Why Did Our Ancestors Make Startling Art in Dark, Firelit Caves?

‘Why do you think they drew these stags here?’ Eduardo Palacio-Pérez, the conservator of the cave, asks me. ‘I really don’t think we’ll ever know for sure,’ I reply.

The ceiling of the Altamira caves in Cantabria, Spain. Photo by Stephen Alvarez/Alvarez Photography

Izzy Wisher at Aeon+Psyche: What we do know is that during the Upper Palaeolithic (c45,000-15,000 years ago), our distant ancestors ventured deep underground to make these images. In these unfamiliar environments, they produced a rich display – from unusual abstract forms to highly detailed renderings of animals – under the dim glow of firelight cast by their lamps. Naturalistic animal outlines, rows of finger-dotted marks and splatter marks preserving the shadows of ancient hands remain frozen in time within the caves, representing tens of thousands of years of people returning to the darkness to engage in art-making.

This curious, yet deeply creative, behavior captures the imagination. Yet as Jean Clottes – a prominent Palaeolithic art researcher – succinctly put it, the key unanswered question for us all is: ‘Why did they draw in those caves?’

An 18,000-year-old drawing of a stag from Las Chimeneas cave in Spain. Photo by Izzy Wisher, courtesy of the Gobierno de Cantabria

One suggestion is that Ice Age artists were high-status shamans who performed mysterious rites in the dark. These spiritual individuals are thought to have induced trance-like states deep in the caves, either through rhythmic drumming or mind-altering drugs. Altered states of consciousness may have facilitated communicating with ancestors, experiencing otherworldly psychedelic imagery, or coaxing animals out from a spirit world beyond the rocky surfaces of deep cave environments. The shaman hypothesis draws on ethnographic accounts and has come under significant criticism both for inappropriately drawing parallels between peoples today and those who lived in the deep past, and for subsuming a huge breadth of cultural behaviors under one label: ‘shamanism’.

A different hypothesis is that abstract marks and ‘signs’ on cave walls were a proto-writing system or part of a widespread means of communication. These communication systems are posited to have had a plethora of different contexts of use, from marking the changing seasons to denoting group identities…

More here.

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