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Prehistoric Cave Paintings

Updated on July 15, 2015
Cave Art: Bison
Cave Art: Bison | Source

Are Prehistoric Cave Paintings Really any Good?

Prehistoric cave paintings have been discovered in caves around the world, such as the Chauvet and Lascaux caves in France, the Altamira cave in Spain, the Cueva de las Manos in Argentina, Aboriginal Rock Art in Australia and the Drakensberg Rock Art of the African Bushmen, to name but a few. These paintings are not just the simple, childlike drawings that one might expect from very primitive, almost pre-human artists. In many cases they exhibit amazing use of color, composition and perspective, as well as a fine grasp of the anatomical structure of the animals portrayed.

Ever since these paintings were discovered in the last centuries, there has been much speculation over why early humans created such artistic masterpieces. While no fully agreed upon answers have as yet been produced, it is undeniable that the existence of these amazing artworks has radically changed our understanding of our very early ancestors and what it means to be human. And that is all on top of the fact that they are just remarkable works of art that are a total joy to look at!

Cave Art: Bison - at

Cave Painting Techniques and Themes

Cave paintings are found all over the world and vary quite considerably in the techniques used to create them as well as in the themes of the images. However, a very common theme is that of animals found in the region during the time period of the artists, animals that those people no doubt hunted. Thus, for example, the rock paintings of the Bushmen (or San) in Africa often feature various types of deer and antelope species, such as the eland shown here, which were commonly found there.

Painting of an eland

San/Bushman Rock art, Ukalamba Drakensberg, South Africa. It shows an Eland.
San/Bushman Rock art, Ukalamba Drakensberg, South Africa. It shows an Eland. | Source

Another common image in cave paintings is the human handprint. This element is found both in the common positive print form, in which a pigment was applied to the hand and then transferred to the rock. A different technique, also found in many locations, involves spraying around a hand to produce a negative image.

Many cave paintings are polychromatic made with mineral pigments, such as manganese, gypsum, malachite, hematite and the like, applied to the surface of the rock. Findings of brushes made from animal hair in the caves explain how these artists were able to produce detailed pictures. The fine lines of some artworks must have required the production of excellent brushes, evidence that these early people took their artistic efforts very seriously.

Interpretation of Cave Paintings

The meaning of cave paintings has been discussed and disputed by scientists and lay people alike ever since these magnificent artworks were discovered. It is generally agreed that they served some purpose beyond mere decoration, although they are delightful to look at, since they are most often located in caves that have little sign of human habitation, or in a deeper section of the caves which was more difficult to access and appeared to be used only in connection with the artworks.

Since many of the images are of animals that were hunted by the artists, it has been suggested that the paintings relate to the hunt. Perhaps they painted the animals they had killed in honor of them and their spirits; or perhaps they painted the animals prior to hunting expeditions, hoping that by painting them they would somehow cause the hunt to be successful; or perhaps they were just an account of successful hunts, or narratives of the life experiences of the artist who maybe painted animals he saw not those he killed, such as the frieze of swimming deer in the cave at Lascaux.

Frieze of deer, Lascaux

The fourth of these "Swimming Stags' carries seven spheres between his horns, possibly signifying the number of full moons from the spring when the artist arrived until the deer crossed the nearby Vézère River in the autumn.
The fourth of these "Swimming Stags' carries seven spheres between his horns, possibly signifying the number of full moons from the spring when the artist arrived until the deer crossed the nearby Vézère River in the autumn. | Source

A more ritualistic interpretation has also been suggested for some of the paintings, particularly in locations where many hands are found. Rather than signatures of the artists's works, these hand prints appear as the paintings themselves. Since hand prints in the Cave of the Hands appear to be of young people, not fully grown men, it has been suggested that they are part of a "coming of age" ritual marking the transition from adolescence into manhood. Perhaps as each young man was accepted as an adult in the society he painted his hand print on the wall of this special cave.

It has also been suggested that the images in many caves were painted by shamans, religious leaders who entered a trance state to contact the spiritual world. This type of interpretation is supported by the Bushmen (or San) of Africa, surviving hunter-gatherer tribesmen, who have agreed that their art represents shaman painting images from the spirit world after entering into a trance.

Altamira Cave Paintings in Spain

The artworks at Altamira are really outstanding, incredibly beautiful, even by contemporary standards. They evidence wonderful use of colors, which the artists used natural dyes to create. These artists also made use of the natural contours of the cave walls to give their images a three-dimensional impact.

The Altamira cave paintings include a few images of animals like horses, a deer, and goats, as well as a number of human handprints. But it is the large herd of bison thundering across the ceiling that captures our imagination the most.

Great hall of polychrome paintings in Altamira
Great hall of polychrome paintings in Altamira | Source

Cave Art at Lascaux in France

The Lascaux caves in France are famous for their numerous cave paintings, realistic portrayals of a variety of large animals. There are depictions of bison, aurochs (an extinct type of wild ox), horses, deer, and felines, all animals known to have existed in Paleolithic times, as well as one single man. The man is dead, lying on the ground with a broken spear beside him, apparently defeated by a bison.

Cave Painting of Bird-Headed Man at Lascaux
Cave Painting of Bird-Headed Man at Lascaux | Source
Hyena in Chauvet Cave
Hyena in Chauvet Cave | Source

Cave Paintings in Chauvet Cave

The Chauvet Cave is located in Southern Fance. It was first explored in 1994 by a team of archaeologists including Jean-Marie Chauvet, hence its name. Another French archaeologist, Jean Clottes, also carried out detailed research at the site. Although there have been disputes about the dating of the paintings, it is agreed that these represent some of the oldest known cave paintings, and many date from as long ago as 30,000 years. Recently, however, cave art in the Cave of El Castillo in Cantabria, Spain was discovered to be the oldest known paintings, some 5-10,000 years older than those in Chauvet Cave. However, those oldest works are hand stencils and discs, with the oldest being just a red dot!

The Chauvet cave contains hundreds of animal paintings, including several species not found in other prehistoric paintings. In this cave the paintings are not just of the animals that would have been hunted by the artists and which are usually found in cave paintings (horses, deer, bison), but also many predators are depicted in the Chauvet cave, including bears, lions, panthers, hyenas and rhinoceroses.

Australian Aboriginal Rock Art

Australian aboriginal rock art includes a range of styles. One particularly interesting style is the cross-hatch or "X-ray" art found in the Arnhem Land and Kakadu region of the Northern Territory. In sites such as Ubirr and Nourlangie there are rocky outcrops that have afforded shelter to Aboriginal inhabitants for thousands of years. In these "caves" there are found many paintings in which the skeletons of the animals and humans portrayed are drawn inside the outline, like an x-ray. The Ubirr site features a painting of a Tasmanian tiger, a species which has been extinct in the area for about 20,000 years, attesting to the age of the paintings.

A rock painting of fish in what's known as X-ray style -- with some internal organs.
A rock painting of fish in what's known as X-ray style -- with some internal organs. | Source

Drakensberg Rock Art in Southern Africa

The Bushmen or San of South Africa and neighboring Botswana and Namibia are famous for their beautiful cave paintings. The Drakensberg is the highest mountain range in Southern Africa, and some 20,000 rock paintings have been found in its numerous caves and overhangs. There are incredible images of a variety of animals including rhinoceros, elephant, and various antelope species. Originally thought by Europeans to be primitive, crude representations of hunting scenes, lacking perspective and three-dimensionality, these artworks gradually became appreciated for their exquisite color and fine detail.

San Rock Art, Monk's Cowl, Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa - by Ariadne Van Zandbergen at

Today, the spiritual side of these paintings has been revealed. Contemporary Bushmen have confirmed that the paintings represent shamans stretching out their arms over a fire in a fashion believed to open a portal to the spirit world and evoke power for the hunt. Other images depict the way hunters gained power from the animals that they killed.

Bhimbetka rock painting
Bhimbetka rock painting | Source

Bhimbetka Rock Paintings in India

The Rock Shelters of Bhimbetaka lie in the Raisen District of the state of Madhya Pradesh in India. They were declared an archaeological World Heritage site in 2003. These caves and shelters show evidence of human habitation that dates back to the earliest times.

Some of the rock paintings have been dated back approximately 30,000 years ago. These include paintings depict people, apparently carrying out everyday activities, as well as the more commonly depicted animals.

Hands in Cueva de las Manos in Argentina

Cueva de las Manos, in English "Cave of the Hands," so called because of the numerous painted hands found there, is located in the Patagonian region within Argentina. The cave has a collection of paintings of people, animals such as guanacos (camelids), rheas (flightless birds) and other animals native to South America, hunting scenes and geometric shapes. These paintings are dated at around 9,000 years ago. However it is the collection of hands that is most striking and has attracted the greatest attention.

Cueva de las Manos in Argentina
Cueva de las Manos in Argentina | Source

Art Inspired by Prehistoric Cave Paintings

The brilliant efforts of prehistoric artists have also inspired contemporary artists to create wonderful pieces. Here are some examples.

Cave Horses by carolmotsinger

Cave Horses - by Carol Motsinger at

Original painting was done in acrylics, pastels, oil pastels, and sand. Inspired by the painting of horses in Chauvet Cave.

'Cavedog' by ameremortal

Cave Dog - by Ameremortal at

An abstract composition featuring stylized skeletal dog figures and swirls in harmonious and subtle earthy tones, with a stippled texture reminiscent of primitive cave paintings.

Great Books on Prehistoric Cave Paintings

These books are great because they have amazing photos of prehistoric cave art, and they describe how they were made, what they could mean, and a bunch of other stuff that makes it all come to life in a way that one would never expect the world of ancient people to do. At least, I never expected to understand what life was like in the Stone Age in this way!

Archaeologists who have spent their lives studying cave paintings and trying to understand what they meant to the artists, why they painted them (and how), offer their interpretations of these works of art.

There is true beauty here - in the colors, the forms, and the compositions. The more you look at them the more you realize they are truly works of art - a lot better than anything I could ever paint! And you know, it's not just the artistically challenged like myself who feel that way, Pablo Picasso after viewing the paintings at the Lascaux Cave remarked "We have learned nothing in twelve thousand years."

© 2009 Jennifer P Tanabe

What do you think about Prehistoric cave paintings? Have you visited any of the sites?

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    • profile image

      Joshua 20 months ago

      sweet pictures in the blog awesoe

    • jptanabe profile image

      Jennifer P Tanabe 3 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      @tonyleather: I agree! Some of their paintings show greater artist talent that more recent "artists"!

    • profile image

      tonyleather 3 years ago

      Early humans were obviously every bit as artistic as we are today, even if it was more primitive!

    • SandyMertens profile image

      Sandy Mertens 3 years ago from Frozen Tundra

      I have always been intrigued by them. Very cool looking on the Zazzle products too.

    • BLouw profile image

      Barbara Walton 3 years ago from France

      What a super lens. I live not too far from the Lascaux caves and really should make a visit. I do love these prehistoric cave paintings.

    • Ben Reed profile image

      Ben Reed 3 years ago

      A fascinating collection - thank you.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I visited the Drakensberg ones, really awesome.

    • geosum profile image

      geosum 4 years ago

      Great collection - thanks for sharing.

    • profile image

      Marelisa 4 years ago

      I've always been interested in cave paintings; this lens is fantastic!

    • GregoryMoore profile image

      Gregory Moore 4 years ago from Louisville, KY

      Fascinating. Very interesting lens.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Stopping by to enjoy this beauty once again...I could get lost here!

    • ReviewsfromSandy profile image

      Sandy Mertens 4 years ago from Wisconsin

      I would love to visit some cave parintings.

    • profile image

      lionmom100 4 years ago

      These are amazing paintings. I hope someday to visit Lascaux, although I believe that they no longer let you go into the cave itself but have reproductions.

    • profile image

      pacourse 4 years ago

      Really interesting. Definitely some places to visit

    • profile image

      Aunt-Mollie 4 years ago

      Cave paintings have always fascinated me. I sometimes wonder if they might have been the coloring books for ancient children.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I visited bhimbhetka two weeks ago, and was fascinated. I am still wondering why & how these people made these paintings.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Amazing images. Thanks for making this fascinating prehistoric cave painting page!

    • profile image

      AlleyCatLane 4 years ago

      Beautiful images. I like the San Rock ones you showed.

    • Michey LM profile image

      Michey LM 4 years ago

      Come back to bless this beautiful lens

    • profile image

      spiffydoo 4 years ago

      I have really enjoyed your informative lens about cave paintings would like to share my own contemporary take on the theme. It is as the following, should you like to see it. I hope you do:)

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