What does cave art mean?

Scientists have explained the meaning behind cave art of the Paleolithic period in a number of ways. Some of the main theories include: Art for Art's sake, the Sympathetic Theory and Shamanism.

Art for Art's Sake

The simplest theory to explain the existence of art in this period is that it has no meaning - that it is simply the idle doodlings and graffiti of a playful activity. Paul Bahn explains in his book From Images of the Ice Age that those that see the paintings as simply an expression of creativity think the art is "mindless decoration by hunters with time on their hands."

Lartet and Piette said in the 19th century that this was a reflection of other's views of anti-clericalism because those people refused to believe that Paleolithic people had any religion.

Drawings cover the walls and ceilings like murals in some caverns, such as this room called the "Great Hall of the Bulls" in the Lascaux cave located in west central France.

Many small dots and lines found in many of the cave paintings might also be just decorations, according to those that believe the Paleolithic artists had a lot of time on their hands, and painted the caves simply as "art for art's sake."


Sympathetic Magic Theory

Proponents of the sympathetic magic theory believe that the animals in the paintings were created to control or influence real animals.

One of the most popular of the sympathetic magic theories is the idea of "hunting magic." French Priest and Historian Henri Edouard Prosper Breuill adopted this way of thinking, saying that Paleolithic art sprung from the hunter's anxieties about the availability of game. Some animals appeared to have been killed by missiles or attacked by hand-held weapons.

Breuil said that the small circles covering some of the animals might indicate that the animal would be stoned to death. Marks at the animals' mouth or nose were probably blood being vomited by the dying beasts, he suggested. One of the ideas is that the painting could be used again and again, presumably drawing more stones to help predict another good hunt.

On the web site for the Chauvet cave, the photo at top is described as looking like a bear, but probably being a hyena, because of the spots. The caption notes that there are other animals nearby that have spots, such as a feline, which is assumed to be a leopard. Breuil probably would have said the spots on these animals were indications of stoning the animal.

Henri Edouard Prosper Breuil

A bear in the Montespan cave was said to have been stabbed with spears in a ritual attack, however, the "holes" were simply the natural texture of the cave wall. Bahn calls such ideas "ridiculous flights of fancy." He says that had the scientists been "a little more "objective," they would have realized that they were "constantly stretching to fit the theory."


A Systematic Approach

Leroi-Gourhan decided to take a purely statistical approach to prehistoric cave paintings and began a systematic investigation in which he spent years classifying 72 groups of pictures in 66 caves.

He recorded: 610 horses, 510 bisons, 205 mammoths, 175 rhinos, 9 nondescript monsters, 8 large-horned deer, 8 fish, 6 birds, 3 nondescript beasts of prey, 2 wild boars, and 2 chamoix.

Leroi-Gourhan found correlations between the types of animals and their positions in the cave.

To Leroi-Gourhan, the Paleolithic cave "temples" seemed similar to modern religious structures, with a certain images in similar places, a specific route of direction, the altar and entrance in the same order, and typical stations of initiation.

Leroi-Gourhan believed that cave art portrays a culture with a very sophisticated religious or philosophical view of the world.

Of this drawing of cave art from the Trois Freres cave in France, Breuil probably would have said that this animal had been stoned, and is vomiting blood as it dies.

Bisons in the main gallery of Lascaux Cave

Leroi-Gourhan discovered that 91% of the bison, 92% of the bovidae, and 86% of the horses are pictured in central positions of the central chambers of the caves. Most deer, ibexes, bears and felines are located in the remotest portions of the caves.


Shamanism was an early theory that seems to be returning. The concept involves a complex cosmos in which at least two worlds - or more - coexist, be they side by side, or one above the other. These worlds are thought to interact with one another. In our own world, most events are believed to be the consequence of an influence from the other-world(s).

Scholars interpreted composite figures (drawings which have one animal superimposed upon another), as sorcerers, or shamans in masks.

Some scholars said the paintings were of "spirit animals," and that some portrayed "fights" between a Shaman in disguise and an evil spirit.

Glory said that many of the figures were "ongones," (spirits taking other forms, then answering requests from mortals dealing with matters of hunting or health).

He said the substance spewing from some of the animals' mouths or noses in the paintings could be explained as "evil spirits" being excised.

A shaman is a person of spiritual powers who combines roles of healer, priest, magician, artist, poet, actor, and psychotherapist," according to Bahn.

Fertility Magic and Sex

Twentieth-century male scholars have suggested that the art is about the male preoccupations of hunting, fighting and girls. Some suggest that the superimposed figures of one animal within another is symbolic of procreation.

Some Paleolithic depictions of women have even been compared with pin-ups in Playboy, and "appear in sexually inviting attitudes, which may be quite the same as those in the most brazen pornographic magazines . . ." according to R.D. Guthrie in Ethological Observations from Paleolithic Art.

Bahn says the comparison of Paleolithic art to Playboy pinups "reveals a lurid imagination."

Supposed copulation scene from Los Casares in Guadalajara. Bahn says this depiction of Paleolithic art has a dubious date.


Hallucinogenic Theory

In 1988, J. D. Lewis-Williams and T. A. Dowson introduced a theory which they used to explain the non-figurative images of Upper Palaeolithic parietal and mobile art. The symbols found in Upper Palaeolithic art forms, among others, are in fact entoptics (or phosphenes). These are shapes that are believed to be brought to mind while under a trance or after injesting a hallucinogen. (These types of shapes are the kind that sometimes are "seen" when a person presses on their own eyelids with eyes closed.)

Max Knoll at the Technische Hochschule in Munich used electrical nodes to stimulate the vision of phosphenes, and by varying the frequency of the pulses, the patterns changed, resulting in the identification of 15 classes of figures and a number of variations within each class. For each person tested the kind of pattern at each frequency was repeatable, even after six months."

Max Knoll and his researchers found 15 phosphenes were generated by electrical nodes used on his test subjects.

One theory on the creation of symbols in Paleolithic art is that they are the result of the painters or shamen visualizing phosphenes brought to mind by hallucinogens such as morning glory seeds, marijuana, the opium poppy, and fungi.

Perhaps Jean Clottes summed up the search for the meaning of cave art the best in "The Cave Beneath the Sea," when he said, "It could be years and years and probably I would be dead before we will find out exactly what that cave means."
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