Secrets of the Cave Paintings

In 1879 a Spanish landowner named Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola was searching for prehistoric artifacts on the floor of a cave on his family property in northern Spain when his young daughter interrupted, calling out “Look, Papa, oxen” as she looked up at the cave’s ceiling and “saw vivid yet delicate paintings of bison, almost fully life-sized, that appear to be tumbling across the sky.” Her discovery swiftly brought ancient cave paintings to widespread public attention, and set off a complex history of dispute about their origin and meaning. Since then, thousands of similar paintings have been discovered in more than two hundred caves scattered through southwestern France and northeastern Spain on either side of the Pyrenees. Argument still rages about them and the contrasting viewpoints of the two books under review carry the controversy forward.

A century of study widened the initial focus on the Altamira cave, where Sautuola’s daughter made her discovery, but all the additional images and reliable radiocarbon dating of bits of charcoal used to make black paint for many of the drawings have not diminished disagreement about the nature and purpose of the sometimes masterful, sometimes enigmatic, yet often hasty, or even clumsy, cave art of Europe.

In 1879 expert opinion was unanimous in rejecting Sautuola’s timid suggestion that the ceiling paintings in his family’s cave were made by the same prehistoric hunters whose stone and bone artifacts he had been collecting from the cave floor. He was accused of forgery and not until 1902, when discovery of similar paintings in several French caves supported Sautuola’s claim, did experts agree that they were authentic relics of Paleolithic times.

About 15 percent of the animals portrayed in the caves were wounded. That made it obvious to the first experts that the paintings were a kind of sympathetic magic, intended to improve hunters’ success in the field. This idea became widely accepted through the books and drawings of Abbé Henri Breuil (1877–1961), “the Pope of Prehistory.” But radiocarbon dating compelled Breuil’s successors to repudiate his efforts to establish chronological sequence through stylistic analysis, and some of them objected to the way he had taken individual animal figures out of context, arguing that an overall design in each cave was what gave meaning to the entire assemblage. But the notion that the paintings were magical and religious symbols, and/or clan totems, persisted; many assumed that the caves, like Christian churches, were places where organized religious ceremonies were deliberately enhanced by skilled artists who engraved and painted amazingly accurate animal images on the caves’ limestone walls and ceilings.

R. Dale Guthrie flatly rejects that assumption, for which, he declares, “there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever.” Instead, he writes,

I shall primarily be examining Paleolithic images for clues quite aside from their aesthetic significance, digging into the underlying human context behind the art making.

He is not an art historian, having retired a decade ago as professor of zoology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, where he has lived for forty years. He specialized in Pleistocene paleozoology and found the portraits of ancient animals on cave walls in France and Spain an important source, confirming his own observations of animal behavior and supplementing skeletal remains. He also tells us, “I once was an adolescent cave explorer, growing up on the northern edge of the Ozark Plateau, a hilly limestone country remarkably similar to the Périgord,” where French cave art is thickest. And as an adult in Alaska he hunted moose year after year. His entire life, in short, and especially his “forty years of experience with wildlife in the far north” underlie his book and lead him to reject the older interpretation of cave art as magical and religious.

Guthrie is also an artist and drew the book’s abundant illustrations himself. He explains: “I have spent much time over the years looking at original Paleolithic images, and many of my illustrations are drawn from these observations, but most were sketched from photos, my own and those of others. Occasionally, I have redrawn published illustrations.” These appear in brown sketches with appropriate captions and commentary on nearly every page of his book. This embellishment is supplemented by scores of mini-essays exploring byways that somehow caught his fancy, each printed in white against a brown background at the top of the page. A typical brief essay is headed “No Such Thing as Cavemen” and argues that Paleolithic people lived mainly in open-air camps. Finally, each chapter is broken into short sections, and many (but not all) are also framed by verses or prose poems at start and finish, distilling the chapter’s core message.

Guthrie’s book therefore is a work of art in itself—a very personal product of a lifelong effort to understand how Paleolithic animals and humans interacted, and how the climatic and ecological environment shaped their lives. Its many byways and separate parts make reading Guthrie’s book more strenuous than usual; but the effort is rewarding since he has clear and distinct ideas of what the life of the cave artists was really like on the fringes of what he calls “the Mammoth Steppe,” which extended in Paleolithic times all the way from Europe’s Atlantic coast across Eurasia and the Bering Strait into Alaska and the Canadian Yukon.

By comparison, Gregory Curtis is a newcomer, having discovered cave art as a tourist in 1986. It entranced him, and as a keen-eyed, energetic journalist, he then set out to read about what he had seen, interviewing experts and looking at the walls of most of the caves that are still open to the public. He makes no pretense of offering interpretations of his own, but reports what he learned in clear and simple prose. Curtis therefore concentrates on the ceaseless disagreements of mostly French art historians who shared the loose consensus that there was a magical and religious meaning and purpose of cave art, the view that Guthrie rejects. A naive reader might even suppose that the two books deal with entirely different subjects, as in fact they do, since Curtis describes masterworks of cave art, while Guthrie concentrates his attention on the far more numerous squiggles and graffiti made by adolescent boys.

Guthrie’s magnum opus resembles, in its complex structure, a river that breaks apart into separate channels only to merge and divide again, moving majestically onward, gathering tributaries. The book closes with a secular confession of faith in life in general, praising the human adventure and, more especially, the Paleolithic way of life that had a formative effect on the history of the human species. His principal concern is with complex linkages connecting animal and human populations under Paleolithic conditions; he sees the surviving artworks as a mirror of a way of life and source of knowledge about it, rather than as objects of study in and of themselves.

Unlike art historians, Guthrie is acutely aware of the difficulty facing “a certain African colonizer, humans” in adjusting to the bitter cold and aridity of the Mammoth Steppe during the last ice age. Bones and stones prove that Homo sapiens arrived on the southern fringes of that steppe about 40,000 years ago. (Neanderthals had preceded them and coexisted with the intruders for several subsequent millennia.) But the earliest known cave paintings only date from about 27,000 years ago. Guthrie suggests this delay was because bears hibernated in the caves and made them unsafe for humans until, for unknown reasons, they became rare after about 30,000 years ago.

Cave paintings continued to be made for the next 15,000 years. In some caves, paintings were made for a while; then the practice ceased, only to resume again thousands of years later. The reasons remain unknown. Earthquakes may have opened and closed cave entrances; and climate changes may have both displaced human occupants and brought them back. But, amazingly, styles and subject matter remain indistinguishable across that entire span of time, and neither Guthrie nor Curtis attempts anything like a chronological approach. Cave art is cave art for both of them, everywhere much the same for as long as the hunters’ way of life persisted. It came to an end only when a warmer climate altered Western Europe’s vegetation, enlarging human food resources so much that storage of seasonal surpluses became feasible. Thereupon, population density increased, making relations within and between larger and larger human groups more important than relations with animals. With that, the Paleolithic hunters’ precarious way of life disappeared; the making of cave art came to an end, and remained unnoticed until 1879.

Weather persistently fluctuated throughout the Paleolithic millennia as glacial ice advanced and retreated, but the conditions on the Mammoth Steppe did not change radically in the region where cave art was made. Cold temperatures, along with scant precipitation, sustained very few plants suitable for human consumption. So however important gathering vegetable food may have been in warmer places, it became trivial on the Mammoth Steppe. Women’s work concentrated instead on tanning animal hides, sewing warm clothing, maintaining campfires, and tending children, while men went off to hunt large-bodied, hairy herbivores that fed on the moss and grasses of the steppe. These animals were much bigger, faster, and stronger than men. Even when using spears and javelins that could inflict mortal wounds at a distance, human hunters found it difficult to approach their prey on open grasslands and were often unsuccessful. Here is how Guthrie describes their daily lives, as he imagines them:

Since dawn, hidden by broken ground, we watched the small herd slowly working our way. Peeking through the lace of grass, we could see their twitch of skin and swipe of tail and hear their soft whinnies…. A mare up front, probably the first wife…moved closer to us…. Held my breath, hugged the ground. Come just a few more steps, please a few more steps. The first wife snorted and all stood at attention, tails lifted, heads up, nostrils flaring at our scent. They were still a futile spear’s length reach away. I felt her alarm inside me as she bolted.

He continues at the end of the chapter:

After the herd of horses bolted, we relaxed, our talk turning to girls. Yet, lying in the noon grass with closed eyes, I was still focused on the mare…. I think I could draw her now, let myself flow out from my eyes into my hand and see her reform on the stone…. Still, they were almost in spear’s reach, their beauty, black-striped trim and sheen of summer coat in the year’s first hot sun…a matchless sight after the long winter.

Daily experience like that is what Guthrie believes lay behind the art of the caves, provoking an acute sensibility to animal shape and appearance that resembled his own lifelong study of Alaskan wildlife. It was, he supposes, a way of life that made accurate depiction of animal forms on rock surfaces easy, almost automatic—something an adolescent boy or mature man would do casually in spare time, using both sharpened stones to carve the outlines and various mineral and vegetable colors to make the animal images accurate. Not specialized artists but quite ordinary males, Guthrie believes, were the cave artists and they decorated the walls for fun, not for any religious or other ulterior purpose.

This claim is just as unprovable as the magical and religious interpretation of cave art. But Guthrie shows, beyond reasonable doubt, that

youngsters were responsible for much more of preserved Paleolithic art than scholars have assumed…. I am not concluding…that all Paleolithic art is children’s art, only that works by young people constitute both a disproportionate and largely unrecognized fraction of preserved Paleolithic art.

This is the central thesis of his book, and succeeding chapters spell out the evidence he found in great detail.

The most definite proof he offers comes from his measurement of hand images left in some, but not all, decorated caves, wherever someone sprayed a mouthful of ochre paint against an outspread hand held close against the wall (see illustration on page 22). Human hands change shape and proportion with age and differ between the sexes, so by careful measurement of nine different widths and lengths compared with the same hand measurements of adults and schoolchildren in Alaska, Guthrie found that

handprints of adolescents are the most numerous among the Paleolithic sample…. The second important observation is that the vast majority of these individuals were males. From the total sample of 201 Paleolithic hands, discriminate analysis classified at least 162 as male and the other 39 as either female or young male.

Other observers also found that “virtually all…of the foot tracks in Paleolithic art caves are those of children.”

The other evidence Guthrie offers is the subject matter of the graffiti that survive abundantly but have attracted scant attention since they lack significant artistic value. Crude, sometimes unfinished or corrected outlines of animal forms are numerous; so are images of male and especially of female sexual organs—exactly what adolescent boys would be most acutely interested in. Guthrie then devotes an entire chapter to explaining the effects of testosterone on human consciousness and behavior and imagining how small groups of boys, emancipated from their mothers’ supervision, spent surplus energy and spare time in risky, scary caves, leaving behind innumerable scratch marks and painted images that expressed their adolescent hopes and fears.

This assumes that cave painters were physiologically and psychologically identical to ourselves—a not implausible assumption. Guthrie’s argument also depends on reconstruction of Paleolithic demography, which, he says, differed greatly from subsequent conditions. He writes:

Paleolithic encampments were unlikely to have produced half a dozen boys of the same age at any given time. Recent hunter-gatherer analogs and evidence from Paleolithic refuse piles suggest that year-round band size could not drop much below nor rise much higher than twenty-five to thirty-five individuals….

If we presume that a Paleolithic band averaged thirty individuals, roughly half would be males. Among those fifteen…there would have been, statistically, only three males in each decade up to age forty, and, say, a total of three beyond age forty…. Thus, there would have been, on average, three boys within the age scatter between seven and seventeen.

So, according to Guthrie, groups of three or four adolescent boys, too young to hunt, were free to venture into the caves and left behind most of the casual, hasty markings that survive. It follows that those markings, and the far fewer masterworks, constitute an imperfect record. Guthrie is emphatic in saying:

Paleolithic art is an incomplete report. It does not portray the full breadth of Paleolithic hunting—for example, garment and shelter making, animal drives, small-game snaring, and the preparation of fur, leather, and food—nor does it touch on many other dimensions of their lives, such as child care and childhood play, gathering, and group life.

In one of his chapters, “The Art of Hunting Large Mammals,” Guthrie seeks to correct this disproportion by spelling out the many ways in which hunting shaped both male and female lives. He sums up:

Our altricial (almost embryonic) birth, hugely prolonged childhood, and rich dual-parenting that emphasizes nurture and cultivation of quality-plus children are interrelated. They were both the outcome and the means of a lifeway in which the qualities of uniquely human cognitive and creative skills were again and again selectively successful….

Evidence from preserved Paleolithic art indicates that certain aspects of hunting were differentially emphasized in men’s and women’s lives; but there is no doubt that this lifeway made stringent demands upon and offered equal scope to both women and men.

In a chapter entitled “Full Figured Women—in Ivory and in Life” Guthrie goes on to deal with the need under ice age conditions to store surplus food in the form of body fat—needed to sustain pregnancy and survive times of shortage. Guthrie declares that what to us seem grotesquely fat female images actually signaled “the core ache of deep organic attraction to another person’s body lines, soft touch, and sweet musky smells,” essential to parental bonding and family stability. So, Guthrie assures us, adolescent boys,

these distant ancestors, in good humor, made marks of passion and desire in ivory and on limestone walls. We have these incidental trails of overwhelming obsession. They are not the refuse of illicit orgies, nor are they accouterments of holy shrines, just casual breasts and vulvae scattered in among lines of tail and antler—marks that played with the brain and made life more interesting.

Guthrie next takes up the importance of play and more especially of art-making for enhancing creativity and shaping a distinctive human ecological niche for “the artful ape.” He explains:

The evolutionary tack of more learning gained through a long childhood was a difficult route because it involved acquiring facility and wisdom through many mistakes—and mistakes can be costly. The partial evolutionary fix for this was to create a sort of virtual world, paralleling the adult world, a vital playground of make-believe.

Cave art is the principal surviving part of that “virtual world,” attesting how “play, art, and creativity are all linked to the process of our becoming large-mammal-hunting specialists.” He sums up his entire argument in the chapter’s final sentence: “Paleolithic art is the first clear spoor of advancing creativity in the human line…, not art for art’s sake, but art for life’s sake.”

His next chapter explores why Paleolithic art disappeared. Climate was decisive. When the “cold and dry Mammoth Steppe was rapidly replaced in Europe by more humid mixed forests,” the new conditions “brought about a stunning increase in Earth’s biomass…which for the first time in human experience, could be transformed into a dependable harvest of surplus foods.”

Rapid increase in wealth and human numbers resulted, as hunters spread

into and across the high-latitude Arctic, down through Alaska, and onward through the Americas. Holocene organic abundance underwrote surplus-producing innovations in hunting and fishing, including fishnets, skin boats, fishhooks and gorges, dip nets, toggle-harpoons, basket traps, whale drag-floats, adzes, ceramic cooking pots, and the bow and arrow.

But rising wealth and numbers in turn created new problems when “the intimacy and isolation” of the ice-age encampments yielded to frictions within and between adjacent human groups. Defending stored surpluses demanded subordination to what Guthrie calls “tribal” leaders. Childhood changed too. Instead of being raised jointly by their parents,

In a tribe, children played with and were effectively raised by peers and older kids. The larger scale of tribal life also meant that a child’s awareness was explicitly focused on tribal power and identity, tribal obedience, tribal rank, and tribal responsibility.

Finally, tribal society created organized religion and converted “knowledge into ideology, history into mythology, biography into hagiography, and realistic imagery into iconography.” After that polysyllabic volley, Guthrie suggests his predecessors’ error was to look “among Paleolithic images for stamps characteristic of tribal art, which simply are not there. All they find is everlasting freedom, the freedom the Pleistocene took with it when it left.”

In his last chapter Guthrie treats Paleolithic notions of the supernatural, in his view a necessary, universal human corrective to reason, cushioning us all against the distresses and disappointments of life. He writes that the supernatural “encourages enthusiasm, good health, honesty, and noble purposes and creates beauty where little is produced from literal reason.” But Guthrie remains strangely silent about what the Paleolithic notions of the supernatural may have been; nor does he explain how their beneficent effects were manifested. Instead he is content with wild generalization:

We are a caring and virtuous species. Presumptions of decency are so standard that contrary instances stand out as glaring exceptions….

Beneath all this virtuousness, there lies a metaphoric contract—a genetic pact—made within that Pleistocene hunting band. To operate in their socioecological niche, our ancestral band members had to cooperate more than compete; otherwise they were all doomed to failure….

In culture after culture, the supernatural has always waded in right at this juncture. Whatever form the supernatural takes, it gets involved with morals, backing the selfless—that is when not being leveled against the heathen opponent.

This sweeping statement leads to a final affirmation of his own secular faith:

All life is kin here on earth. Not only are we a truly human family, but we share our origins with the gray crane and the monarch butterfly. It is a marvelous and powerful grace to be a spiritual human animal among other animals, standing on this blue-green ball, dinosaur and mammoth bones underfoot, hurdling [sic] at light-speed through black space, our planet’s moon softening our nights—so normal and yet so incredible. Even more unimaginable is that we retain messages encoded from Pleistocene times, when steppes formed the sky line and cheeks felt the cool wind from continental ice.

After this confession of faith, it may be rude to wonder whether we really are the biological descendants and genetic heirs of the handful of hardy hunters who made all those marks in French and Spanish caves. Humankind as a whole assuredly is not. And Guthrie never explains why the hunters’ supernatural beliefs he never specifically describes do not show up in the graffiti and paintings they left behind. Nor does he discuss any of the masterpieces that are central both to Gregory Curtis’s book and to everyone else’s study of cave art.

These are gaping omissions in Guthrie’s effort to fit the art of the cave painters into their ecological setting. His imaginative reconstruction of family patterns, demographics, and the psychological effects of being dependent on killing large-bodied mammals strikes me as plausible. And he convinced me that adolescent boys made most of the casual graffiti that adorn the cave walls. These are valuable correctives to older views. But his repudiation of magical and religious motivation for making the masterworks of cave art remains implausible.

The Cave Painters by Gregory Curtis is a far shorter and simpler book. His eyes are on art, not on ecology or on the lifeways of Paleolithic society that Guthrie set out to explore. Successive chapters interweave accounts of how the principal interpreters have understood what the paintings may have meant and how roving boys and adult men chanced to discover some of the principal caves, including Altamira, (1879), Lascaux (1940), Les Trois-Frères (1912), Cosquer (1991), and Chauvet (1994). Curtis visited them all and walks us through each cave, describing individual paintings and how they are grouped together. Rather reluctantly, he concludes:

There is still no grand theory of what the cave paintings mean. That is frustrating for scientists and amateurs alike, since as works of art the paintings communicate directly and supremely well….

The cave painters…were thinking and acting like artists trying to create art in our sense of the word. That’s why it’s valid for us to respond to the cave paintings as art and not merely as archaeological evidence, although they are certainly that as well.

Trying to create art in our sense of the word” seems wildly improbable to me, and Curtis is clearly mistaken when he says: “The climate was no colder than southern Sweden is today and food was plentiful most of the time…. With food and shelter there for the taking…life must have seemed good.”

But one of his remarks points, I think, to a more plausible understanding of cave art than he or Guthrie offers us. Curtis reports that as he explored the caves he often thought he glimpsed an animal, only to find that “the contours of the wall had suggested a head or chest or horns and the play of shadows …had made me think I was seeing a horse or a bison.” Musing on this self-deception provoked a new thought about the artists’ intentions:

So at last it occurred to me that seeing animals in the rock must have been desirable, perhaps even the primary purpose of the art. The paintings and engravings—maybe not all of them, but many—weren’t adding animals on top of the rock but were a means of pulling out of the stone the animals that were already there.

Everyone agrees that many of the masterworks of cave art were constructed around preexisting marks and curves on natural surfaces. In that sense, we can say that human intervention did not create the animals. Instead, it assisted them to emerge from the stone, just as newborns emerged from their mothers’ wombs, ready to provide a disembodied spirit with a new home.

This is not art as we know it. Nor was the most impressive cave painting the work of adolescent boys. Rather, it seems to me likely that adult hunting parties sought to make peace with dispossessed animal spirits by bringing all those surprisingly accurate images of horses, bison, and mammoths to birth in the warm darkness of the caves, so the spirits of animals they had slain could find safe and lasting homes.

No one can know for certain; but there is good ground for assuming that belief in a world of invisible spirits—what anthropologists call animism—was already part of the human heritage before our species left Africa and began its global dispersal.* If so, the Paleolithic hunters of Europe would have shared that belief; and I am puzzled why Guthrie does not say so.

Animism was universal among human beings in every part of the earth before complex, hierarchical societies began to develop diverse theologies and rituals of worship as they became civilized. Animistic notions still pervade our everyday consciousness whenever we speak of team spirit, witness an inspired performance, or manage to find ourselves in good spirits. It was the first worldview capable of explaining life and death, dreams and illness, and a myriad of everyday surprises and disappointments by attributing them to the intervention of invisible spirits, some benign, some hostile, and all endowed with a will of their own to help or hinder human hopes and purposes.

Indeed human purposes were themselves often seen as the work of individual spirits that inhabit each of us for as long as we live, departing at death; and when we are asleep they may wander away into the strange places we know of from our dreams. Moreover, the fact that we sometimes dream of persons long dead showed that disembodied spirits could meet and interact with one another, constituting an invisible ghostly society, parallel to and more powerful than human beings. It followed that maintaining good relations with the spirits was of utmost importance; and since powerful animals obviously had powerful spirits of their own, time and effort devoted to preparing alternative homes in the caves for the spirits of slaughtered animals may well have seemed very worthwhile.

Guthrie’s claim that there is no evidence for organized worship in the caves is probably quite correct but beside the point. For once they were in place, the images in the caves did not need to be worshiped or disturbed by any sort of human presence. Instead I presume they were a form of silent insurance against danger to humans from the angry displaced spirits of animals they had killed.

This does not explain the 15 percent that are wounded animal images. No spirit would choose to enter such a damaged body. But the drawings of speared animals that Guthrie reproduces are little more than hasty scratches. Such depictions may have expressed youthful bravado, defying even the fiercest animal spirits by showing what they might expect at human hands. Testimony, perhaps, to a boastful counterculture and of high testosterone levels among a few reckless adolescents.

However that may be, it seems clear to me that the two books under review would benefit greatly if Guthrie and Curtis could agree that cave art derives both from the natural world of flesh, blood, and brain that once existed on the Mammoth Steppe, and from an imaginary world of invisible spirits, embodied and disembodied, who, the artists’ believed, controlled, directed, and inspired animal and human behavior both above and below ground. Only by positing such an imaginary world can we begin to understand the paradoxical mix of serene and accurate masterworks with the multitude of free and spontaneous scribbles that together comprise the art of the caves.

  1. *

    See J.R. McNeill and William H. McNeill, The Human Web (Norton, 2004), pp. 17–18 and works cited on p. 329 for a more extended discussion of animism.