Look at the painting on the left- beasts in profile, perhaps a hunt- painted with pigments from the earth mixed with the fat of the animals it portrays. I see remnants of another era. I see a mural painted by people like you and I- more so than we might want to believe. As you look, feel the experience of this painting. Can’t you see the light from the fire flickering? Smell the cave. Close your eyes and feel the damp air around you? You are in a cave, painting on the walls the essence of the daily lives of you and your community. Imagine it.
Imagine what it would be like to live in 15,000 B.C.E. when this was painted. This is long before any of the comforts we know has even remotely been thought of. This is long before transportation and communication was even possible, save for between your immediate surroundings. It’s long before supermarkets and specialists- so you have to make your own clothes, catch and prepare your own food- with a limited diet, and completely take care of yourself, without dentists, doctors, or anybody else because you barely even understand your own body and how it works. Your life expectancy is about thirty, you will die of a common cold- if you survive through the winter at all, and danger lurks around every corner. How does it feel?
The Hall of the Bulls
The painting above is prehistoric, meaning it was painted before human history. That is- before history could have been kept- long before in fact. This particular cave painting was found in Lascaux, France, in 1940, and is called the Rotunda, or Hall of the Bulls. It is placed about ten feet above floor level and depicts a procession of horses and bulls. It is part of a group of paintings of Upper Paleolithic art found in French caves and is some of the earliest examples of art in history. Some other caves, however, have been found with paintings which date back some 25,000 years.
The Lascaux caves are currently off limits to the public, following a restoration period which is now under observation. Some 2,000 images were found to decorate the walls of the caves, many of which are deteriorating, or difficult to discern. Of the images that are easily recognizable, over 900 are made out to be animals, with 600 having been identified. Of these animals, the majority are horses, then stags, cattle and bison. Several images are of a cat, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human.
What do these paintings tell us? First and foremost we see a dominant animal theme. We can clearly see the importance of the animals to prehistoric man. This was before animals were domesticated for agriculture, meat, or pets, which means all animals were wild in the eyes of our cave friends. Beasts were both prey and predator.
Sounds pretty scary doesn’t it? Nonetheless, animals were an important part in the preserving of their lives. A successful hunt meant the difference between thriving and living through the winter and an end to their existence. With a limited diet of fish, nuts, berries, and meat, they could use all the food they could get, and they couldn’t take a ride to the supermarket to get it. There lives were in their own hands. On the other hand, the landscape was nowhere near a safe place to venture in terms of animal threats. Larger and more ferocious animals lurked around and hunted you. They had to eat too.
So it’s no surprise that we see animals taking center stage in cave art, having so much importance. A lack of animals meant a lack of meat, and an overabundance of predator beasts such as tigers meant impending danger. The animals painted on the walls are not glorified, rather painted realistically from nature. The vary in size, from small, almost pictograph representations to extremely large, namely the seventeen foot long bull in the Hall of the Bulls- the largest animal discovered in cave art. The beasts were always in profile, and usually in motion.
Who Were The Painters?
Archaeologists have used everything they could from around the caves as clues for understanding the lives of these people. They conjecture that these folk didn’t actually live inside these caves, but rather in shelters just in and around the cave openings. To be able to paint on the cave walls, they used lamps made from plant materials and animal fat. They used paints made from pigment mixed with animal fat, usually combined in small cups or with flat stones. The colors were mostly red and black, but sometimes yellow, maroon, and violet. Pigments were found naturally such as iron oxide for red, ocher for brown and yellow, and chalk for white as well as for lightening colors. Black was derived from manganese.
It’s hard to say exactly what was going on in their lives judging simply from the artwork. Many of the symbols found on the walls remain enigmatic. For instance, hand prints have been found which lack one or more fingers. Some historians believe this could have been some kind of hunter’s code. Others think the fingers could have been removed in some sort of primitive religious ritual. Other symbols are hard to make head or tails of, including basic shapes often filled in, arrangements of dots, arrows and bars. Could these symbols be just for decoration? At this point it is almost impossible to say.
What can be said, however, is that these prehistoric artists were crafty. Besides simply painting, they were sculptors as well as engravers. Some paintings show reliefs of figures, in whole or in part. Eyes and muzzles were sometimes cut into the wall before paint was applied. In some instances natural bumps and grooves from the stone were taken advantage of to portray parts of the animals and other figures.
The actual painting was accomplished mostly by using hands- fingers to trace thick lines. But besides their hands, some sorts of makeshift primitive paintbrushes were used from branches, twigs, and even bristles of hair or animal fur. These early artists used color contrast, shading, cross hatching, and varied line thickness to portray their subjects with an amazing accuracy. Primitive as they were, talentless they were not.
It goes without saying that we can’t pinpoint who the individual artists must have been. Writing was not invented for tens of thousands of years so the painter could hardly leave his or her signature. Interestingly, though, specialists have noticed certain styles among the caves and how they have evolved. The styles range from three different periods- the first being a crude portrayal of animals, barely formed and hardly realistic looking. The second is a bit more evolved, showing more recognizable animals with rounded bellies, snouts, muzzles, eyes and horns, yet the legs remained crude. The third stage shows animals which can be identified by species, and whose movement has been portrayed. At this stage, art was becoming much more realistic. The Lascaux cave paintings, seen above, belong to this period.
It’s interesting to wonder who the actual artists were who created these cave masterpieces. Was there a single artist responsible or did the community contribute? Could the whole theme of showing the hunt be the result of a holy man or religious figure praying for success? Since people are found to have not lived in these caves, were they used for special rituals or ceremonies, which the paintings are meant to complement?
No one can say for sure, only hypothesize and take educated guesses. But we can say these cave people’s lives are fascinating. Before society as whole began to take care of itself and make leaps and bounds in science and technology to make life easier, these people were etching an existence on their own, with only the help of nature, which is often cruel and unforgiving. Their art gives a glimpse of who they were, yet leave us to question what they were thinking. What we know is they were early Man, some of the first thinking humans, whose slow and steady evolution brought us where we are today. We can thank them for not letting the elements, the odds, and Mother Nature get the best of them. Otherwise we wouldn’t have anything, let alone art. But this where art began, the whole shebang started right there in those dark caverns. If they could only see where it’s gotten to. While we ponder at abstract paintings, minimalism, hyperrealism, and any other new form of expression, just remember one thing-
Let’s not forget where we came from.