Paleolithic Cave Paintings

The Chauvet Cave in France is only one location of many that contain Paleolithic cave paintings. A majority of these paintings are located in caves in southwestern France and northern Spain. However, other cave paintings can be found in various locations around the world, such as in South Africa, India, Australia, and China. The images depicted in Paleolithic cave paintings are either figurative or abstract. About ninety-nine percent of the figurative images are of animals, such as bison, horses, lions, rhinos, mammoths, hyenas, and wolves. Humans have been depicted in cave paintings as well, but only on very rare occasions. While animals were drawn very accurately to their true forms, the human depictions are only “human-like” (instead of drawn realistically). There have been no cave paintings that have depicted the landscape that would have existed at the time of when the paintings were created. Abstract images include symbols, lines, dots, handprints, and other geometric shapes. Some of the earliest of the Paleolithic cave paintings found are of abstract images, which may demonstrate how art evolved during this time period.

The pigment used by early humans to create cave paintings were obtained from mineral sources found in the earth. Clay ochre was used for red, brown, and yellow colors. Manganese dioxide or charcoal was used for black. Kaolin and ground calcite was used for white. Acquired pigments were ground up into a fine powder, and then the powder was mixed with cave water, animal fats, vegetable juice, or blood to allow it to stick to the cave walls. Feldspar and biotite or ground quartz and calcium phosphate were used as extenders (substances added to the powder concoction to increase its bulk) to prevent the paint from cracking upon drying. Early humans had worked with pigments even earlier in time when they used them for body painting.

Humans first painted with their fingers. Later methods included painting with lumpy pigment crayons, moss pads, and brushes made of animal hair or vegetable fibers. Early humans also may have sprayed paint on the walls by blowing into reeds or hollow bones (similar to an airbrush technique). There has been evidence that some of these early artists created preliminary sketches before creating the full painting. The sketches were made with charcoal or were engraved into the wall. After the outline was formed, the artist colored it in with pigment.

Many researchers today are still questioning why early humans painted cave drawings. One possible solution to this question is that these paintings were simply for decoration. However, there is more evidence that the cave paintings were used for ceremonial purposes. The caves in which the drawings are found have no traces of early human remains, suggesting that these caves were not permanently inhabited. I think that Paleolithic cave paintings are very beautiful and fascinating. They give people today an opportunity to take a look back into the past and observe how these early humans perceived the world around them. Being a zoology major, my favorite paintings are of the animals. They are depicted in amazing detail, and this is especially useful for zoologists who are curious to know what both now extinct animals and currently existing animals accurately looked like during that time period.