European cave paintings
When Europeans first encountered the Magdalenian paintings of southern France and Cantabrian Spain some 150 years ago they were considered to be hoaxes by academics. The new Darwinian thinking on evolution was interpreted as meaning that early humans could not have been sufficiently advanced to create art. Emile Cartailhac , one of the most respected prehistorians of the late nineteenth century believed they had been thought up by Creationists to support their ideas and ridicule Darwin's. Recent reappraisals and increasing numbers of discoveries have illustrated their authenticity and indicated the high levels of artistry of palaeolithic humans who used only basic tools. Cave paintings can also give valuable clues as to the culture and beliefs of that era.
The age of the paintings in many sites remains a contentious issue, since methods like radiocarbon dating can be easily mislead by contaminated samples of older or newer material, and caves and rocky overhangs are typically littered with debris from many time periods. The choice of subject matter can indicate date such as the reindeer at the Spanish cave of Cueva de las Monedas which imply the art is from the last ice age.
The commonest themes in cave paintings are large wild animals, such as bison, horses, aurochs, and deer, and tracings of human hands as well as abstract patterns, called Maccaroni by Breuill. Drawings of humans are rare and are usually schematic rather than the more naturalistic animal subjects. Cave art may have begun in the Aurignacian period (Hohle Fels , Germany), but reached its apogee in the late Magdalenian.
The paintings were drawn with red and yellow ochre, hematite, manganese oxide and charcoal. Sometimes the silhouette of the animal was incised in the rock first. Stone lamps provided some light. Abbé Breuill interpreted the paintings as being hunting magic, meant to increase the number of animals. As there are some clay sculptures that seem to have been the targets of spears, this may partly be true, but does not explain the pictures of beasts of prey such as the sabre-toothed lion or the bear.
Well known cave paintings include those of:
- Lascaux in France (discovered by a dog named Robot)
- La Marche, in the Lussac-les-Chateaux area of France
- Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc, France
- Altamira in Spain
African Cave paintings
At Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg , South Africa, now thought to be some 3,000 years old, the paintings by the San people who settled in the area some 8,000 years ago depict animals and humans, and are thought to represent religious beliefs.
Australian cave paintings
Significant early cave paintings have also been found in Australia.
- Bushman rock art - Drakensberg-tourism.com