Interpretations of the cave art

The art of Upper Paleolithic people has made them familiar to us. The cave paintings, the earliest of which dates back some 36,000 years. More than hundred cave painting sites are known mainly from a limited area of south-western France and adjacent northeastern Spain. The most famous site is Lascaux found in 1940 in southwestern France by a young person. The paintings adorn limestone walls of caves located deep in the earth. Over time, the paintings have been absorbed by the limestone and thus preserved. Prehistoric big game hunters painted their prey: mammoths, wild cattle and horses, deer, and reindeer. The largest animal image is 18 feet long. The interpretations associate cave painting with magic and ritual surrounding the hunt. Because animals are sometimes depicted with spears in their bodies, the paintings might have been attempts to ensure success in hunting. Artists might have believed that by capturing the animal’s image in paint and predicting the kill, they could influence the hunt’s outcome. Another interpretation sees cave painting as a magical human attempt to control animal reproduction. Cave paintings might have been part of annual ceremonies of increase. Paintings often occur in clusters. In some caves as many as three paintings have been drawn over the original yet next to these super imposed paintings stand blank walls never used for painting. An event in the outside world sometimes reinforced a painter’s choice of a given spot. There was a successful hunt soon after the painting had been done. Perhaps members of a social subdivision significant in Upper Paleolithic society customarily used a given area of wall for their drawings. Cave paintings also might have been a kind of pictorial history. Upper Paleolithic people through their drawings were reenacting the hunt after it took place. Designs and markings on animal bones may indicate that Upper Paleolithic people had developed a calendar based on the phases of the moon. It is possible that they were recording important events in their lives. The late Upper Paleolithic when many of the most spectacular multicolored paintings were done and Paleolithic artistic techniques were perfected coincides with the period of glacial retreat. An intensification of cave painting for any of the reasons connected with hunting magic could have been caused by concern about decreases in herds as the open lands were being replaced by forests.