Why We Paint

Humans began leaving artistic remnants of their lives up to 40000 years ago. The preferred method? Vast, colorful illustrations painted and preserved on cave walls, depicting animals and human forms.

There have been many theories as to why so many ancient painting depicting similar things have popped up all over the globe. From theories of some type of religion or ceremony, to communication with others who may pass through the area, the beauty and impressiveness found in them is undeniable.

I was interested in seeing why these ancient people all somehow managed to leave similar paintings, over thousands of years, all over the world and why did they do it? Where did these paintings start? Was it one group of people who started them, then eventually spread out over the globe?

From the caves painting at Sulawesi cave in Indonesia, from a 40000 year old hand outline to a 35000 year old, highly detailed portrait of a pig, we have been painting and leaving creative markers of our existence all over for a very, very, long time. Modern research and dating places painting in Europe and parts of Asia at approximately 40000 years old, which suggests that these paintings happened at approximately the same time, though independently of each other. This discovery leads us to believe that the concept and practice of placing murals and art work in cave walls did not come from one particular region, but spawned independently from different regions before spreading around the world in some type of creative explosion.

Reasons for why the creative outbursts starting happening are not clear, but there are several hypotheses, from ancient humans indulging in ancient hallucinogenics for the sake of ritual, to simple doodles. Yet the dangerous and hard to reach places that some artwork can be found (deep into dark, slippery or steep caves) discredits the idea of doodles, and the fact that not all of the artwork resembles images seen while under the influence discredits the ritual theory. The most likely reason for the drawings seems to be for knowledge. Knowledge of what animals are found in the area, knowledge of plants, knowledge of animal tracks. It would seem that our ancient ancestors were interested in learning and recording the thing they were experiencing, which is a possible explanation for why the drawings are so consistent of the same source material at so many places. Even though there are many viable ideas to why were started recording our history, the real answer may never be uncovered.





3 thoughts on “Why We Paint

  1. You’ve touched on a subject that I also find extremely intriguing! The reasons behind why humans make art, from the cave paintings you mentioned to poetry to music to dance to sculpture to all sorts of crazy things, seem to elude scholars everywhere. When artists were asked why they create art, answers ranged from the fact that it’s just fun to do, to they liked making emotional connections with their audience, to communication, to improving environmental conditions, to memory… truly art seems to be so complex a single reason could never truly cover all the factors playing into why we make art.

    While the study of why humans create art is certainly interesting, I was poking around and I found something that was almost even more interesting. Humans are not alone in creating art!

    In the wild, there is a drab little bird called the Bowerbird. Uninteresting to look at, color-wise, and difficult to spot due to its plain coloring. These birds, however, have a secret. When it comes to mating, the male Bowerbird constructs a bower (naturally) to woo the females, and these bowers are artistic masterpieces. Bowerbirds create tall towers of sticks resting on round mats that they carefully decorate with shells, acorns, stones, and are even woven through with green mosses, flowers, fruits, and severed butterfly wings. Research has shown that bowerbirds choose the colors very deliberately, preferring some colors over others, and also are meticulous in where they choose to place decorations in their bower. If an object is moved, the Bowerbird will notice and they put it back precisely where it was moved from.

    Bowerbirds are not alone in being intuitively artistic. When chimps are given pencils, they are deliberate in where they put markings on the paper, and when given paints, studies have shown that they carefully select which colors they want to use and where to put them. When materials are taken away from the chimp before it’s done drawing or painting, it gets very upset and angry, whining until they are returned. And after the chimp was done with its creation, it refused to add any more markings to the paper, even with encouragement.

    Given the opportunity, elephants will also create very fine art, as well as orangutans, gorillas, other species or birds, some insects, and dolphins are all known for creating visual art. Of course, it is well known that animals create dances and songs (i.e. mating dances in some animals or whale song).

    The real argument between scholars seems to lie in why we create the art, not in that we do create art. It has become obvious that we are not alone in our ability to create art, either abstract or not, but perhaps there are different motivations behind our creations?

    Some scholars would argue that animal art is created more for functional reasons than why human art is created. In other words, animals are required to do their practices for survival or to get a mate, whereas humans create art even though it is not necessary for our survival. The argument appears to be that animals are immediately one with their instincts and that humans have gained a level of intelligence that allows us to separate and think rationally.

    But then, I suppose this really depends on what your definition of art is. If art can’t be functional, it seems to throw a lot of human activity into question. Writing, for instance, is a very clear way that humans communicate with each other, as well as drawing (say, in diagrams or graphs). It could be argued that our forms of dance have formed for rather similar reasons as to those of other animals, and it could also be argued that music, for which different societies have different tastes, and particularly love songs, are a human way of doing exactly what birds do for each other. While there is something that makes us uniquely human, it is perhaps not as obvious as the above argument tries make it.

    Truly, art is a complicated and tricky business. Why the cave people before us chose to create the images preserved on those dark walls is quite mysterious, but maybe we can turn to the fauna around us for a few answers! Perhaps humans are not so far away from animals as we like to think!






  2. I really enjoyed reading your post about cave art. I have also found this an interesting aspect of archaeology and after reading your post, I decided to look more into prehistoric cave art as well. It is very fascinating that you pointed out that prehistoric individuals could have possibly been leaving these art forms as a form of knowledge of the world around them and as a way of recording their experiences. I believe this shows that they had somewhat of a creative dimension/imagination about them. I also find it very interesting that people are able to date cave art and as we learned in class, El Castillo cave in Spain contains the oldest known cave art in Europe, which dates back to about 41,000 years ago.

    In my own research on this topic, I too found that prehistoric cave art was very likely a way of showing the interaction between prehistoric individuals and the world and surroundings, as they perceived it. Additionally, I found that prehistoric cave art actually has a wide range of colors. Red colors were from iron ore, black colors were in the form of charcoal or manganese, yellow tones were from iron oxide, and whitish tones were from chalk and either burned shell or bones. Clay ochre also contributed basic colors to cave art. Interestingly, analyses of these materials used to paint cave art has suggested that the prehistoric individuals actually utilized recipes to make these materials by combining the color with either talc or feldspar to enhance the mass of the material and finished by adding animal and plant oils to adhere the materials.

    Lastly, another intriguing aspect of cave art that I found while further researching this topic is that in Chauvet Cave, the various shapes, such as circles, lines, spirals, zig zags, and triangles on the same walls as cave art are not just random shapes, but they may actually represent abstract symbols and a sort of written communication between people as a way of exchanging information and describing experiences.

    Overall, I enjoyed your post and reading about the different possibilities of why prehistoric people engaged in cave art. It is remarkable that we are able to gain so much information and knowledge on cave art and how prehistoric people expressed their experiences and the world around them.

    Source: http://www.ancient-wisdom.co.uk/caveart.htm

  3. I also find the cave paintings very intriguing. I always just assumed they were made for entertainment as most art is today. I never considered the fact that ancient humans could have made successful hallucinogen drugs, but I guess that had lots of natural resources to choose from. That would correlate with some more recent artists that are known to or suspected of having taken drugs to help enhance their work. Also similar to more recent “artists,” doodling is a good hypothesis. My room is filled with doodles of the beach, flowers, or faces. However, those were all done on a pad of paper with a pencil that were both right in front of me, not like the dangerous places cave paintings have been discovered. To me, the cave paintings being used for knowledge leads me to believe the painters were much more intelligent and civilized than I thought. Suggesting that these cave paintings are the equivalent to archives of surroundings is huge. I can definitely see how this is a viable hypothesis. It makes sense that if there are mammoths, horses, or lions in the area, thats what the cave paintings will depict. The process of recording them, to me, seems like it would help the next generations of hunters migrating to the area, it is almost thoughtful in a way. In no way am I trying to discredit the ancient people who did cave paintings, but I am shocked that they could possibly have been as sophisticated in thinking of obtaining and spreading knowledge through cave paintings.

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