Why did prehistoric people make cave art?

Humans have been painting caves for tens of thousands of years. It all started back in the European Upper Palaeolithic, around 35,000 years ago (and continued throughout that period). But what motivated them to start drawing in the first place?

A lot of effort has been spent trying to figure that out. Sadly we haven’t found a definitive answer, but there are many good hypotheses. Here are the top three.

The cave of Altamira, populated by very sophisticated cavemen (and women)

The cave of Altamira, populated by very sophisticated cavemen (and women)

1. They just felt like it

One of the earliest explanations for cave art is “arts for art’s sake”. This was first proposed back when these images were originally discovered in the 19th century. As the name implies, the idea is that our ancestors just did it because they were bored. Because they found the pictures pretty. Because they wanted to. There was no real goal behind it, it was the prehistoric equivalent of a doodle (Bahn, 2008).

Since the 19th century this idea has fallen out of favour, given the incredible amount of effort people invested in the art. They created scaffolding to reach high areas, ventured into deep, dark and dangerous areas (which involved the invention of the oil lamp) and much more. Clearly, many argued, they were investing too much in this artwork just for it to be a doodle (White, 2003).

2. People got high and started drawing

So what do archaeologists do when they don’t know quite what something is? Claim it’s part of a ritual! Which they did, suggesting that ceremonies were conducted in these caves and that the artwork was the result.

There is quite a bit of evidence in support of this hypothesis. For example, many caves – such as the famous site of Chauvet – were never inhabited by people, being used only for art. Perhaps these were sacred locales (Zorich, 2011). Further, many of these sites all have a particular orientation, much like many later buildings of ritual significance (Hayden and Villenueve, 2011).

Some lions from Chauvet cavet

Some lions from Chauvet cavet

The idea that cave art was ritualistic in nature culminated in the “shamanism hypothesis” which posited that cave art was the result of a tribe’s mystics documenting their spiritual journey. And by “spiritual journey”, I mean getting high and thinking they’ve travelling to another realm.  Researchers noted that many of the weird things people see whilst on halluganagenic drugs (so-called entoptic phenomena) bear a surprising resemblance to the images recorded in cave art (Lewis-Williams et al., 1988).

Images witnessed whilst on drugs (left) and those seen in cave art (right)" src="http://evoanth.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/enotpic.png" width="246" height="281" /> Images witnessed whilst on drugs (left) and those seen in cave art (right)

Images witnessed whilst on drugs (left) and those seen in cave art (right)

For a while it seemed like this might be the answer, until others noted that of all the entoptic phenomena documented whilst on hallucinogens, only a tiny proportion matched cave art. If it were truly a result of taking drugs, why didn’t the rest? Besides, the drugs that were used in these tests were modern synthetics that weren’t available to our ancestors (Lewis-Williams et al., 1988).

Others have proposed other ways in which cave art might be ritualistic. For example, Bednarik (2008) pointed out that many of the footprints found in caves were made by children, and the size of some of the hand stencils also match the size of a kids hand. Based on this he suggests the art was part of some kind of “coming of age” ritual.

3. A prehistoric encyclopedia

Of course, not everyone has found the ritual idea convincing. Some have suggested that there was a more practical reason for the artwork. Mithen (1988) realised that the changing climate meant that many species could disappear from a region for a long time.

He suggested that cave art was an attempt to keep a record of species seen before, preserving the knowledge of them for when they returned. This, he believed, explained why many images showed twisted feet (to record what tracks they made) and why they focused on the rarer animals, like mammoths.

Studies of the art have shown that the animal drawings are very accurate; with the markings on the art aligning with reality. In fact, some of the drawings depicted spotted horses; which people always thought were a modern development. That is, until genetic analysis revealed there was spotted horses back in the Palaeolithic. Clearly these images reflect real animals.

A horse from Lascaux with unnaturally rotated feet so you can see what kind of tracks it would leave behind

A horse from Lascaux with unnaturally rotated feet so you can see what kind of tracks it would leave behind

This debate continues to this day, with new books and papers being published that advance one idea or the other. Personally, I suspect that we’ll never hit on the answer because there is no answer. There are thousands of examples of cave art, stretching across tens of thousands of years. There probably was no single reason for making art that spanned this huge stretch of time and space; just like how all artists today draw for different reasons. All of these hypotheses are probably true to a certain extent. Maybe one cave was a doodle, another was ritualistic, but they weren’t all doodles because there was no universal reason for their manufacture.

Regardless of the ultimate explanation (if any), they remain a beautiful and fascinating link to our long-gone heritage.

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Bahn, P. 1998. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Bednarik, R. 2008. Children as Pleistocene artists. Rock Art Research, 25(2):173-182

Hayden, B., & Villeneuve, S. (2011). Astronomy in the Upper Palaeolithic?.Cambridge Archaeological Journal21(03), 331-355.

Lewis-Williams, J., Dowson, T., Bahn, P., Bandi, H., Bednarik, R., Clegg, J., Consens, M., Davis, W., Delluc, B., Delluc, G., Faulstich, P., Halverson, J., Layton, R., Martindale, C., Mirimanov, V., Turner II, C.,  Vastokas, J., Winkelman, M. and Wylie, A. 1988. The Signs of All Times: Entoptic Phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic Art [and Comments and Reply]. Current Anthropology, 29(2):201-245.

Mithen, S. 1988. Looking and learning: Upper Palaeolithic art and information gathering. World Archaeology, 19(3):297-327

White, R. H., (2003). Prehistoric Art: the Symbolic Journey of Humankind. New York: Harry N. Abrams

Zorich, Z. 2011. A Chauvet Primer. Archaeology, 65(2).

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55 Comments on Why did prehistoric people make cave art?

  1. Thanks for this. One of my major frustrations in moving away from my interest in the palaeolithic was the focus on too much theorising over parietal and mobiliary art. I found the theorists far too much of a reflection of the political eras they were studying in and ultimately tragic that they could rarely see it. I would love to see Altamira some day, and Lascaux too (though I understand that the public can’t visit this any more and that the French government have created a superb replica).

    • I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem restricted to art research. Many palaeanthropologists studying a range of topics tend to become rather wrapped up in their own theory, overstating the confidence with which it should be held. Evolutionary psychology in particular is susceptible to this. Don’t get me wrong, most of these are good ideas worth investigating, they just aren’t as well supported as some researchers would have you believe. That’s why I try to remain a bit wary of these ideas, without being outright dismissive.

      And yes, you are correct. Only the replica Lascaux can be visited these days (although it is of almost perfect quality). I hear they’re building a second one to cope with demand. You can still go in the original Chauvet, since they found it recently and were able to put in safe guards before thousands of people ruined the place.

  2. Ralph Gironda // 23rd July 2013 at 7:57 pm // Reply

    I must say it was yesterday that I commented to myself I have not received an email from you since that awful interview of the two fundamentalists. It took me some time to recover from their ineptness. However, I believe that each work of art-or each cluster of art- should be viewed as an individual expression. The evidence should be interpreted individually. But I would go with ritualistic interpretations, but leave room for graffiti and others.

  3. Great post, Adam. I like the way you simply explain the different viewpoints without saying one is right. However, wouldn’t the simple answer be that, just like we do today, they had multiple reasons, so we cannot simply attribute all cave art to the same idea. It isn’t just in your field that most academics take this naïve attitude that people in the past were all identical. But every new theory is a reflection of what motivates the theorists, not the cave people. Besides, “art for art sake” today is not about doodles, but about art for its beauty.

    • That’s a good answer, and ultimately the one I arrived at the end of the post. At the end of the day I suspect most researchers would concede that there are likely multiple explanations for the art; but most don’t really act like it. I guess they want their theory to be important and not relegated to one of many. In much the same way that the discoverer of important fossil hominins will proclaim that their species is the actual ancestor of humanity

  4. I wonder how this relates to the origins of religion, its interaction with cooperation, and early temples like Gobekli Tepe. In particular, can the expensive investment be explained just as a necessary cost/sacrifice for a project to act as social glue between communities or tribes?

    • It’s difficult to say. However, given the environmental variability of Europe at the time anything which helped build cohesion between multiple groups (allowing one to move into another’s territory if their’s froze over) would’ve been a huge boon and would likely justify an extraordinary amount of effort.

      That said, for building cohesion between groups the more mobile items, like the venus figurines, were more important; unless people were regularly visiting each other’s caves

  5. Nuclear Wheelchair // 24th July 2013 at 8:44 pm // Reply

    Ever heard of hobo signs? I wonder if prehistoric people used a similar system to share knowledge. You could imagine rock faces everywhere in prehistoric times were graffitied with signs like this.


  6. andre salzmann // 1st August 2013 at 7:06 am // Reply

    I think that if you wanted to obtain better insight into the motivations for the European rock art, it would be rewarding to take careful note of studies done on the San/Bushman art of Southern Africa. On the arrival of whites here early 1600’s, these people still lived as hunter gatherers. They lived like this until virtually yesterday. And were rather well studied and documented. They originally inhabited the whole of Southern Africa, seemingly for hundreds of thousands of years, and left rock art as proof, all over this landscape. Only about a 1000 years ago did the black tribes start moving into the area and pushed them into the western arid areas. Then came the whites who pushed them north.
    So it happened that their art and culture was well documented. Far as i know, there are archeologists specializing in this field today. Evan most beautiful story books, by authors who lived amongst them from time to time, the likes of P. J. Schoeman, was written about them. There are quite serious claims (today) that they could sense animals, which were completely out of visual range, up to 12 kms away, when
    What does seem apparent is that in their religion and culture, animals and the animal world, were totally integrated. To one group the Praying Mantis.
    a local insect, was their God or represented their god on earth. Every time an animal was killed, they prayed for its “soul”. Of course they lived in total symbiosis with nature. They illustrated total respect for it
    in their culture/s. Of course they never harmed the environment at all,
    seemingly because of their culture. As apposed to the blacks and whites who moved in recently.
    For modern humans, to place themselves in the mindset of the Australopithecus artistic, must be almost impossible. Unless we can go via the minds of these peoples who lived in almost similar manner, until yesterday? And are being robed of their last natural vestiges as i am typing here.

    • Hunter-gatherers are certainly a key source of information on the past and have been studied to investigate it. The Shamanism hypothesis discussed above, for example, was partly inspired by the discovery that some modern hunter-gatherers create cave art whilst in an altered state of conciousness.

      However, much of what you say is just a romanticised view of them. They’re a piece of evidence yes, but won’t resolve the issue single-handedly.

  7. Those hand stencils are not from Chauvet. They’re Cueva de las Manos in Argentina.

  8. i think that now we know why they drew it……to show their pride of their kill during hunting.

  9. As an artist Painter i will be always proud to make art, one of the first impulse by humans in the planet Earth…. Painting Art.

  10. We are born needing to be creative. It is just a matter of allowing it to be free and flourish. All children, starting in infancy, love music, color…and all children draw…until someone tells them they cannot. It is proven, the more creative children are allowed to be, the harder their brain works, developing strong cognitive skills. Anyway…it probably helped them develop speech, fairly difficult to critisize one another’s work with just loud grunts.

  11. Yes, I know I made a typo with the word criticize, Hey! just how do you get to the edit button. :)

  12. Why is prehistoric men artworks discard after hunting .

  13. ephraim nana buadi // 28th October 2014 at 9:54 pm // Reply

    wanted to know why the prehistoric ma discarded their work of art

  14. Vincent Jenkins // 22nd November 2014 at 6:36 pm // Reply

    I’ve only just come across this website, and find it refreshingly sensible.

    Well… I was finding it so until I read some of the comments on this particular thread.

    So I want to say in their defence that Binford, Clarke, Schiffer and Hodder have all tried in various ways to point out to archaeologists (and anyone who will listen) that what comes to your mind when you see something in the ground and that you take to be an old object (=artifact) may not be the same as what came into the mind of its manufacturer, user, or the person who discarded it when it was in their possession.

    I strongly support the idea that drawings would have been made in prehistoric times for a variety of motives.

  15. Did they have weed

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