In the dark niches of hundreds caves around the world, our prehistoric ancestors painted lush panoramas of ancient animals—herds of herbivores racing along cave walls and fearsome predators stalking their prey. Tens of thousands of years later, the vivid colors and incredible sense of movement still excite us.
No one knows why ours prehistoric ancestors painted cave art. The drawings are mostly located in deep caves and hard-to-reach areas, with no signs of living spaces.
This is one reason why many experts believe that rather than decoration, cave art served ceremonial or religious purposes and may have been used for shamanic ceremonies, blessing the hunt or providing protection.
Cave paintings from prehistoric ancestors
And 2018 study dates the oldest cave art found to 64,000 years ago, predating modern humans. Neanderthals painted it in a cave in what is now Spain. What can it be the oldest surviving cave art by early modern humans, an image of wild pigs, was created about 44,000 years ago on what is now known as the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia.
While most cave art discovered so far is in Europe, examples have been found on every continent except Antarctica.
The earlier paintings themselves were more abstract, but later examples show recognizable animals and sometimes people. Most of the animals depicted in cave art are the herbivores that our ancestors hunted: deer, bison, mammoths and ibex. However, in some caves, especially in Chauvet Cave in southern Francethe images feature cave lions and cave bears—predators of both herds of herbivores and humans.
What could cave art mean
Still, the pictures aren’t scary. They seem to be painted with reverence and respect rather than fear and awe. That’s what science writer David Quammon speculated in his 2003 book God’s monster that the people who painted the images on the walls of Chauvet Cave:
… recognize more than danger, strength and power. They also saw grace, majesty, noble confidence, stillness, ruthlessness, keen attention, and a kind of all-round superiority in these ferocious beasts; and they endeavored to record, to preserve, even in some way to perceive, what they saw by means of charcoal on rock. Call it shamanism, call it totemism, call it idolatry. Just call it art.
Because the images often appear to tell stories, depicting hunting scenes and what appear to be narrative depictions of prehistoric life, some scholars have suggested that cave paintings may have been central to the development of symbolic thinking and the emergence of language.
In 2018 paperan international team of researchers claims that cave paintings (along with rock art) may offer a glimpse into the transition to an internalized system of thought that eventually evolved into external language.
“If this turns out to be true,” the study’s authors write, “the oft-stated idea that ‘language doesn’t fossilize’ is not entirely true: parts of a foreign language may be hidden among the art forms produced by our early modern human ancestors.”
While we may not know why Paleolithic people painted on cave walls, we may now know more about who the artists were. In many of the caves, in addition to depictions of animals, cave art includes patterns of human hands. This may be a form of signature, and to the surprise of many, the prints may not have been left by men.
A 2013 study published in American Antiquity examines handprints in caves in France and Spain. Based on the ratios of the lengths of the index, ring, and little fingers, the study found that 75 percent of the prints (24 out of 32) were of female hands. Only three were made by men; the other five were made by adolescent males.
This evidence suggests that women played a more important role in hunter-gatherer societies, and perhaps in the spiritual lives of these people, than previously thought.
We may not know why our ancestors drew on cave walls, but these drawings can still teach us a lot.