Interpretation of prehistoric cave art in Europe

Essay, 2019
11 Pages, Grade: A


European prehistory: Interpretations of cave art


Rock or cave art has been recorded in Europe, Americas, Africa, Australia and Asia. In Europe, some of the recorded forms of rock art date back some 36000 years ago. However, archaeological findings show that it is until 18000 years ago that the European rock art flourished (Berghaus, 2004). This period is linked to the end of the Last Glacial Maximum (22000-19000 years ago) as climatic conditions began to improve i.e. the most critical point of the Ice Age. Nonetheless, Upper Paleolithic rock art disappeared during the transition period between Paleolithic-Mesolithic (12000 years) as Ice Age environmental conditions faded (Gamble, 1991). After over a century of research on cave art, there still exists no consensus on the meanings of these prehistoric arts. In this regard, this essay offers a critical analysis of various explanations that have been suggested for the meaning of European Paleolithic rock art.

Analysis and discussion

Currently, the widely accepted view on interpretation of the Upper Paleolithic art is that most cave images are manifestations of Shamanic rituals mediated through visionary experience of altered states of consciousness. However, the question on how and why art come it being in Upper Paleolithic during the Ice Age remains largely unanswered. Berghaus (2004) argued that there is no single answer to the question but rather several layers of answers highlighting the issues and relationships between art and rituals as well as behavioral, social and cognitive issues within the human evolutionary environment. Just like today’s man, Paleolithic man was also a victim of various struggles and had to make enormous sacrifices and sacrifices. In this regard, art can inform the today’s man of the similarities between the hunter-gatherer communities and those of recent times. In the analysis of the prehistoric art, one must also consider the conceptual renewal in art theory that occurred in the 19th century thus offering new explanations into the Paleolithic art. This conceptual renewal took place as more scholars accepted the antiquity of the pariental depictions (Mithen, 1988). As a result, the general concept of art was enlarged thus highlighting the plurality of motivations that can influence a single piece of art form.

Nevertheless, several theories have been put forth in attempt to explain meanings of various cave arts. The simplest theory put forward in regard to interpretation of cave art is the art for art’s sake. This theory suggests that art did not have a real meaning. Art was just a product of idle activity with no particular motivation behind it, thus just a mindless decoration. According to some late 19th and early 20th century scholars, people of Upper Paleolithic communities were brute savages with no capacity for deep psychological motivations (Gamble, 1991). These early scholars also rejected that argument that rock art could be linked to religion and spiritual issues of the time. Though this simple theory is not accepted by modern archaeologists, it was very influential among early archaeologists. However, the tradition of cave art persisted for a very long time implying that generations of artists across Europe were taught to draw, mix and use pigments and how to sculpt or engrave reliefs and so on. Moreover, the presence of cave art in deep caves and large rock shelters suggest that it was an important human activity at the time with a massive cultural significance (Mithen, 1988). For instance, a person to crawl more than 500 meters in narrow passages of darkness to paint a beautiful picture that will only be seen by a small proportion of humans indicate that there was a compelling justification for these drawings or paintings. In this case, cave painting cannot be only regarded as a decorative art of idling reindeer and bison hunters.

Cave art has also been considered as boundary markers. Some Upper Paleolithic communities might have used art as boundary markers as climatic conditions enhanced competition among the hunter-gatherer communities. Cave art was therefore a sign of division among various ethnic and territories who coexisting within a given area (Gamble, 1991). The art marked the extent to which the hunting and gathering communities could exploit and avoid potential conflicts with competing communities for similar resources. Scholars such as Michael Jochim and Clive Gamble suggest that due to the high population density in the Franco-Cantabrian region, art was used as a social-cultural device to promote social cohesion and avoid social conflicts (Berghaus, 2004). During this time, high population implied more competition thus the need for territorial awareness. However, the boundary marker argument has been rejected by other scholars who argued that the stylistic unity displayed in some cave art traditions was inconsistent with this argument. Furthermore, there are no archaeological records such as injuries inflicted on human remains by sharp or blunt weapons which can support existence of intergroup conflicts. Furthermore, the mystery associated with some abstract signs suggests that there must have been a more complex meaning to the content, location and patterns of the Ice Age art.

Consequently, analysis of images in some caves indicated that the paintings were not random. According to André Leroi-Gourhan, horses and bison figures were centrally placed in the caves. In addition, these animals made up the majority of paintings (Clottes, 2016). Leroi-Gourhan suggested that bisons might have been used to represent female and horses to represent male. Similarly, Paul Mellars argued that Paleolithic art might have been a reflection of some fundamental ‘binary opposition’ in Upper Paleolithic society. These oppositions might have been structured around male and female components of the society. Leroi-Gourhan also attempted to explain the abstract motifs of cave art in the context of the structuralist thought. Structuralist thought states the human cultures are systems that can be assessed based on the structural relations among their elements. Nevertheless, as more cave art were discovered with every sight having a unique layout, it became impossible to apply a general scheme to fit all forms of cave art. However, based on structuralist explanation of cave art, Leroi-Gourhan was able to explain that the Upper Paleolithic people had cognitive capacity just like the people today (Kriss, 2017).

Another group of scholars suggested that Upper Paleolithic cave art manifested a sympathetic magic that was created to assist in hunting. For instance, the art could have been used to secure control of specific species of animals which were crucial for human food supply. Proponents of this view suggested that this is the reason why animals in cave art were depicted with inflicted wounds (Kriss, 2017). Henri Breuil highlighted that cave painting were largely functional created with an objective of bringing good fortunes to the hunters. He suggests that bison was painted as a magic spell symbolizing an improvement in the numbers of real-life animals, hence an increase in food supplies. Clottes (2016) indicated that cave paintings were as a result of magic rituals in hunting activities. These rituals were aimed at boosting confidence thus having a psychological benefit (placebo effect). This increased the success rate of the human activities. In this context, Upper Paleolithic cave art is a tool that magically benefits the community subsistence and encourages hunters’ success. The emphasis on the idea of magic as a psychological motivational factor was dominant in areas where uncertainty was high (Palacio-Perez, 2010). For example, cave art magic was common in areas where competition for animals was high due to increasing population pressure.


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Interpretation of prehistoric cave art in Europe
Kenyatta University
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interpretation, europe
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Difrine Madara (Author), 2019, Interpretation of prehistoric cave art in Europe, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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