Friday, September 17, 2010

Cave Art: The Dawn of Spirituality

History is of profound importance to us. Without knowing our history, we would not know who we are. Neolithic people shared history in pictures. The paintings discovered in caves of France and Spain awaken experiences, both imagined and real, of wildlife as the pivotal force that could threaten survival in as much as it provided the eternal source of sustenance and comfort. The encounters could mean life or death, hunting and being hunted.

I remember vividly seeing the horses in the cave of Niaux in the French Pyrenees. The Bradshaw Foundation provides a video for a small price. Particularly, a simple, seemingly unfinished outline caught my eye. As if the artist just took a break and was about to continue shortly. The Cro-Magnon (Homo sapiens sapiens) were excellent in reproducing shapes. In fine nuance, the black outlines achieve to emphasize the raw, muscular power of the portrayed animals. Even in their simplest form, the outlines beautifully convey resemblance. The paintings are preserved so well that they project their message today as if they were painted yesterday. In fact, the caves remained unperturbed for so long, that we cannot help to expect but the painters to return any moment. The caves are time capsules that need to be preserved in eternity for us to reconnect with our heritage and re-discover where we came from. The paintings bear witness to the emergence of spirituality at the dawn of modern thought.

The caves are closed to visitors today, because our disturbance of the micro-climate destroys the paintings. However, in some caves, like that at Lascaux (Aujoulat, 2005), they have been elaborately reproduced as replicas accessible to everyone. Photographers have documented most. On Sep. 8, 2010, LIFE released in a special edition with the title "Inside Lascaux: Rare, Unpublished" a series of stunning, hitherto-unpublished photographs taken by Ralph Morse in 1947.

The slide show is definitely worth a visit. Our ability to remember the past in pictures and stories constitutes a fundamental ingredient of our mind.

  • Another virtual tour of stunning cave art documents the findings in Chauvet's Cave. The cave was discovered only in 1994 (Clotte J, 2010). Carbon-dating suggests that the paintings are roughly 31,000 years old.
  • As the commenter below kindly points out, Werner Herzog directed and produced a stunning movie on Chauvet's Cave with the title "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" which appeared last year. Herzog spoke with Terry Gross about this movie in their interview with the title "Herzog's Doc Brings Prehistoric Paintings To Life" broadcast on National Public Radio's Fresh Air on Apr. 20 and Dec. 9, 2011 (02/16/2012).
  • Using uranium-series dating, Pike and others (2012) provide evidence that some cave paintings in Spain may be roughly 10,000 years older than previously believed, dating back to at least 40,800 years. The finding opens the possibility that Homo sapiens neanderthalensis painted them before Homo sapiens sapiens arrived in Southern Europe. Regardless of who precisely the painters were, abstract thinking may have been with us longer than previously thought (06/14/2012).


  1. So, how exactly do cave drawings of muscular animals translate to "spirituality"? Oh that's right, it doesn't.

  2. Cave art comprises more than a gallery of nature pictures. See here:

  3. Check out the documentary, "The Cave of Forgotten Dreams"...