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The Fascinating History of Cave Paintings

Mrunal Belvalkar
Ever since paleontologists started finding prehistoric drawings on cave wall, we have debated over man's knack for art. In their wake, cave paintings laid down the foundations of one of the 9 principal arts of the 20th century.
Everybody wants to make their mark in this world. But early man succeeded is doing something much more than that - he left his mark ON the whole world. History of painting - one of the nine principal arts of the 20th century - began on one of the most unlikely canvases, stone.
Something that is so aesthetic and that beautifies the world beyond compare originated on something so dry, so lifeless as a rock. But the history of painting as an art points out to those small caricatures buried deep inside the nooks and crannies of caves - cave paintings.
These paintings date back to a time in the history of the world of which we have no written account - known as prehistory.

Cave Paintings - An Overview

Cave paintings are probably the earliest art forms to have been created by mankind. Some of these paintings discovered date back to the Prehistoric period, in the Paleolithic era; that is almost 30,000 years ago!
Cave paintings tell the tale of human progress and development - not through the content of the paintings but rather through the fact that the number of paintings and the quality of paintings greatly improved with time. Some of the early paintings were rather crude.
However, the precision with which various objects and animals were depicted in the paintings greatly increased with time. These paintings became more life-like and realistic as they evolved. The most glorious period in the history of cave paintings is that which is commonly called the Magdalenian period.
Magdalenian paintings have been discovered from different places in the world; however the most number of cave paintings have been discovered in France and Spain, notably at Lascaux in France and the Altamira Caves in Spain.

Glimpses of the Stone Canvas

Before we move onto the next section, here are a few pictures of cave paintings from different parts of the world.

Various Aspects of Cave Paintings


Most of the cave paintings depict illustrations of animals that existed in that period - bison, horses, aurochs, rhinos, mammoths, and some other animals that are now extinct.
Seldom do cave paintings that include human figures which are more like caricatures and not actual drawings of human form. Though prehistoric man was rather particular and meticulous in the way he depicted wild animals he saw around himself, humans were sketched as stick figures or Warli paintings.
This is rather difficult to grasp because the detailing of the animals shown in the cave paintings is so great, that one would expect humans to be sketched with the same, if not greater, precision... guess prehistoric man was just a lot less narcissistic than present day man! Some cave paintings depict religious or supernatural forms as well.
We think of paintings, drawings, sketches today and we think of big shops that provide us with more art material than we can imagine - palettes, paint brushes, charcoal sticks, pencils, felt pens, water-colors, oil pastels, and of course, a big easel.
Earlier, drawing tools included only small, sharp, pointed stone tools, colors were only three (red, black and yellow), and the easel and canvas was one and the same - the cave walls. It may seem rather difficult to be able to create a painting with such limited resources - but that is what prehistoric man did, and quite successfully too!
Iron oxide was used to paint in red, manganese oxide to create black and clay and yellow ochre gave the color yellow. Other colors were added by choosing the right colored rock to make the painting on.
Tools similar to a mortar and pestle have been discovered (at Lascaux) that belong to the same period, suggesting that different minerals may have been mixed to create a unique color.

The Mystery of Cave Paintings

Much like other mysteries of the ancient world - like the Egyptian pyramids, the Nazca geoglyphs - cave paintings too have posed certain questions before the modern-day man that he has been unable to answer to date.
One rather intriguing and befuddling fact about these paintings are their locations. Cave walls and the cave floor is understandable, but some cave paintings have also been discovered on the ceilings of caves, which can be observed only by lying down on the floor of the cave!
How did the prehistoric man achieve such a feat? These cave paintings must indeed have required some sort of scaffolding and of course, team work. There have been discoveries of crude rough sketches, that are believed to have been created by these 'helpers' or 'juniors' of the main artist, who assisted him otherwise.
These paintings lack the mastery that is evident in some of the most significant cave paintings discovered. This elicits that there was some sort of hierarchy among the artists. Probably there may have been schools too!
Another fact that leaves us awestruck is the gigantic scale on which these paintings were created. Some cave paintings span almost several feet and cover huge expanses. This may not seem so significant a fact - but in the light of perspective, it does become a big puzzle!
How did the cave man gain perspective of the painting he was creating inside a cave? And it is indeed worth mentioning that these huge paintings are not without a sense of proportion - they are as apt as the smaller ones in terms of dimensions. How did the prehistoric man achieve this?
The last puzzle is that of lighting - how could the prehistoric man 'see' inside the cave! Fire had already been discovered by man a long, long time before he started painting on the walls; so by logic we can assume he must have lit a torch to light the cave while he painted. But there is no conclusive evidence that can support or dismiss this assumption.

Significance of Cave Paintings

As many theories as we may form about cave paintings, one question still remains conspicuously unanswered - WHY? Why did prehistoric man make cave paintings? Was it to educate others of his kind? Was it to study his surroundings better?
It has been hypothesized that cave art was one of the earliest professions to have been established, for it was not child's play to create a cave painting!
Also caves were not a human habitat; man did not live in caves in the period in which cave paintings were created. So the theory that he drew the paintings to educate others - possibly about the technique of hunting - is one that doesn't really hold ground, for who would go purposely into a cave and look at the walls unless instructed to do so?
It was one of the earliest forms of recreation to have developed in human beings. Man was beginning to settle down, and give up his nomadic existence. So in the spare time he now had, he started paving the way for the advent of art.
Cave paintings relay the history and legacy of human development. Many of the cave painting sites have been listed as World Heritage Sites by the UNESCO. Many attempts to preserve these gems in the history of mankind have been made and are still being made. Cave paintings have survived through time because they have remained hidden for a long time.
Few paintings discovered have subsequently gotten destroyed. This is why most cave paintings are now not open to the public and special permissions have to be obtained even by scholars before they are granted entry into the world of the stone canvas. So much care is well justified, for cave paintings can indeed be regarded as a heritage of the human kind.