western Europe.  A recommended and breezy read.

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