Cave paintings are humanity’s oldest form of visual art. Currently, the oldest we are aware of are from the Franco-Cantabrian region, which were created 44,000 years ago. These cave paintings depict simple geometric shapes and stencils of human hands. A rival for the oldest known cave drawings is from Indonesia, dated to roughly the same time period. These early pictures are what are called non-figurative. They are more abstract in nature and do not represent animals or a narrative. The oldest figurative cave paintings are probably closer to 35,000 years old, and have been first discovered in Indonesia. A recent discovery from 2018 has found that Neanderthals, who predate modern humans and the cave paintings from Indonesia and the Franco-Cantabrian region, may have created abstract cave paintings in the Iberian Peninsula about 64,000 years ago.
Prehistoric humans painted animals with a great deal of detail and motion. Some of the most common animals depicted in prehistoric cave paintings are bulls, horses, and deer. The animals which early humans painted were not necessarily the ones which they ate or were important in their rituals. For example, caves where deer bones are abundant have been decorated with mostly horse paintings. The human figure was painted much less frequently than that of animals, and when it is present, it’s much more crudely drawn and given seemingly less attention to detail. This would suggest that animals were of more importance in general to early human groups. Humans, particularly women, are more common on smaller stones or shells, where they are either painted or engraved.
Stencils of human hands are almost a universal, and are mostly created in the same way. Rather than dipping one’s hand into pigment and stamping it on the wall, the artist would place their hand on the wall and blow pigment around it, so that the shape of the hand was negative space. The pigments were probably blown from a pipe or reed, or from the artist’s mouth directly. Afterwards, the shape of the hand was sometimes filled in with shapes or patterns. Some were left blank. It is thought that the hands stencils were used to either mark generations or to stake a claim by humans to a particular cave or location.
Cave paintings in general could have had a variety of purposes. Some might have been used to tell stories and record myths. Some could have been used in a ritual or like a spell. It is thought that our ancestors could have painted the animals which they planned on hunting, as a sort of good luck charm for their success. Some might have been simply for decoration, or to record a group’s presence.
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