When the cave art of what is now called Spain and France was first discovered in the early 1900s, no one believed that it could have been done by ancient humans. It was widely thought to be a hoax. It took about fifteen years for scientist and the public to accept that these stunning images had been created up to 20,000 years ago by our ancient ancestors. We now know that the time span was even longer, the caves at Chauvet in France done at least 36,000 years ago.
The first explanation for these images was that they had been drawn as sympathetic magic, a hope for the successful hunting of food sources. Many of the marks near and on the magnificent animals were interpreted as weapons or traps. The protruded tongues of bison were interpreted as a sign of death.
Further study of these images and of preliterate cultures has led to a deeper understanding. While we will never be certain about why so much time and energy was spent on the one hundred thirty plus caves of Europe and countless rocks in Africa and Asia, there are now a number of more educated guesses.
Most of these theories rest on the idea that the images were created as an important part of the spiritual life and practice of ancient peoples. The images probably played a part in the remembering and retelling of vital stories at the center of communities. The images may have represented the elemental forces of creation, re-creation, and rebirth of the earth, helping to explain or influence the ongoing cycles of life and death. The tongues of the bison, for instance, are now understood as part of the male bison’s readiness for mating as he sniffs the air for a desirable mate. Many of the female horses seem to be pregnant, and many of the males to be pawing the air as they still do in their mating rituals. These elements point to an emphasis on renewal of the natural world.
The different animals drawn or pecked by rock chipping at rock may also have been the central characters in vital stories of their culture, perhaps their hero myths or even their gods. The latest theory is that perhaps they were also represented in the night sky as constellations. The doors of most of the caves of Central Europe are clearly related to the position of the sun at the all-important Winter Solstice, a day that universally represents the hope for the return of the light of the sun and the consequent renewal of the world. Hints at the beginnings of astrology may even be found.
The room in most caves where the largest number of images is found is usually the room where the sound quality is best. From this finding, scientists posit that ceremonies may have been held there, including music. Bone flutes have been found from those ancient times, and some caves include petrophones, a freestanding rock that emits a deep resonance when struck, like a drum. These deep caves may have served as cathedrals.
While we will never be sure of the exact reasons for this amazing expression of the human spirit, it is clear that the ancient humans were no less fully human than we are today. The impressive representational skills demonstrated and the beauty and startling aliveness of these images reveal to us the deep creative force and the quintessential love of nature and of beauty that binds together all of humankind. Gazing on these magnificent cave and rock art creatures, we connect ourselves with the enduring spirit of our human ancestry through the one perfect language of art that is at the heart of every human culture.