Cave Paintings: Art or Magic?


A look at the study of cave paintings reveals much about the process that historians undertake when trying to make sense of artifacts from the distant past.  The first theories about cave paintings stated that the works of art showed proof of an “aesthetic sensibility” in the prehistoric peoples of the ice age.  They must have made these works of art, historians thought, to enjoy in their homes and living spaces much as many of us embellish our homes today.

Greater investigation revealed that the caves in which these earliest works of art were found did not resemble those caves that showed signs of habitation.  The caves that historians have found paintings in are remote and hard to access showing no signs of spaces designated for sleeping and eating.  It appears that few people entered these caves and did so only in small groups.

With the idea of art for arts sake dismissed, historians looked for another explanation for these prehistoric works of art.  Many historians looked to other premodern civilizations that have produced works of art on rock and cave walls for the answer.  These historians found that such artwork was often used as a sort of magic or visualization of the hunt.

These historians theorized that the earliest cave paintings represent a similar sort of “shamanism” or ritual magic.   In such ritual magic an elite individual believed to possess a special power created works of art to cast a spells on the animals and make them easier to hunt.  Or perhaps they were created as an act of devotion to the people’s god of the hunt.  These interpretations became very popular for decades and even made it to the pages of 6th grade history books when I was a child.

Some historians however, reject this interpretation.  One researcher Collin Cleary suggests that perhaps the cave art served no utilitarian purpose at all.  He believes that the cave paintings are the work of prehistoric artists who sought out remote places to create and perfect their work.  He envisions a prehistoric man or woman who felt so moved by his/her creative drive that he separated himself from the tasks of hunting and gathering food to paint these works in solitude.  A look at The Panel of Lions in the Chauvet Cave in France certainly evokes the feeling of an artist’s sketchbook.


The eminent French historian Jean Clottes who has devoted his life to prehistoric studies concludes that  “we must steer a careful course” in studying these ancient artworks.  There is a danger in trying too hard to create meaning in these works without enough evidence but he believes that it is the historians task to find a way to do so in a rigorous and scholarly fashion.

What do YOU think?  What can we learn about the historian’s process from these different theories about ancient cave paintings?  Can you think of a time that you made an assumption based on limited information only to find that you were wrong once you learned something new about the situation?  Write a post on your blog about how historians form conclusions about the past and post the link in the comments.  What limitations might historians face as they try to piece together the stories of ancient people?  What does this tell us about history as a whole?

Image sources: WikipediaBradshaw Foundation


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